Monday, May 11, 2009


It’s a rush to do the thing you most love to do and have people dig it. The Hollywood-themed benefit last night was like that for me, and for everyone who participated I’m sure.

It was a packed house with a lively and responsive audience full of artists and actors and directors and poets and poetry fans and movers and shakers in the downtown scene.

It started with “Cocktails with the stars and poets” for those who paid a higher fee than just the cost of tickets to the reading. The place was set up table style rather than the usual rows of chairs, and included tables on the stage where the readers and their guests sat.

Bob Holman, founder of the club was his usual spontaneous be bop host with the most as he started the reading pretty much on time with a beautiful little essay or statement on mothers [Mother's Day Manifesto], very poetic and engagingly written by I think Cady Dean Stanton, the early feminist, [nope, Julia Ward Howe, see comments] that Kristi Zea, the movie costumer turned art director as well as director was planning on reading had she made it, but unfortunately was in the hospital with her own mother who is ill.

[Woops, I knew I'd forget something. Bob first brought up poet Vincent Katz, the Chair of the Board of Directors of BAS* and he got the audience primed for the evening's combination of entertainment and enlightenment by being entertaining and enlightening himself.]

Bob then introduced the wonderful actress Patricia Clarkson (saying she’d been the star of Saturday Night Live the night before) who read three poems by a poet/friend, but unfortunately I didn’t get his name because someone on stage asked me a question just as she said it (sorry)) [his name is Howard Altman, see comments].

She did a wonderful job, as you would expect, and then Bob introduced another wonderful actress, Claire Danes and pointed out that she’d spent the previous night “meeting with Barack Obama” (who she said is even better looking in person, only she said it more humorously getting a big laugh).

Danes read two poems by Alice Notley that were gnarly and female and brilliantly intelligent and original. She read them like mini-dramas, which we realized they were from her dramatic reading.

Michael O’Keefe then read three powerful and well crafted poems about his father’s last days from a soon to be published manuscript of his first collection of poems (and very fine ones they are) called SWIMMING FROM UNDER MY FATHER.

Sapphire read next from her novel PUSH (soon to be a movie if I heard right). The rhythms of all the readers thus far had been varied, but with Sapphire an entirely new rhythmic element was introduced (if you haven’t read PUSH it’s an incredible tour de force written from the perspective of a poor, undereducated but defiant and secretly yearning African-American teenaged mother of two stuck in ninth grade for her third year and struggling just to get by).

Then came Amber Tamblyn, who had been shouting encouragement and wise cracks from her table on stage as Rene Ricard was doing from the opposite side of the stage at the table I was at (and I was doing a bit of myself), reminding me of the old days when Ted Berrigan was alive and always responded out loud to whatever poetry he was part of an audience for.

Amber injected a youthful irreverence and energy into the evening as she read work of her own that was funny, profane, and highly entertaining.

Sarah Vowell was next, a unique voice I’d heard before, always smart and humorous in my experience but in an ironic-yet-touching way that few can pull off. She does. And did.

Rene Ricard then read some poems that were equally funny and poignant, clever as always and honest in the unfiltered way I think our work often shares. I hadn’t seen him in what seemed like a decade or more and was just delighted he was still as vibrant a presence as always and just as funny and perceptive as he was back in the 1970s when he was discovering Jean Basquiat and other great artists and poets and getting them to those who could help them find a wider audience. Rene’s one of those “living legends” of the downtown scene, still.

Then I was introduced as an actor as well as poet, and read an excerpt from OF, a book length poem written while I was still working in Hollywood, because I wanted to give the audience an idea of what a typical day for someone working in the movie and TV business was like back when I was doing that.

I followed up with a seventeen-syllable poem (not a haiku I pointed out, as that form is really almost impossible to render in American—though Kerouac comes closest to mastering it for my taste—and has very little to do with seventeen syllables actually) I extracted from my last post on memorable movie mothers:



Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in GRAPES OF WRATH


Then closed with “My Life 2” which is the profile statement to the right only with the line breaks the way they should be. It all got a great response from the audience, which is where I started this post, how satisfying it is to do what you love doing most for an audience that appreciates it.

And then Bob brought up the Youth Poets/Urban Word NYC (Bob said they appear on Russel Simmon’s Def Jam TV show and there were supposed to be four so I’m not sure who was missing among Alexis Marie, B Yung, Kayan James & Jasmine Mans) whose spoken word (memorized that basically means) coordinated (almost choreographed except the dancing was only upper body movement not feet) physicality echoed drill team precision with Def Jam style testifying poetics.

A perfect climax to an evening of steadily building momentum from a wonderful array of poetic possibilities.

Anne Waldman closed the evening with what Bob called “a benediction”—more a summary and hurrah for the power of poetry and the possibilities of its intersection with Hollywood.

Then there were greetings from friends and strangers, with so many folks telling me how much they dug my work it was like a natural high for which I’m extremely grateful. As I pointed out to one person who made a self-conscious statement about adding his accolade to someone else who’d just given theirs, it’s pretty much all we poets (and a lot of others working in other arts for which there’s very little or no monetary rewards) get (which is why I always make it a point to let people know how much I dig their work).

One of the highlights, among many, was someone coming to get me to bring me to the artist Chuck Close who is confined to a wheel chair (but a futuristic machine that seemed at least twice the size of the usual ones) so he could tell me how much he liked my reading. (There were others I’d like to mention but am afraid I’d leave too many out unintentionally and seem ungrateful so I just mention Close because I don’t know him and it seemed particularly poignant.)

I felt honored and humbled and delighted just to have been invited to participate, much less receive so many warm accolades. So it was especially a delight to have several people tell me they had no idea I ever acted and only knew me through my books, including a woman who said she’d been a bookseller in Connecticut for years.

Those of us who mainly write, especially the poets, so often labor in solitude with only sporadic ventures into venues with audiences that can respond in person and in the moment, that these kinds of events seem like an exotic meal that not only nourishes but elevates life’s dailiness to something extraordinary, as we often are attempting to do in our work.

Oh what a night. I loved it. Wish you all could have been there (and afforded it, or that they'd filmed it and put it on YouTube). But there are plenty of free readings by all kinds of wonderful poets in your neighborhood or not too far I bet, so do yourself a favor and check them out. You won’t be sorry (or most of the time you won’t anyway).

*To be more precise it was a benefit for “Bowery Arts and Science (BAS)…a non profit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the oral tradition of poetry via live readings, media documentation and creation, and to elevating the status of poetry to that of its sister arts. The mission of BAS includes a strong educational component, introducing all manner of poetries to students of all ages; the preservation of endangered languages via the valuation of the poetry of these cultures; and the infusion and integration of poetry with other arts and into the daily life of the citizenry.”


Bob said...

Michael, wotta night! It's hard to get across what the mission of the Bowery Poetry Club/Bowery Arts & Science is exactly. But last night you knew. Some fill-in-the-blanks: author of the Mothers Day Manifesto was Julia Ward Howe, and the poet Patricia Clarkson read was Howard Altmann, a wonderful writer and true friend of the Club. Gracias, amigo!

Lally said...

Hey man, I was hoping someone would correct me on those two items. Thanks.

AlamedaTom said...

Wish I could have been there.

~ Willy

Lally said...

Me too man.