I gave my first major public poetry reading in June 1975. It was the St. Mark’s Poetry Project annual workshop reading. All of the people who attended the workshops had a chance to perform. Prior to that reading, I had a huge bout of stage fright. I had gone to the Broome Street Bar in SoHo a couple of hours before the event and became so anxious, I left the restaurant. I walked to the traffic island on Broome Street and sat there until I could calm down and then take the subway up to Astor Place to get to St. Mark’ Church and read. It was a funny way to celebrate a year of learning to be a poet.
Starting in 1974, I attended a range of free workshops at St. Mark’s Church. The Church was a kind of oasis in the midst of crumbling buildings and oddly successful institutions—catty corner from it was the Second Avenue Delicatessen. Father Ortega, the parish priest, encouraged a range of cultural and community projects –as he saw the economic stress and the civic neglect that marked the East Village. There, many wonderful shops thrived—the variety store down the block on Second Avenue; a store on E. 9th Street and 2nd Avenue that sold beautiful dresses from the 1940s and 50s. I bought a 1940s dark green dress with a sweetheart décolletage and swag—I was learning to seriously embrace my feminine side, plus it was $10! Worn with silver platform heels, I was ready to sashay my stuff just about anywhere. The store Back from Guatemala on E. 6th Street and St. Mark’s Bookstore on St. Mark’s Place offered up braided bags and colorful scarves off the “hippie trail.” Concert spaces, jazz clubs, and I discovered restaurants that sold food that looked familiar, but tasted different: dumplings at Veselka were called pierogis. It seems that I thrive in Gothic piles—my college campus looked like Yale or Princeton—and St. Mark’s Church, which still had its pews and altar and was one of the oldest churches in the entire city—was just such a Gothic space. Much that was new took place within those heavy stone walls.
Charlotte Carter, the only other Black person I consistently saw at the Project in the early seventies, is an amazing writer. She seemed to have mastered the prose poem, but as I realized with writers, she wanted to learn more, challenge herself, and see what others were doing. She was taking Bernadette Mayer’s workshop which focused on dreams. I joined the workshop. This proved my downfall. I am a light sleeper—I rarely have dreams. So the idea of writing out my dreams was out of the question. Damn. I peeped into Ted Berrigan’s workshop and it felt like I was in school with all of the folks who were stoned or drunk and he was orchestrating the chaos. Many talented people in the workshop, but all that booze and grass. Too much.
So, Lewis Warsh, whose workshop I took first, was the one I stayed with and to this day I am grateful. Lewis, who grew up on New York City and who had already published a few collections and started Angel Hair Press with his former wife Anne Waldman, was skinny and handsome with long hair and that sort of laid back sexiness that seems essential to Scorpios. He had a way of focusing on a word, phrase or line and sort of teasing out what should or should not be there. This could be blunt or very subtle. I don’t remember him ever saying something was crap (I did hear that in other workshops), but the weaker or disinterested writers slowly left the workshop leaving a band of very smart, imaginative people in their wake.
Lewis looked at my lyrics and well, between him and everyone else, the adolescence in my writing departed. In a way, what was happening in the workshop was what was happening to me. I would bring in these long shifting pieces. Lewis would look at them and say, “What’s really going on?” And then I would see what was really going on. So would everyone else. The workshop was lively.
My fellow disciples included Bill Kushner who was a playwright and gay, but until the workshop had not quite embraced his queerness in his poetry. He was our cheerleader and he and Guy had the best battles royale. Guy Gauthier would declare, “EVERYTHING IS POETRY!” And I would say, “Really, like everything?” And then we would have this discussion about what was and was not poetry. It could get funny. One time somebody brought a tomato and said, “Is that a poem?” And Guy declared, “Yes!” We laughed a great deal in that workshop.
Robin Messing, born and bred in Brooklyn, was pretty and smart and soft spoken, but we quickly realized that soft spoken was not “push over”—her work was powerful. Yuki Hartman, a Japanese-American poet, experimented with form, especially prose poems and often wrote five poems to everyone else’s one. Maggie Staiger aka Maggie Dubris was in a rock and roll band (not a punk band, a rock band) and the actor Richard Edson who came and went, but when he showed up brought a sense of comedy to the room. Dom Sotelo, whose unexpected death cast a pall over us, was decidedly melancholy. And Diane Raintree was utterly sophisticated. We came into the Parish Hall with our typed sheets of paper and our desire to make work that moved as swift or as slow as the city moved.
Because the city could be slow—could stick you in a puddle of distraction. The book stalls outside the Strand; the store fronts where someone’s obsession—toy soldiers, Judaica, vintage dresses—were displayed for eventual sale. The city could make you lurch like the junkies on E. 10th Street or it could swiftly slap you down. The day I was walking with two of my White male friends visiting from the South and this Black guy tried to burn me with a cigarette. The day I went to a rental on E. 5th Street and the White woman slammed the door in my face. Or the city could lift me: I can still see this Black skateboarder navigating Lafayette, no trucks, cars, buses in sight—he seemed to have found some deep bliss and I got to watch him fly. And the relentless catcalls from men: White, Black, Puerto Rican, et al made me and many women card-carrying feminists.
I look at that slender young woman with an Afro bloom of hair on her head and huge eyeglass frames in the picture on the cover of 8:30, our workshop publication and think, what she was hiding? For I was hiding a deep fear that where I was and what I was doing was a matter of luck and nerve and that at any moment, it would all fall apart.
The Workshop helped me to begin thinking differently about my own creativity, my sense of self. A teasing comment from Bill Kushner, or a gentle critique from Robin or Lewis’s incisiveness with someone else’s work and I could see what was working, where the music was in the line. The Poetry Project hummed and hissed and howled with our attempts to make and re-make poetry and our poems and to claim adulthood. I became a poet who could write in the second stanza of a poem entitled “Trees”:
There’s a tree in the yard
Of my home in Arkansas
I don’t know its name
The leaves are pointed
The trunk is thin
It’s a great tree to climb
When you’re a child
It isn’t strong enough
For adolescents or adults
I climbed it once after
Getting my hair done
My mama caught me
And gave me a whipping
It was the last whipping
That was the last tree
I know that my workshop colleagues urged me to make that poem which started out sort of quasi Nikki Giovanni into something more personal—they urged me to trust my own experience in poems. I could use racial markers and show family conflict without it seeming like a huge problem. We were all learning to shed our adolescent thinking and to become the poets that we needed to be. It was a place of great trust and generosity.
But the Poetry Project was not always a place of trust or generosity. While Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer were serious poets and organizers and Maureen Owen was producing great issues of Telephone, etc., it was a place created and defined by White male poets, some of whom were helpful, others sexually predatory or dismissive. And to be young, gifted, pretty and Black was an anomaly. To be young, gifted, Black and female was to become a feminist. My workshop colleagues knew me, cared about me, watched out for me. But others did not. Journals published poets, esp. the ones who were in Berrigan’s workshop; anthologies included everyone but Charlotte and me. I fought against ongoing erasure by working with colleagues on their journals and writing literary reviews in the Poetry Project Newsletter. I insisted on a byline. The struggle for visibility was begun. I edited and published WB, a mimeo literary magazine, but could not raise funds to make a second issue.
It took working with women poets from other parts of the East Village, especially on organizing readings, that led me to meeting June Jordan and Audre Lorde and Marilyn Hacker. They were involved with Woman Books on the Upper West Side and Djuna Books in Greenwich Village. And as these connections were happening, I started to go hear music, the “Loft Jazz” scene was starting to erupt. Eventually, three years later, many of we young women poets made our mark with Ordinary Women, which I co-edited with Sara Miles, Fay Chiang and Sandra Maria Esteves for which Adrienne Rich wrote the introduction—the first multicultural, multiracial women’s poetry anthology on the East Coast.
But in 1975, I realized that ambition was not a bad word. That first workshop gave me that understanding. The Poetry Project workshop provided what a great space of learning has to, a place to meet with writers I respected and came to love. I was a trusted colleague, a good friend, a go-to-person, who was willing to learn how to stand up as a grown up, Afro-bloomed with a sense of encouragement, some hope, and the ability to stand in the nave at St. Mark’s Church on a warm June night and read my new poems with confidence; voice still too soft, but soon it would get louder.
Image: “St. Mark’s Church in snow” by Eden, Janine, and Jim, licensed under CC 2.0.