Amplify the Radical: Poetry Project’s 50th Anniversary & New Year’s Day Marathon

2nd Annual Marathon (1975) Photo: Jacob Burckhardt

The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery is celebrating its 50th Anniversary with, among other GIANT NIGHT events, its 43rd Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Benefit Reading on January 1, 2017 from 3pm-2am. Founded in 1966 (though Allen Ginsberg traces its lineage back to late 1950s readings at the MacDougal Street Bar according to Miles Champion’s history), its recognition as a space for innovation and dissent, for the gathering of thought, word, and action in the experiments of poets and performers, was recently featured in a resoundingly inspiring cover/feature article by the Jennifer Krasinski for Village Voice. So good, I went out an got a hard copy (admittedly not something I’d done in those bygone/pre-digital years when you’d snap one up late Tuesday night in anticipation of good writing, good classifieds, and audition notices). For 5 decades, The Poetry Project has been a “home for the most restless and challenging creative minds” in contemporary America through its “dedication to the amplification of radical imagination, oppositional thinking, and community building among writers, artists, and their audience​s.” For my last piece of this infuriating year, I can’t imagine a better way to let go of all the lost voices and hopes of 2016 and to rebuild our fortitude, inoculate ourselves against the vitriol and demagoguery, and find the voices of a newly (re)forming counterculture by looking towards The Poetry Project’s continuation. I recently spoke with Stacy Szymaszek, Director of the Project since 2007, Program Coordinator (Managing Director) from 2005-2007 and former curator of the Monday Night Reading Series.

How you do think the Poetry Project and the field have changed in the past decade? As director since 2007, I believe it has a strong infrastructure but it is not brittle. I need to be responsive to our community and to the time. Several years into my experience of programming the marathon, I started asking people their opinions. I knew I couldn’t know everyone and everything – it’s so interdisciplinary. I love dance. I know what’s going on in dance better than in theater or performance.  I had a great team of curators at my disposal from the Monday and Friday Night Reading Series, as well as some knowledgeable people on staff and the Board of Directors. So there was already a built in New Year’s programming committee I could use to form and maintain a body of knowledge. It allowed me to expand my purview as artistic director of the event. I get lots of inspiration from the current curators. Many ideas about new people to include come from them. It feels like a democratic process that helps it feel super dynamic, much more than if it was just one person saying here’s 150 people I selected.  I see one of my roles as knowing a good idea when I hear it.

Yvonne Meier reads Photo – Ted Roeder

How do you arrive at 150 people? And, how to you organize something like this? Typically, we’ll invite 225 people to get to the 150. Some don’t respond. Some can’t make it. Some cancel. Some will cancel day of. So we get to 140, often. That’s the equation.  I create the order by going on instinct. I generally try to include at least one dancer and one musician in each hour. I work with each hour as a unit. For instance, I know that Yvonne Meier will do something wild, surprising – people will be running around, banging up against each other, using the space to the fullest. So something after that might include a poet who can go up there and read from the page and then, another poet and then, an ensemble. I never have too much of the same thing next to each other. I think about time, pace, energy. And, of course, I try to honor people’s time requests while I balance what I would do if I were free to order things exactly how I wanted. Performers are donating their time, so I try to honor their requests. And then, it seems to have a magical quality when we pull it off and it’s always totally thrilling.

How has the marathon changed? Over the past 10 years the mandate hasn’t really changed. It’s a celebration of the Project’s community, the downtown arts community, i.e. the people who are reading are often those who show up during the year, those who are invested in what we do.  It’s diverse group in the most generous definition of the word, and experience levels vary too. I particularly love it when someone “established” reads and then is followed by a young first time reader who may be in one of our workshops, or one of our volunteers. I think about texturing it from this point of view. I like curating to create a flow, a rhythm or a pace based on what I think people will bring to the table. Not everyone’s two minutes are used as well as I’d expect!

How much of your audience stays for whole marathon? Is there anything special to the midnight hour? It seems like such a vigil space, a resonant time. There is this notion that the “best hours” to read are between 8-10, because typically it’s when Patti Smith, Eileen Myles, and other huge draws traditionally go on. It’s when the audience is largest. It is a really heady experience to read in front of hundreds of people. I’ve kind of rebelled against that idea that those as the best hours to read. Because it’s all really really good! There are greats in each hour, and the last hour is always staff, I’m always last when I read. I took a few years off, but I’m reading this year. The midnight hour does have an intimacy to it.  We’re exhausted, we’re triumphant! At the 40th anniversary of the Marathon there were still about 100 people there at the end. I’m always surprised at how many people stay.

Yoshiko Chuma Photo – Ted Roeder

Without playing favorites, are there particular artists that you feel excited about because they’re new voices or because they’ve been away for a while. We have a mentorship program that I’m proud of and we invited our 3 fellows to take part. Two of them: Sasha Smith and Jayson Smith will be participating for the first time. I’m proud that the Poetry Project has managed to keep the event feeling fresh, vital, after over 40 years. We always include 30 people who have never read in it before. I’m always personally excited by the dancers and have tried to include more of them. Christine Elmo does it most years. Miguel Guiterrez has done it a number of times, and I’m always completely stunned by him. Yvonne Rainer (though she reads), Yoshiko Chuma. Will Rawls, Douglas Dunn. I think their presence literally helps with the flow of the event, to have physically movement leading into language leading into song kind of makes one see that there is an interconnectivity, a system at work. It’s a rebellious yet a highly orchestrated event. There is a notion that it’s a giant open mic, because, I think, it has managed to maintain a very grassroots feel about it. But it’s our major fundraiser, akin to other organizations galas, and we start planning it in early October.

How are you thinking about moving into the future? I admit that while I haven’t been to a marathon and haven’t been to a reading, probably since the 90s (I’m sorry I got distracted, and domesticated away from this), that in the past weeks reading poetry has been important for my sense of hope, but I also feel out of touch with the new voices, so I’m reflective, but not looking forward. But, poetry is so important for helping me understand the world. We do think a lot about how to look both forward and backward at the same time, to be multi-directional. We know and honor our legacy, but we also need to respond to the times. If young people aren’t interested, then the Project dies on the vine. In the past decade, there’s been, to my mind, an explosion or an expansion of exciting young writers. And, yes what you’re talking about is “poet knowledge.” We look to poetry to understand big things, like how to live!  In 2007, Amiri Baraka wrote a piece for our Newsletter called, “Why Most Poetry is So Boring, Again.” Some of his arguments are very true but I personally, over the past 3 years especially, have never felt as excited about new work as I do now. And a lot of that work is being done by young writers of color, LGBTQ writers, writers who are doing a deep dive into risk,  in content and form. These are the writers I’m turning to as we enter the Trump era. How is it going to impact government funding? A big concern for everyone. Yet in the past five years, efforts toward increasing individual donors has increased. That’s not a new trend in the non-profit world. Language is a battleground. Demagoguery can be fought through poetry because it makes the language new, doesn’t leave it as it was found. That’s why it is seen as such a threat in other countries. The Project will always be a safe haven from language-control.

I do feel that it will be the young poets who will explain the world to me now. They’re fomenting something, that I hope will help me understand the complexity of experience in this impending era. I agree. I just made a Facebook post about the marathon today where I stated it’ll “be a dynamic showcase for a culture that is actively fighting by keeping lifelines of authentic communication vital and at the center of our practice.” I’m anticipating this particular year to be rich with people voicing their dissent. The marathon is an amazing showcase for a culture actively fighting. I’m resistant to the “now, more than ever” idea I’m seeing. What we do has always been relevant politically. But, perhaps now more than ever people need ritual, a familiar or friendly place to meet and begin their year with some sense of agency.

Penny Arcade Photo – Ted Roeder

So, looking for a new hope or hoping to avoid the opiating temptings of New Year’s Eve binges? Plan instead to find your way into a new world with these radical voices guiding you: Aelian/a Nicole Anderson, Betsy Andrews, Penny Arcade, Jaye Bartell, Jennifer Bartlett, Jim Behrle, Rijard Bergeron, Anselm Berrigan, Edmund Berrigan, Justin Vivian Bond, Emily Brandt, Marie Buck, Steve Cannon, Wo Chan, Chia-Lun Chang, Lonely Christopher, Yoshiko Chuma, Kimberly Clark, Cheryl Clarke, Andrei Codrescu, Todd Colby, John Coletti, Lydia Cortes, Brenda Coultas, Alex Cuff, Joey de Jesus, Francesca DeMusz, Ted Dodson, Steven Taylor & Douglas Dunn, Grace Dunham, Marcella Durand, Andrew Durbin, Steve Earle, Will Edmiston, Mel Elberg, Christine Elmo, Betsy Fagin, Farnoosh Fathi, Avram Fefer, Dia Felix, Jess Fiorini, Tonya Foster, Ed Friedman, Hafizah Geter, John Giorno, John Godfrey, Ariel Goldberg, Che Gossett, Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, Whit Griffin, Anna Gurton Wachter, Nick Hallett, Diana Hamilton, David Henderson, Laura Henriksen, Chanice Hughes Greenberg, Tony Iantosca, Pierre Joris, erica kaufman, Joseph Keckler, Baz King, Martha King, Shiv Kotecha, Ben Krusling, M. Lamar,

Justin Vivian Bond Photo – Ted Roeder

Krystal Languell, Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, Rachel Levitsky, Phoebe Lifton, Matt Longabucco, Brendan Lorber, Filip Marinovich, Shelley Marlow, Tracey McTague, Yvonne Meier, Jonas Mekas, Holly Melgard, Sharon Mesmer, Carley Moore, Thurston Moore, Saretta Morgan, Tracie Morris, Dave Morse, Eileen Myles, Edgar Oliver, Dan Owen, Trace Peterson, Simon Pettet, Nicole Peyrafitte, Tommy Pico, Ali Power, Nina Puro, Arlo Quint, Yvonne Rainer, Lee Ranaldo, Camille Rankine, Will Rawls, Ariel Resnikoff, Bob Rosenthal, Douglas Rothschild, Judah Rubin, Tom Savage, Sarah Schulman, Purvi Shah, Elliott Sharp, Eleni Silkelianos, Samita Sinha, Sasha Smith, Jayson Smith, Pamela Sneed, Patricia Spears Jones, Tammy Faye Starlight, Sara Jane Stoner, Anne Tardos, Nurit Tilles, Lynne Tillman, Edwin Torres, Tony Towle, Rachel Trachtenburg, Aldrin Valdez, David Vogen, Asiya Wadud, Nicole Wallace, Sarah Anne Wallen, Lewis Warsh, Simone White, Hanif Willis Abdurraqib, Martha Wilson, Chavisa Woods, Wendy Xu, John Yau, Don Yorty, Jenny Zhang, 75 Dollar Bill, Anne Waldman and Fast Speaking Music, Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers, CAConrad, Church of Betty, Ed Askew Band, Erica Hunt and Marty Ehrlich, Ernie Brooks with Peter Zummo and Jeannine Otis, Foamola, Reno, The Double Yews, Unusual Squirrel, and more TBA.

Former Artistic Director and Marathon Founder, Anne Waldman Photo courtesy of the Poetry Project


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