Hot Mike/ The Poetry Performance Review
St. Mark's Poetry Project
Having comfortably surpassed its original “alternative” mission, the St. Mark's Poetry Project, housed in the St. Mark's Church on the Bouwerie for half a century now, is a true church of American poetry, approximately equal to, if not greater than, the 92nd Street Y in its sanctifying powers. Whatever his or her previous credentials, any poet stepping to its podium assumes a mantle of immediate validation to which future audiences will bow heads and publishers look twice.
A recent evening at the Project saw the kickoff of Mimeo Microphone, a planned annual series ushered in with a bill of six poets. Project executive director Kyle Dacuyen invoked the spirit of the once pervasive but since defunct mimeograph technology, hailing the “the notion that poetry should be quickly available to anyone who wants it” and quoting a 1982 manifesto in the organization's newsletter by Project charter member Bernadette Mayer, who vowed to “take as much pleasure in my life as a poet as desire can construe.”
Perfect sentiments, perfectly apropos to any reading series, under a “mimeo microphone” banner or not. Kicking off the show, Ama Birch dedicated her set to a mentor, the recently departed Steve Cannon. Recited in heaving but sculpted arcs, Birch's fragmented reconstructings of the language ranged from staccato shots of nursery rhymings to strategically arbitrary declamations skirting the borders of the real (“I am not the wolf. I am more like a slippery eel these days,” “Francis is here. What a saint”). In contrast to the experience of comfortably perusing such lines on the printed page to see how they do or don't fit together, hearing them read aloud without benefit of timely cogitation launches a not unpleasant, giddy rush, like watching an otherwordly Nascar race with all colors and sizes of vehicles careening across randomly crisscrossing roads and ramps.
With understated poise, Stella Hayes gave a textured Cold War portrait of an emigre patriarch grasping for assurances in new surroundings, tuning into the Voice of America via shortwave radio, for “a better kind of propaganda, one with raspberries sold all year long, all over urban and rural America.” Breaking from the more staid pack, Adeena Karasick stopped the show with her flamboyant rendition of Salome's tale, in a theatrical suite of smoky intonations in at least two languages (“How grand our beds of levity, our grafters of cinders, our engines of deceit.”) and flowing standstill choreography, in a ritual mimesis of the New Testament heroine's famous dance.
Reticent Diane Ludin almost disappeared inside her performance, deceptively masking the bustle of an inward-looking Ensor-like pageant of angels and other less angelic creatures, to a refrain “at the hand of an almighty memory.”
Bob Rosenthal was the evening's implied headliner. The seasoned poet and longtime secretary to Allen Ginsberg, taking the title mission literally, reminisced about World and other fondly slapped together mimeographed magazines (“like a barn raising”) sponsored by the Poetry Project way back in the 1970's. Rosenthal followed his Kerourac-ian adventure-of-the-moment tack from the commonly placid to the harrowing (“I stand up to a madman thrusting scissors,” “I find Danny dead, the blood still wet.”) Finally, in a glancing Dutch accent and with a light affect, travelog poet Jenna Dyk, sharing time with friends and lovers “among hammocks and parrots,” talked small things that popped in vivid ways: “I know you don't like human heat. I know I can make you happy.”
First installment of a new series or not, every poet on the program conveyed the air of understanding exactly where he or she was. Whether high-feature stars commanding the altar of the upstairs sanctuary or recruits filling the slots of the more quotidian calendar events like this one in the ground-floor meeting room, all performers leave just enough of their celebrity pride or countercultural manners-rattling at St. Mark's doors. Loved and, inevitably, perhaps nearly equally bad-mouthed, the grand shrine to Downtown's spoken word summons the keenest and most reverent delivery from its invited artists, bathing in the heavenly wattage of its track lighting and ministering to the exemplary craft-conscious sophistication of its audiences. The poets will never walk into a vaulted ambiance like this at the slapstick bonhomie of a pub mike or the comparative evanescence of a bookstore reading, and they know it.