Seeking Community: Memories of ‘The Poetry Project’

I think a conversation about community is important for many reasons, not the least being the rather utopian idea that there is someplace you can go where you feel safe.

St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, New York (via Wikipedia)

I first sat in St. Mark’s Church on February 4, 1970. It was a Wednesday and I was 19 years old. I had come down from Bard College to attend the Memorial Reading for Charles Olson, but stopped to see a movie, Fando and Lis, written by Fernando Arrabal and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. I got to the church after the service had started and hurriedly sat down in one of the pews near an unkempt man in a long tatty overcoat. He had long greasy brown hair and was clutching a paper bag containing a bottle from which he occasionally took a healthy slug. How nice, I thought. Here is a church that will take anyone in. This was the place I was looking for.

It turned out that the man with the paper bag was Ray Bremser, an ex-con and poet, who got up and spoke fondly about Olson. The other poet I remember from that day was Diane Wakoski, who pointed out that she was the only woman speaking at the memorial.

A poster for “Fando and Lis” (via

Fando and Lis, Jodorowsky’s first full-length feature, is a black-and-white film in which Fando pushes Lis in a cart (she is a paraplegic) down into a strip mine, looking for the city of Tar, where wishes come true. Almost no one liked the film, but I didn’t know any better. I had seen the name Arrabal on the marquee, which got me to buy a ticket, knowing that I had a couple of hours to kill. I got the reference to Dante and the descent into hell and that was enough to get me through an afternoon screening in a nearly empty theater

The next time I remember sitting in The Poetry Project was in 1976, when I gave a reading with a friend, who had arranged it. He read first and it seemed important to him that he read all the poems in his book, which had been just published. I am still puzzled as to why he thought he should do this. The longer my friend read that night the more uptight I got. The man next to me kept reaching into a shopping bag and pulling out cans of beer, popping the tops off and methodically glugging them down. How many six-packs did he have in there? Finally, perhaps nearing the end of his supply, and clearly annoyed, he crushed an empty can with one hand, threw it back in the bag, and belched.

This was my introduction to Jim Brodey and — in many ways — The Poetry Project. It was a roller coaster ride with high points and low points—  and you had two choices — hang on or get off. I did both. In light of what happened on November 8th in America, I think a conversation about community is important for many reasons, not the least being the rather utopian idea that there is someplace you can go where you feel safe. I came to the project because I knew that I would meet poets there and I did. But I didn’t necessarily always feel welcome in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, which is one reason why I have no nostalgia for that time.

Perhaps it had to do with being a young poet who didn’t meet the standards or pass the test of those who had been hanging around the church much longer than I had, or perhaps it was because I was studying with John Ashbery at Brooklyn College, and that he liked my work. He was too “uptown” someone told me. More than once I was asked: Are you pretending to be gay? Is that why he likes your work so much and tells other people about it?

I bring these things up because it seems to me the problem that I encountered at The Poetry Project had to do with personality and power, and the willingness to be uncivil. It was a way of reminding me that I had forgotten my place or spoken out of turn, that I was a bad Chinaman. What about the poet who tugged at the corners of his eyes and asked me in a mocking tone: Do you think being Chinese matters to your writing? He was someone who was considered important at the Poetry Project, a strong personality. Presumptions such as these contribute to the death of a community. I have encountered this kind of thing more than once.

I have met a lot of people in or around The Poetry Project. I heard lots of great readings here. I remember listening to John Cage speaking softly into a microphone in the late 1970s and thinking that this was one of the most amazing things I had ever experienced. I came to learn something, and I did. I soaked up whatever I could and was happy to do so. I still have piles of mimeographed books and magazines. I took a workshop with Bill Zavatsky. I remember sitting in the apartment of Steve Levine and Susie Timmons and feeling comfortable, something that I rarely felt when I was in my twenties. Feeling welcome — I think that’s what counts.

This morning my daughter, who is 15, cried while getting ready for school. She said that America had elected a president that hated her and all her friends and wanted to know why. She goes to an all-girl’s school and her friends include an adopted Chinese girl, an immigrant from Bangladesh, a girl from Peru, and many others. They speak multiple languages and they don’t look alike. One girl is on the field hockey team. Another is into robotics. And another knows the best places to sit in Madison Square Garden when a band is playing. They seem to have formed a community that recognizes each of them and their interests, be it music, or Alfred Hitchcock movies, or anime. Listening to her proudly tell me that she is part of the most diverse group in her school, I realized she was teaching me by living a life she had chosen.

Maybe that was what I was looking for when I first came to The Poetry Project more than forty years ago.

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