February 24, 2004

On New Year's Day, my sister took the initiative
to set up an expedition to Manhattan, to go to      This was an event
the St. Mark's Poetry Project marathon reading.     that she and I and
                                                    the recently departed
                                                    Toadkeeper once
                                                    went to together.


This is a great event, and it's pretty
silly that I'd been ignoring it in
recent years.
The way it goes is that hundreds of poets         
volunteer to do short readings in St. Mark's      
church from around 2pm to 2am, and this           
attracts an audience of thousands.  This is       
probably the biggest poetry event in the          
United States, and in general the poetry is       
quite good, the poets do excellent readings,      
and if need be you can always get up and take     
a break... though myself, I get anxious about     
missing something if I go away for too long.      
It helps that you can duck into the back room  
to get some food, coffee and assorted bakery     The poetry from the front
products (not to mention piles of different      room is sometimes piped
volumes of poetry, for about $3 each).           in on a PA, but usually
                                                 there's too much other
This back room is also the back stage,           stuff going on there to
where the off-duty poets hang around.            listen to it.

            (Someone on stage was joking
            around about how the back
            stage scene was great, it was
            like being on the TV show "Fame".)
One thing about this event is that it does help        
reassure that New York hasn't completely lost          
it...  suddenly you find your self emersed in this     
huge crowd of more-or-less boho people; and at the     
very least my long hair and leather jacket don't       
seem quite so incredibly out of place.                 
A popular theme that night was whining about the      
yuppification of New York, with which I can sympathise.

But even more popular was proudly declaring
one's determination to work on getting Bush out
of office; and I have to say I found that
schtick more than a little irritating -- sure,
*I'd* like to see Bush lose the next election,
but what if I didn't?  Are Republicans not
welcome at poetry readings?  Even though my
politics and theirs happened to be similar, this
unconscious assumption that we *had* to be
similar was repellent; casual assumptions of           TRIBAL
tribal unity always drive me away.

But even though I had a plane flight out the
next morning, I wasn't going to leave too early,
because I didn't want to miss seeing Patti Smith
read at 11pm or so... I figured I might be there
until around midnight.
I was making yet another coffee and brownie run       
back stage, and as I turned away from the             
folding-table-of-plenty, I became dimly conscious     
of someone looking at me over on my left.             
I glance over at the woman, she looks away, and
I realize that this was Patti Smith herself.
I hadn't thought about it much, but
I had some dim notion that for Patti
Smith, they were going to have to
come up with some version of the
Star Treatment, if only to find a
broom closet for her to hide in; but
there she was out with the rest of
the gang, and if I was the sort who            And why didn't I?
gushes at celebrities, I could have               
gone over and opened the faucet.               Patti Smith herself was   
                                               completely unabashed about
As it was, I walk off with a mild glow         running up to celebrities 
at the thought that Patti Smith had been       she admired...            
checking me out...                                                                   
                                                    (Patti Smith:        
Returning to the main room, I find the              beat but not bashed.)
path down the left isle is totally                                           
blocked with people sitting around on          Clearly I had not             
the floor, and so I look for another           learned the lessons       
way around, and end up squeezing               of the Master.         
between audience and stage to get to a                                
center isle that I'd never noticed                           
before... this route was just                                
unpopular enough that I find some         
great seats standing open there, and I    
end up in 6th row center, with only a     
few more readings to go...                
Patti Smith comes out and               
oh-so-humbly announces that she's       
going to read something she "writ"      
that morning, and she guessed she       
must have written it for us, because    
she knew where she was going, though    
she's not quite so sure what the        
thing is that she's going to read...    
And what she went off into was a long  
piece written in the first person plural
with lines like:

   boys twisted the necks of their guitars,
   and sang of the future
   but then they died of cancer ...                   PENNYWORT_AND_DOLLAR_SHORT

   we broke our mother's hearts
   and then made it up to them,
   but we became ourselves ...

   God is within you.

   It's a long road,
   in our holy coats of black ...

   This is *your* story.

And what she was reading was no
less than the creation myth of a
people.  A creation myth of
*us*, of our people.  She fuses        And I go out into the streets,
the audience together, and at          and decide I need to write some
last I'm willing to admit that         notes about all this before I
I'm one of them. I feel a deep         return to the hotel room.
sense of identification with the
group -- shallow political             I have trouble finding a place to
rants, and all.                        call home, but I turn up a pizza
                                       joint with a handwritten sign in
                                       the window offering a cup of Dahl
                                       for $2.50.

                                       I scribble in my pocket

                                          And wonder about the crowd
                                          of clean-scrubbed college
                                          kids I'm surrounded by.