Maggie Estep, the charismatic and accessible spoken word poet and author, has suddenly died of a heart attack. She was 50 years old.
Maggie Estep was a big part of the slam poetry scene that emerged from Chicago and New York City in the 1980s and briefly flared into pop culture via MTV in the early 1990s. Her early published works include records like Love Is A Dog From Hell. Later, she published novels including Alice Fantastic and the Ruby Murphy mystery series.
I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he'd been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou's mask was off. The psycho show was over.
Lou would eventually release a song called "Average Guy", which perfectly describes Lou's onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over -- it was over for good.
My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.
There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.
Changes. Funny thing ... I was planning on writing a blog post today about some changes I'm planning on making here on Litkicks. The site turns 18 years old (!) this Monday, July 23, and I'm planning to shake a few things up. I was going to write about that today, and then I heard some news about the Bowery Poetry Club.
The Bowery Poetry Club has always been my favorite night spot in New York City. It opened in the spring of 2002 -- a great time for a new spoken word poetry club to open in a New York City still recovering from the shock of the previous September. The club is the handiwork of poetry raconteur Bob Holman, a guy we like a lot and think should be Poet Laureate of the United States.
For the past eleven years the BPC has been a cozy and friendly spot for amateur and professional poets and slammers and lyricists. Everybody who worked there was a poet, and you'd find Moonshine and Shappy (two good spoken word guys) mopping the floor or tending the bar. There's a Walt Whitman Lite Brite behind the stage, tasty organic coffee and tarts out near the front ... and halfway decent poetry acts at least half the time. Whenever a friend was coming in from out of town, I'd tell them to hit the Bowery Poetry Club.
Unfortunately, it's closing down. A restaurant will probably replace the club, though there is some word that the restaurant will continue to host poetry events. Bob Holman sent out an encouraging message earlier today:
The rumors of the death of the Bowery Poetry Club are greatly exaggerated!! It is true that ten years into Project Utopia, the hamster-tail chase of booking 30-35 gigs a week to allow the Poetry we know and love to live has produced a fatigued staff, a ragged Board (of Bowery Arts + Science, the nonprofit that books the Club), and a space that's crying out for a dose TLC. But toss in the Po' Towel? No Way, Joe! By spending the summer renovating and working out a partnership with a restaurant (rumors of Duane Park as our collaborators are sweet and the two entities surely do share a love for the populist arts of the Bowery, but nothing is signed yet folks), we hope to reopen come fall and be SUSTAINABLE with a neighborhood (Loisaida/Earth) focused poetry schedule, utilizing other neighborhood resources as well as the Club. Look for a fuller deployment of the POEMobile around town, state, country, solar system, and a commitment to a global poetics rooted in the Endangered Language Movement. To the communit-y/-ies who have supported us, and to our staff, deepest thanks! Stay tuned -- we love you. Come party with Sean T and Ann and all on Tues July 17. Everything is Subject to Change! -- and for our Tenth Anniversary next year, the BPC will look different. To survive and sustain. All the better to serve the world poetry.
In other words, Holman says we don't need to worry about poetry in New York City ... and from what I know of the strong slam poetry community in New York City, we definitely don't need to worry about it. It's good news that the Bowery Poetry Club organization will continue to be active, and I'm sure they'll keep it hopping on the Lower East Side.
1. What do we learn from Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, the second volume of letters edited by Beat Generation archivist and expert Bill Morgan? We learn that Burroughs' obsession with literary splicing and combining possessed many of his thoughts; he writes about the cut-up method constantly, to everybody. We learn that he was polite to his parents and warmly paternal to and concerned about his son Billy. We learn that he had a calm demeanor but a cutting temper, that he couldn't stand Timothy Leary but was considerate enough to offer support when Leary was arrested, that he really hated Truman Capote (and never offered Capote any support), that he had great regard for Barney Rosset of Grove Press, and none for Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press (the primary difference seemed to be that Rosset always paid Burroughs the money he owed him, and Girodias never did). Overall, this collection of letters doesn't much change my understanding of William S. Burroughs, but is worthwhile for the pleasure of spending time in the company of this erudite and broadly original brutalist/postmodernist. Especially when Burroughs paraphrases Shakespeare, as in this quip about Herbert Huncke's imdomitable sneakiness: "he is not only a junkie but a thief, strong both against the deed in the words of the immortal bard the raven himself is harsh who croaks the fatal entrance of Huncke."
It's getting to be around that time in December when I put up a wrap-up post and disappear for a week or two.
I stopped by the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City recently, and was once again energized (a visit always helps) by the spirit in that eclectic room. You know, some people have asked why I claim to be interested in poetry when I don't follow the lit journal/academic/prize scene at all. Well, the spoken word scene is quiet but very much alive. The poems are still good, the talent keeps renewing itself, and the format still works. I guess the reason I keep this Action Poetry thing still rolling on this site (it's been around since early 2001) is to try to capture some of that spoken word spirit here on this blog. Which is why I'm happy to announce the launch, on Thursday morning, of this year's Action Poetry Randomized Wrap-up. One poem per click, all the poems you can want (from the best ones posted this year), just like we always do at this time.
I reach the closing days of 2010 in a reflective mood; not exactly satisfied, not suffering either. Let's just say I feel optimistic about the year ahead. Here on Litkicks, I'm looking forward to continuing my weekend excursions into philosophy (and politics, psychology, sociology, religion, ethics and history). I'm also looking forward to continuing to work with the excellent gang of Litkicks contributors (you can see 8 of our best names in the "By Author" panel in the right sidebar, in case you haven't noticed) who will certainly help me stay on top of the literary news of the day in 2011. I'm always looking for new contributors, too, so get in touch if you'd like to be a part of Litkicks 2011.
I'm in a rush and don't have time to stir up my usual bucket of snarky literary muck today, but here are a few real quick links before I blow this popsicle stand and catch you in the new year.
1. My oldest daughter showed me this New York Times Book Review feature about what people read on the subway and said "don't you think it's cute?". Yeah, I said, and it was also cute two years ago when I thought of it first.
1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
Every serious poet should get heckled now and then. It helps to cut through the deadly pretension and solipsism of the form. Here's a helpful guide to the joyful art, from a master who's put in his time on both sides of the heckle.
1. In between making videos for LitKicks and arguing with me about Roman Polanski, Jamelah Earle asked me to write a piece commemorating the 1000th front page feature for the wonderful "tribal photography" website Utata. I was honored to do so. I am not much of a photographer myself, but I recommend this vibrant and friendly community to anybody who is.
2. New York spoken word poet Lemon Anderson, who you might have caught if you ever watched Def Poetry Jam, is starring in his own autobiographical play at the Public Theater, County of Kings. This play is a Spike Lee joint.
3. My buddy and former co-author Christian Crumlish has just published his latest book: Designing Social Interfaces. This book is an O'Reilly joint.
4. Blues expert and ethnomusicologist Sam Charters has a new book, A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora, and describes how he helped unearth the recordings of Robert Johnson recently on the New York Times Paper Cuts blog. When Sam Charters talks about music, listen.
5. Fictionaut is a beautifully designed online writing community, just out of beta. Let's see where this one goes.
6. Naked poets in Canada.
7. Vol 1 Brooklyn presents Battle of the New York Nerds.
8. Simon Owens on xkcd and what newspaper cartoonists can learn from web comics.
9. Wrestling poems. I don't really get it, but maybe John Irving would.
10. "And there's one kind favor I'll ask of you
and there's one kind favor I'll ask of you
and there's one kind favor I'll ask of you ...
See that my grave is running Solaris."
It can't be easy for a poet to follow President Barack Obama's inaugural speech, but I thought Elizabeth Alexander delivered the goods.
Praise Song For the Day
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.
The 'praise song' is a spiritual tradition with roots in both contemporary Christian worship music and spoken-word poetry (I heard my first 'praise poems' from Bob Holman at the Bowery Poetry Club). It seems to be a good fit for the mood of this day.
I wonder if younger people (like my own children) who watched this celebration can fully understand how different this inauguration was from any that has come before. It's hard to say whether the joyous, almost Woodstock-like mood is more about Barack Obama's arrival or about George W. Bush's exit. Either way, the phrase "win-win" seems to fit. Praise for the day, indeed.