This essay was written, in slightly different form, for the panel “No More Secrets: The Poetry Project in the 1980s,” at a 2012 conference on Poetry & Poetics of the 1980s, at the National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine. It was first published in Local Knowledge #8, 2020.
The Poetry Project in the ‘80s was a time when we weren’t—or felt we weren’t—under scrutiny. So here was a freedom that fueled a lot of poetry. We had magazines and they looked alike, because they were all done on a typewriter, with no choice of font. Your poems looked like Eileen’s and Alice’s and Ashbery’s and Ron’s and mine. We weren’t distracted by production values.
Or by career possibilities. We didn’t imagine a career in poetry—even those with great ambitions didn’t see how that might work out. No matter how serious you were about poetry, there just weren’t careers at that point. No one thought they would make a living as a poet. There was definitely the feeling that you had to choose between poetry and a “straight” life. We rejected a straight life—of course! You didn’t have a career: you were a poet!
A lot of my posse of poets didn’t go to college, or dropped out or went to third-rate schools. We wanted to be the raw and untrained genius who wrote our works of raw genius on the way to the reading.
It was similarly uncool to have a beautifully produced book. The overall aesthetic of the late ‘70s into the ‘80s was to be amateur/casual/rough/punk, and that permeated the Project. If you had a perfect-bound book, you either had money or a mainstream publisher, and no one respected that.
The Poetry Project in the ‘80s was somewhat of an outlaw culture, fueled by amphetamines and heroin. We thought anything could happen at a reading. Here’s a few sentences from a story called “Radar Love” by Johnny Stanton, published in Transfer, Vol 2, #2, Fall/Winter 1989-90, edited by Gary Lenhart. “He opened the parish hall door. Lots of people were already inside, waving to each other and laughing out loud. ... Everyone talked at once. What was going on in the poetry world? Who slept with whom? The latest big fight. Changing sexual affiliations. That awful article in the Voice. Censorship. The New York Times. Sun and Moon Press. The Yale Poetry Prize. / People drifted outside for air, beer and cigarettes. The night had dipped into a great circle. Talk. Talk. Talk.” In the story, the reading—by Alice Notley—leads to sex, a road trip, and death. Anything could happen in poetry!
Talk, talk, talk ... and collaborate. I remember Gary Snyder saying that in the ‘50s he and others would hitchhike for days to have a conversation with someone of like mind. That was easier to find in the ‘70s and ‘80s but there was definitely the sense that it had to be found in New York City. It was pre-Internet, after all, when it seemed hit-or-miss to find anything: poems, poets, a home. Therefore people wanted to live in New York and poetry was a cool way to be here. We mostly lived near St. Marks Church and near each other, and didn’t have to work that much to maintain our hundred-dollar-a-month apartments, so we were in and out of each other’s lives all the time.
The atmosphere of poetry was at least as important as any particular poem—that we were all poets, doing poetry all the time. If we had a theory, it was that everyone was a poet, or could be and should be, and that art was produced by the many, not the individual. Talk, talk, talk— and collaborate. There were exquisite corpses tossed off at every party or as a way to seduce the poets you liked. Maureen Owen wrote many rengas by mail with a long list of poets. There was the collaboration that is good translation, like Ron Padgett’s Reverdy. Artists such as George Schneeman worked frequently with poets, and there were Bob Holman’s Poets Theater festivals as well as the Poets Theater monthly series that ran from 1985-88 at the Project. There was an insane amount of the “traditional competition,” as Ted Berrigan called it in an interview with Tom Savage, where you tried to inspire or force each other to do your absolute best. This carried across the generations: Schuyler with Padgett, Towle with O’Hara, Waldman with Myles. One favorite of mine is Susan Cataldo and Susie Timmons’ “Masters of Suspense,” about which Susie wrote: When Susan and I read “Masters of Suspense” at the Poetry Project, our dear friend Ann Rupel participated by singing an eerie thereminesque tune after each repetition of the chorus. [We are the Masters of Suspense. / We are the Masters of Suspense.] I feel really lucky to have belonged to a time, place and community where sharing such amusements was a commonplace occurrence among friends.
A huge way poets collaborated was in bands. In the ‘80s a lot of poets moved over to music: Maggie Dubris, Barbara Barg, Mike Sappol, Lenny Goldstein, Tom Carey. It had happened before—the Fugs and Patti Smith—but at the Project, a lot of the readings were actually bands playing. As a result, there was far more of a poetry-music connection than previously, and there’ve been poet-bands ever since, along with spoken word over music. This has kept going in part due to technology—you can make your own CD cheaply, equivalent to putting out a mimeo magazine. Maggie Dubris told me that she came from rock and roll to poetry, not the other way round. “We may have been the first generation to do that,” she said. Earlier generations were already adults while we were teens when psychedelia came into rock. Rock was poetry and it was presented as such—Jim Morrison, Dylan, Leonard Cohen. “That wild visionary poetry was very compelling,” Maggie said. “It drew us into music, and then there was punk—you didn’t have to play well.” Everyone was in a band!
I want to emphasize the importance of the innumerable magazines and small presses: The World, Mag City, KOFF, dodgems, 432 Review, Angel Hair, Transfer, United Artists, Misty Terrace Press, Adventures in Poetry. Magazines were communal, your poems bumped up next to others’, you chose the work so you had to read and consider and evaluate your peers.
The first generation of O’Hara, Guest, Koch, Ashbery, Schuyler, Denby “were just fucking around, even the name The New York School was a goof,” Michael Lally said to me recently. “They weren’t exclusive, they were embraced by all and embraced all. Later it was more groups banding together as their own crew with their own theories, finding a justification for a kind of poetry they liked and that suited their aptitudes.”
The second generation—and I divide the generations not by age as much as by when they began publishing, the 1950s for the first generation, the ‘60s for the second, the ‘70s to ‘80s for the third, and in fact, many of the “emerging” poets in the workshop I taught last fall at the Project were older than me, and all this so-called generation stuff, as Anselm Berrigan called it, is largely arbitrary—... the second-generation New York School included Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Anne Waldman, Johnny Stanton, Alice Notley, Aram Saroyan, Maureen Owen, David Henderson, Bernadette Mayer, Lewis Warsh, Ed Sanders, Paul Violi, Andrei Codrescu, John Godfrey, Ted Greenwald, Jim Carroll, Tony Towle, Larry Fagin, Lally and more.
The force of Ted Berrigan’s personality can’t be underestimated. When he died in 1983, I remember Harris Schiff saying a hundred people are going to say their best friend just died. He was the reason many people came to and/or stayed around the Project. “Ted dying was a fulcrum point,” Lal told me. “He was a connection to the first generation, a teacher, leader and guru to the third. He was a unifying factor at St Marks—when he died, what kept those disparate groups connected was missing. After he died, the church opened up in a way, to more influences than just O’Hara and Berrigan.”
It seemed, because I was among them, that there were an awful lot more of us in what was loosely referred to as the third generation New York School. Some poets I knew in the ‘80s at the Project who are still around are Maggie Dubris, Joel Lewis, Tom Savage, John Yau, Bob Rosenthal, David Trinidad, Sparrow and Steve Levine. Some talented writers are no longer around or never became as prominent as their work should have made them. A few died young—Steve Carey, Michael Scholnick, Susan Cataldo, Tim Dlugos, Elio Schneeman. Some either dropped away—Simon Schuchat, Regina Beck, Chris Kadison, Mike Slater, David Herz, Neil Hackman—or never have gotten their due: Don Yorty, Bill Zavatsky, Bill Kushner, Cliff Fyman. Susie Timmons won the 1st Ted Berrigan Award and didn’t publish another book for 25 years. Because of that casual approach to a literary career, many good writers were underpublished and underrated. It didn’t help that we were more interested in poetry than theory about poetry or criticism—reviews of books in the Poetry Project Newsletter were pretty much always raves, more like announcements than serious engagement.
Today, the Poetry Project has something like 80 readings a year, with hundreds of poets and a remarkably broad aesthetic. As Stacy Szymaszek, former Artistic Director of the Project, said, “Who could I dare single out to be representative or ‘prevailing’? I think my generation wants to incorporate all of the various lineages of the New American poetry as well as some more mainstream lineages. The Poetry Project isn’t as associated with a small group of young people these days anymore ... we have to acknowledge that the Poetry Project isn’t a clubhouse in the 21st century because that type of organization won’t survive.”
But the Poetry Project has survived, for over half a century, I guess because the poets keep on showing up, and because poetry still happens and still matters at the Project.