IMPORTANT THING FIRST:
My essay on the band Spiritualized ("Can You Hear Me Now? Spiritualized on Transcendence, The Ache and Rock n Roll Redemption") was published at Mockingbird. Please take a look!
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Mi Poetry Casa Es Su Poetry Casa:
A Visit To POETS HOUSE in Lower Manhattan
|10 River Terrace|
Awhile back in 2007 I was at a poetry reading at McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo given by the poet, Mark Doty. During the Q&A session an audience member asked Doty why he didn’t write political poetry. Doty paused and thoughtfully replied that political poems, by their very nature, have an end conclusion known well before the first word was written. His process of writing a poem, he explained, was one of discovery. So, in the context of political poetry, how can you discover when you already know where the poem will lead you?
I thought about this as I headed to Poets House
in downtown Manhattan to find a change of scenery in which to finish a handful of creative non-fiction essays I had on my plate. I brought my camera along with my writing supplies because I had a nagging sense that by following the West Side Highway’s “... faultless ribbons / of blank road ahead...” down to Poets House that my journey would “...promise, like / poems, to end elsewhere.” (1)
|The stairs to the library of Poets House|
I need to take a step back, first. Poetry has long been considered the red-headed stepchild of the arts. There’s no Koonsian money in the game; a published poem might get you a couple copies of the journal in which it is found or a single Benjamin. I got $200 from the Academy of American Poets once and I’m pretty sure that’s the biggest payday I’ll ever receive from my craft. Sure, later on in your career you could maybe swing a MacArthur Grant out of it and a university teaching gig, but that’s some real rarefied air there. No doubt about it, poetry is a labor of love.
And that’s why the simple existence of Poets House (its latest incarnation, opened in 2009, is 11,000 square feet of exhibit, teaching and library space) is so, well, I guess... comforting is the word. For someone used to reading in makeshift spaces and finding, even in the best bookstores, the poetry section limited to just the usual row of heavy hitters, the stunningly designed and stalwart sight of Poets House on the water of the Hudson River has a way of properly asserting the legitimacy of the art form in which it houses. It gives poetry a stable home in the uproar of New York City.
Getting to Poets House in Battery Park City required me to travel through the World Trade Center area and past the Freedom Tower. It’s not a section of Manhattan I travel through too often. The wounds of the open space there are too raw to visit often, so it’s something I generally avoid.
On this particular trip, I took the 2/3 to Fulton Street and walked west along Vessey. What struck me, more than anything else, was the sense of perpetual construction. Temporary construction projects were themselves in a process of construction. A pedestrian footbridge, while totally functional, was still somehow evolving. This idea manifested itself in a multiplicity of scrims that then created scrims upon themselves. It was something inadvertent yet beautiful at the same time, much like a spandrel in an archway. Unlike a spandrel, which by its nature is static, these overlays of scrim are in perpetual motion both due to the movement of the viewer as well as construction one sees behind it (itself covered in scrim, no less).
You’ll reach Poets House if you continue to walk west to the Hudson River, reaching a small road called River Terrace. In various incarnations Poets House has been around for decades, but only recently moved into their current space in 2009. My friend and fellow Left Bank Books regular Gary Shapiro has covered Poets House for both the New York Sun
and the Wall Street Journal
, so feel free to check out his articles for more of a comprehensive backstory, which is quite fascinating.
The beauty of Poets House, to me at least, is the combination of the audacious mission - to house over 50,000 volumes of poetry browsable by anyone - in a stunning LEED certified modern building with views of the Hudson. There is no admission, no membership fees required. Mi poetry casa es su poetry casa.
What does 50,000 volumes of poetry look like? Well, I figured I try to see if they had any gaps, any “gotcha” moments where I looked for a volume and could’t find it. I lost at that game. For instance, Campbell McGrath’s first volume of poetry, Capitalism? Despite having a tiny, tiny run on Wesleyan University Press, Poetry House had it. What about a contemporary poet who already has his poems impressively collected (1959-2009) by FSG - would Poets House just punt and settle for that volume? Well, no. As you can see, Fred Seidel, the Ducati-driving, Carlyle-concierge-calling poet in question here has his early work like Final Solutions standing side by side with his later volumes, like Ooga Booga. A great title, by the way, for someone whom many consider to be the boogey-man of contemporary poetry. (2)
Another fun aspect of Poets House is tracking down different editions of volumes you already have. Here’s an edition of Lowell’s For the Union Dead I’ve never seen before. The poems don’t change, of course, but holding something with historical weight, rather than a paperback reissue, can slightly alter the reading experience, I find.
I realize quoting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 can be a little high school-ish but I’m a real softie sometimes so just indulge me for a second. Specifically I’m thinking about the end of the poem where the subject is given eternal life, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Even after repeated readings it still gets me. Same with Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; / I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is. / Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt...” Shakespeare's audacious vision for his poem's readership and Whitman’s personal call to the reader of the poem are but two small examples of how artists grapple with establishing permanence in a world that is anything but.
In that context, it’s reassuring to know that poetry, and poets, have such a grand spaced reserved for them in lower Manhattan for decades to come. There will be change in New York, no doubt, but Poets House will still be there on River Terrace. While 2069, the last year of Poets House's free lease in the current location, doesn’t stretch out to infinity, it's close enough for me.
(1) The section of the poem I’m quoting by a terrifyingly talented friend isn’t published anywhere other than my college’s lit mag in 2006. I think he wrote it when he was 19. It is one of the favorite pieces of art I’ve ever read. I dedicated a poem to him about weight lifting, in case you are interested (probably not).
(2) Short aside here. Needless to say by seeking out these specific poets and their work it’s clear they both mean a good deal to me. Specifically McGrath, who when confronted by unsolicited email to an non-public email address by someone he didn’t know (read: me) got back to that person remarking upon and praising/encouraging their work. It meant a great deal to me, so you should know that Campbell McGrath, aside from being US Poet Laureate one day (my prediction) is one solid, solid dude.
(3) Shout-outs to people who have been championing my writing recently, including my family, Ashley (who got in touch through Twitter!) and my buddy Sammy.