Dear Chicago Poets,
It figures: the year I move from Chicago to New York, the
Cubs go deep into the playoffs before, predictably, they
folded. The Yankees went to the World Series, but they, too,
imploded and lost, although I didn’t really care, because I
hate both of New York’s baseball teams.
Other things I missed this year in Chicago that we heard
about here: the nightclub stampede, the porch collapse, and
the high-rise fire. I offer my sincere condolences to my
grieving former neighbors. The shit we dealt with in New
York during the same time included two consecutive
blizzards, endless springtime rains, an assassinated
alderman, a multi-state blackout, and a ferry wreck.
Amid all these natural and man-made disasters, I was last
back in Chicago for two weeks in April for a residency at
Ragdale -- wonderful, WONDERFUL experience. Otherwise, the
time since I moved has been taken up with settling into my
new habitat, looking for and landing a new job, and getting
my foot in the door of the local literary scene.
I started close to home, which is Dobbs Ferry, New York, in
suburban Westchester County. Dobbs Ferry is on the Hudson
River about twenty miles north of Manhattan. It’s Washington
Irving country; his statues are as ubiquitous as Robert E.
Lee’s down south.
With the aid of word-of-mouth and listings at www.poetz.com,
New York’s best online poetry calendar, I began tasting
poetry in the Big Apple. I concluded that Chicago poets
don’t need to feel like they live in the second city when it
comes to writing and reading poetry. I thought I would
summarize my findings for everyone back home below.
Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
Philipse Manor Train Station, Sleepy Hollow, NY
This lovely space, housed in a renovated suburban train
station about fifteen minutes from my house, holds an open
mic on the third Friday of every month. Expect a large
turnout of 20 to 25 signing up to read. There is a
five-minute time limit, which is strictly enforced via the
ringing of miniature Tibetan cymbals when your time is up.
Attendees mainly consist of suburbanites from Westchester
County, but others from Connecticut (including host Reggie
Marra), Manhattan, and the Bronx regularly turn out. Talent
level and subject matter vary wildly, from very strong, to
very funny, to very poignant, to very weak. In addition to
the monthly open mic, the Writers’ Center sponsors periodic
readings by big-name writers, including Joyce Carol Oates on
December 4, and it offers writing workshops that teach all
Cornelia Street Café
29 Cornelia St. (between Bleecker and 6th Ave.), NYC
This Greenwich Village institution sponsors spoken word
events practically every day of the month. Upstairs, a
restaurant serves very good, modestly priced Italian and
continental cuisine. Downstairs a cabaret environment greets
you, a narrow friendly space crowded with chairs and
cocktail tables. In addition to poetry, the stage regularly
plays host to small jazz combos late nights.
Cornelia Street is home of the popular Pink Pony Series held
every Friday night. Open mics usually attract between 20 and
30 readers. Host Jackie Sheeler sternly adheres to a
three-minute or two-poem limit. An attentive audience,
thoughtful writers, and decent performers are the rule at
this venue. A featured poet appears every week.
Recently, I saw Charles Fishman of SUNY-Farmingdale
featured. Though an academic, Fishman writes accessibly. One
poem was so good that I didn’t want it to end, which is
saying something for this jaded poetry listener, who often
can’t wait for poets to get the hell off the stage already.
Fishman was a bit of an oddity for Cornelia Street Café;
most readers are of the “community-based poet” variety.
Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery (at Bleecker), NYC
Across the street from the legendary CBGB nightclub, the
Bowery Poetry Club is the current poetry mecca in New York.
One of its business partners is the reigning poetry scene
heavyweight, Bob Holman. I’ve been only once, to see the
aforementioned Jackie Sheeler perform with her poetry band,
A renovated storefront space with high ceilings, cement
floors and blonde wood bar, Bowery Poetry Club has a
Scandinavian barn quality that struck me as cold and
uninviting. You couldn’t accuse the staff of being cold,
however. I received a big hello from former Chicago poetry
host and Quimby’s employee Shappy, who tended bar and shot
the breeze before the show started.
Sheeler worked it hard to warm up the sparse crowd; her
delivery had a swinging, syncopated quality that neatly
complemented the quiet jamming and noodling of the avant
garde jazz band backing her. I think I have to return one of
these days for one of their reputed red-hot open mics to see
this place in its true glory.
213 Second Ave. (at 13th St.), NYC
This venue has become something of a home base for me. Held
Monday nights at the sleek, candlelit Nightingale Bar in the
East Village, this series draws a healthy mix of readers
from the local scene. Unlike most of the city’s open mics,
which are limited to poets, this one welcomes performers
from other art forms and literary genres. I have seen
singers, guitarists, monologists and aspiring stand-up
comedians perform at Saturn, in addition to poets and
The open-minded hosts, Su Polo and David Elsasser, plus a
generous five-minute time limit, foster this diversity. As
primarily a fiction writer these days, I’m glad that this
series exists, offering me room to try out new material. A
featured reader also appears each week among 15 to 20 open
mic readers. On December 8, yours truly reads from his
work-in-progress, a comic historical novel set in 1830s
35 E. 13th St. (between Broadway & University Place), NYC
Bar 13 is arguably the hottest place to see a reading in New
York presently. This East Village night spot hosts an open
mic and slam on Monday nights sponsored by Louder Arts. Bar
13 attracts a more multicultural crowd than most of the
venues discussed in this essay. Regulars include downtown
hip-hop poets and homeboy bards from da hoods and barrios of
Brooklyn and the B-X. I stopped in on a recent Monday to
catch a book release party honoring Willie Perdomo’s new
book, SMOKING LOVELY (Rattapallax Press).
Perdomo attracted a huge turnout and didn’t disappoint with
a whipcrack-smart performance. A few lucky souls claimed the
bar’s comfy chairs near the stage while the rest stood and
sweated in the dark as Perdomo read poetry that dealt with
New York’s bottomless well of tragicomic characters. A great
attraction for the audience, Bar 13 offers a two-for-one
drink special every Monday night during readings. Another
small but effective touch: DJ Frank Rempe spins little
introductory tunes as each poet takes the stage.
Nuyorican Poets Café
236 E. 3rd St. (between Aves. B & C)
In existence for over twenty-five years, the Nuyorican Poets
Café usually comes to mind first when thinking about New
York poetry venues. I visited not long ago to check out
poets Hal Sirowitz and Paul McDonald. Be forewarned, the
Café is a dive, and on the night I attended the house opened
late. The bar opened even later, resulting in warm beer and
white wine. Still, there were plenty of historic poetry
vibes to soak up plus a reading on stage to listen to.
From Louisville, Kentucky, McDonald read from his recent
collection LIKE NEON (Wasteland Press). His highly excellent
poetry is by turns lightly comic and brutally frank in
dealing with alcoholism and dysfunctional relationships.
“Poet Laureate of Queens," Hal Sirowitz was something of a
disappointment. He began with a wonderful poem extolling the
virtues of living in Queens.
But his set soon devolved into a series of lame odes to the
poet's penis. Moreover, his performing style was
distracting. How can I say this nicely? -- I can't
seemingly-- he comes off semi-retarded, mumbling his poetry
and nervously digging his left hand into his jeans to play
pocket pool. It’s difficult for me to imagine how Sirowitz
became a small press darling and fixture of the New York
I have noticed a few stark differences between the New York
and Chicago spoken word scenes that favor New York. None has
to do with quality – there are strong and weak writers and
performers in both cities. Rather, the differences have to
do with reading logistics.
First, venues mean what they say when they announce time
limits. I have yet to witness an instance of somebody
ignoring a three-minute limit and reading for twenty
minutes. Unlike Chicago, New York simply does not tolerate
this behavior. The host will interrupt you and demand you
get off the stage. The large numbers of open mic readers
require strict time limits; otherwise, only a handful of
people would get to read.
Second, events generally start at the appointed time. When
the reading is scheduled to begin at eight o’clock, it
starts at eight o’clock, not eight-thirty or eight-forty.
Hosts must be mindful of the clock, because the venues often
schedule events like music or plays afterwards. The Bowery
Poetry Club often schedules two or three poetry events
back-to-back in a night.
Third, those venues that host a featured reader usually
place his or her set in the middle of the open mic. This is
a good strategy for holding an audience, at least if you’re
the feature. If half the open mic takes place after the
feature reads, then half as many people are able to sneak
out after they read and before your set begins.
When I catch up with raking the leaves and fertilizing the
grass surrounding my suburban abode, I will explore
additional poetry venues in New York, including a couple in
Brooklyn that sound interesting, and report on them.
Meantime, I leave you with this one word of advice: Duck!
--Tim W. Brown
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