Insane Podium: A Short History

The Poetry Project, 1966–2012

by Miles Champion

The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery was founded in the summer of 1966 as a direct successor to, and continuation of, the various coffeehouse reading series that had flourished on the Lower East Side since 1960. The first of these, at the Tenth Street Coffeehouse on the gallery block between Third and Fourth Avenues, moved to Les Deux Mégots on East Seventh Street in 1962 (both establishments were co-owned by Mickey Ruskin, who would later open Max’s Kansas City); from March 1963, readings were held at Moe and Cindy Margules’s Café Le Metro at 149 Second Avenue, where the 13th Step sports bar is now.

Allen Ginsberg has traced the lineage back further, to the readings at the MacDougal Street Bar (later the Gaslight Café) in the late 1950s, which were themselves inspired by the popularity of readings organized earlier in that decade on the West Coast by poets associated with the San Francisco Renaissance and the “Berkeley Renaissance” of the 1940s. Before that, Ginsberg suggests, there was the Paris of the Existentialists (the name Les Deux Mégots—the Two Butts or Fag-Ends—was, after all, a play on Les Deux Magots, the famous Left Bank café), and, predating that by some 2,000 years, the Forum of Ancient Rome.

Broadly contemporary with the Poetry Project’s founding were the Sunday afternoon readings hosted by Ted Berrigan at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on Sixth Avenue at Third Street; Joe Brainard, Joseph Ceravolo, Dick Gallup, Gerard Malanga, Ed Sanders, Aram Saroyan, and Anne Waldman read there, among others, and Clark Coolidge gave his first-ever reading there in July ’66.

A snapshot of the relevant poetry landscape in the years immediately prior to the Project’s founding would include the publication in 1960 of Donald M. Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry (with its five groupings of Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, Beat, New York School, and Other), and the Vancouver and Berkeley Poetry Conferences of, respectively, 1963 and 1965.

Ted Berrigan notes in his diary that the first money he ever made from poetry—“about $20.00”—was a result of this 1964 reading at Café Le Metro. Flyer by Joe Brainard. Courtesy Larry Fagin
Ted Berrigan notes in his diary that the first money he ever made from poetry—“about $20.00”—was a result of this 1964 reading at Café Le Metro. Flyer by Joe Brainard. Courtesy Larry Fagin

When the readings at Café Le Metro came to an end in late 1965, the poets—Paul Blackburn, Carol Bergé, Jerome Rothenberg, and Diane Wakoski among them—found themselves temporarily without a home. Various tensions—racial, political—had pulled the Metro series apart; Moe Margules was a Goldwater Republican, and the already strained relations between him and the Umbra poets—a collective of predominantly African American writers living on the Lower East Side, including Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Lenox Raphael, Ishmael Reed, Rolland Snellings (later known as Askia M. Touré), Lorenzo Thomas, and Brenda Walcott—had become outwardly hostile by the fall. Also, the going rate for a cup of coffee in 1965 was a dime, and Margules had instituted an unpopular 25¢ minimum. St. Mark’s Church was only a half-block away, and the church’s rector, the Reverend Michael Allen, was very much a community figure on the Lower East Side. (Realtors had yet to coin the term “east village,” although the bohemian drift east was already underway, having been occasioned by rising rents west of Broadway.) Indeed, Allen had gone so far as to claim artists and writers as his allies, for being among the very few in society who were, as he put it, “doing theology.”

St. Mark’s Church itself had a long history of social activism, and had championed the arts since the 1800s, a commitment that would only intensify in the years 1911–37, under the unorthodox rectorship of the decidedly modernist Dr. William Norman Guthrie. Guthrie was a collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright’s whose enthusiasm for dance (and incorporation of it into his services) did not sit well with all of his parishioners, or with the wider Episcopal Church. For Guthrie, dance—or “eurythmic ritual”—was the earliest art form as well as the most direct language of religion.

The Della Robbia Eurythmic Dance Ritual, c. 1923–32. Courtesy St. Mark’s Church Archives
The Della Robbia Eurythmic Dance Ritual, c. 1923–32. Courtesy St. Mark’s Church Archives

In 1919, Guthrie assembled an Arts Committee comprised entirely of people who lived locally, including Kahlil Gibran, Vachel Lindsay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Martha Graham danced at the church in 1930, as did Ruth St. Denis in 1933, with Guthrie reciting St. Denis’s poems between what the New York Times described as her “exotic religious dances.” (Isadora Duncan almost danced at the church in 1922, but the event was canceled at the last minute—as was a later talk Duncan was scheduled to give—due to the intervention of William T. Manning, the Bishop of New York; the bare feet of certain dancers, it seems, were less acceptable than others.) William Carlos Williams lectured in the Sunday Symposium series in April 1926, and incoming rector in 1943, the Reverend Richard E. McEvoy, introduced a visual arts program. When Reverend Allen arrived in 1959, W. H. Auden was a parishioner (he lived two blocks south on St. Mark’s Place and had a favorite pew at the back of the church) and the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, active nearby in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. (Allen rode the “freedom buses” through the South in the early sixties, and in late 1972—two years after stepping down as rector at St. Mark’s—he visited North Vietnam as part of a peace delegation invited by the Vietnam Committee of Solidarity with the American People to address human rights issues in the area.)

In 1961, Archie Shepp—also a member of Umbra—began organizing free jazz concerts in the church’s West Yard on Sunday afternoons. In July 1963, the Umbra collective held a “Freedom North” arts festival at St. Mark’s, saluting the Freedom Movement and showcasing the work of African American painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, and musicians, including Shepp, Lloyd Addison, Tom Feelings, Al Haynes, Joe Johnson, Charles Patterson, Norman H. Pritchard, Freddie Redd, and Edward Strickland. The first issue of the collective’s magazine, Umbra, had come out in March (edited by Dent, Henderson, and Hernton), one of the first instances of the marriage of aesthetics and militant separatism that would later be associated with the Black Arts Movement.

In 1964, Ralph Cook, a young playwright who had struck up a friendship with Reverend Allen—and who was head waiter at the Village Gate restaurant, where Sam Shepard was working as a busboy—founded the experimental playwrights’ workshop, Theater Genesis, which later became one of the very first off-off-Broadway theaters (along with Caffe Cino, Judson Poets’ Theater, and La MaMa), operating out of St. Mark’s for the entirety of its fourteen-season run, until its closure in 1977 (Cook’s friendship with Reverend Allen led to his becoming Lay Minister for the Arts at St. Mark’s).

In 1965, Allen invited John Brockman—a young businessman with an office uptown, who was attending Theater Genesis events in the evenings—to coordinate screenings of experimental films at the church, a well-attended series that culminated in Brockman organizing the monthlong Expanded Cinema Festival in November ’65 at the Filmmakers’ Cinémathèque, based on an initial idea of Jonas Mekas’s and featuring performances/screenings by Claes Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Carolee Schneemann, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, La Monte Young, and many others. (It is worth noting that Allen issued his invitation to Brockman at a time when the City had banned so-called “underground” films.)

In January 1966, Reverend Allen gave the displaced poets from Café Le Metro a characteristically enthusiastic welcome. A Reading Committee was formed, comprised of Carol Bergé, Paul Blackburn, Allen Planz, Paul Plummer, Jerome Rothenberg, Carol Rubinstein, and Diane Wakoski (George Economou joined later in the year, even if, as we shall see, the committee found itself a largely nominal body by then). It would not be contentious to state that, if it were possible to single out just one person as having particularly nurtured the community and context out of which the Poetry Project grew, then that person would be Paul Blackburn. Blackburn had been organizing and attending readings in New York for a decade, often passing the hat to make sure whoever was reading got paid something, as well as lugging his Wollensak reel-to-reel tape machine to readings to record them, creating a unique and irreplaceable audio archive in the process (Blackburn’s tapes are now housed in the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD). Jerome Rothenberg has called Blackburn the “moving force” of the readings at Le Metro, and Anne Waldman has described him as the Poetry Project’s “subtle father.”

Various poets read at St. Mark’s in the months leading up to the Poetry Project’s official founding: Harold Dicker, Ree Dragonette, Anselm Hollo, David Ignatow, Jackson Mac Low, Frank Murphy, M. C. Richards, and, on April 28, 1966, John Ashbery, who had recently returned from a ten-year sojourn in Paris, and was introduced by Ted Berrigan.

The task Reverend Allen had set himself was to provide an institutional framework in which both arts and community projects could flourish; he knew funding was necessary if the church’s arts programs were to survive. A month or so after Ashbery’s reading, Reverend Allen received a phone call: Harry Silverstein, a professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research, wanted to know if St. Mark’s could use $90,000.

The improbable story of how the incipient arts programs at St. Mark’s would come to receive a two-year grant of a little under $200,000 from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration is related in Bob Holman’s much-quoted (if still-unpublished) “History of The Poetry Project,” which contains transcripts of the oral testimonies of thirty-five people Holman began interviewing in spring 1978, when the Poetry Project’s director at the time, Ron Padgett, was able to hire Holman thanks to funds from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a federally funded reeducation program. The basic facts are outlined in Daniel Kane’s book All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s, and run as follows. In May 1966, the Health, Education and Welfare Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Development found itself with funds earmarked for the socialization of juvenile delinquents—funds that it needed to allocate by the end of the fiscal year, or risk losing entirely. Federal employee Israel Garver called his friend Harry Silverstein to ask if Silverstein had any ideas.

Silverstein’s first call went out to the Judson Memorial Church, which already had a prominent arts program in place, but it turned out that Al Carmines (of the Poets’ Theater) didn’t particularly care for sociologists, and didn’t want them snooping around. And so it came about that the Reverend Allen’s phone rang. Allen couldn’t quite believe it, but Silverstein seemed to be in earnest, and they were soon in discussion with Ralph Cook, Robert Amussen—who was on the Vestry of St. Mark’s and the board of Theater Genesis, and who also happened to be editor-in-chief at Bobbs-Merrill—and several others. One week later, a grant proposal for a multi-arts project with a full schedule of readings, workshops, screenings, and theater performances (as well as a budget for publications) landed on a desk in Washington. Its title: “Creative Arts for Alienated Youth.”

These various strands shook out into three distinct arts projects. Theater Genesis was, of course, already in place at St. Mark’s, and the poets, as we know, chose the name Poetry Project (the Olsonian echo was intentional). The third project, the Film Project, proved to be the shortest-lived (under the aegis of St. Mark’s and the New School, at least), due in part to the high cost of rental equipment, the frequency with which this equipment was stolen, and the 16mm equivalent of “musical differences” between its co-runners, Ken Jacobs and Stanton Kaye. Before it fell apart, the Film Project and its equipment were housed in the old Second Avenue Courthouse building (where Anthology Film Archives is now), which St. Mark’s had leased from the City for $100 a year. This was also where the Poetry Project held its first workshops, and where the Project’s first secretary, Anne Waldman, had a satellite office (Lewis Warsh had a desk and phone there, too: he took reservations for Theater Genesis). Jacobs left St. Mark’s after a year, and took the Film Project off in his own direction—as the Millennium Film Workshop—soon after that; the workshop is still running on East Fourth Street today. St. Mark’s held on to the Old Courthouse lease for a number of years, sponsoring Peter Schumann and his Bread & Puppet Theater’s activities there, and giving up the lease when Schumann decided to move on.

The idea, then, was a simple one: the arts projects would run, “youth” would hopefully gravitate toward them (and away from the streets), and the sociologists—Silverstein and his colleague Bernard Rosenberg—would observe and take notes. To quote Michael Allen (from his 1978 interview with Holman): “We were not out to reform kids. It was our commitment that people find their own identities. What we were after was the opposite of juvenile delinquency: a serious, meaningful, committed community.” As it turned out, the New School’s involvement only lasted for a year (it was bureaucratically slow, administratively inefficient), although Silverstein eventually published his report in 1971.

The grant allowed for three salaried positions for the poets, and the Project’s first office staff was Joel Oppenheimer (director), Joel Sloman (assistant), and Anne Waldman (secretarial assistant). Waldman, a native New Yorker, had attended John Brockman’s film screenings at the church, and performed in one of Ralph Cook’s Theater Genesis productions, while on study leave from Bennington College the previous year. The first official reading at St. Mark’s under the Poetry Project’s freshly minted auspices was, fittingly, a solo reading by Paul Blackburn on Thursday, September 22, 1966. When it became apparent that some audience members were unable to get fully behind the idea of readings on Tuesday and Thursday nights (there was also a clash with a series at the Guggenheim on Thursdays), the Project adopted a format that was well known from Café Le Metro days: open readings on Mondays and featured readers on Wednesdays. The first Wednesday-night reader was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who read to an audience of 1,200 (with 500 turned away at the door) on October 19. The Reading Committee that had been formed at the start of the year gradually melted away.

The HEW grant included funds earmarked for workshops and a journal to be published three times a year. Sam Abrams, Ted Berrigan, Joel Oppenheimer, and Joel Sloman taught the first workshops; the journal didn’t quite turn out as planned. A professionally printed, perfect-bound journal, edited by Oppenheimer and titled The Genre of Silence, proved to be a one-off (its title was a reference to the muzzling of Isaac Babel’s authorial voice by Joseph Stalin, a clear if clunky sign that the Poetry Project felt somewhat conflicted about the source of its funds, as well as related expectations as to what the journal should be).

The Project and its community found its needs better met by a proposal of Joel Sloman’s: the quicker and cheaper publication of an in-house mimeographed magazine. The first issue of The World was edited by Sloman and appeared in January 1967, some months before the already assembled Genre of Silence, publication of which had been variously held up. Dan Clark provided the cover art, and the issue contained work by Ted Berrigan, Jim Brodey, Michael Brownstein, Marilyn Hacker, John Perreault, Carol Rubinstein, and Michael Stephens, among others.

Poetry Project flyer, 1967. Courtesy Larry Fagin
Poetry Project flyer, 1967. Courtesy Larry Fagin

Lest it be thought that The World was simply another little magazine flopping into an already glutted market, Anne Waldman has pointed out that The World filled a very real gap at the time, arriving as it did when some of the most vital little magazines from earlier in the decade had either ceased publication or were in the process of winding down. The thirteenth and final issues of Ed Sanders’s Fuck You / a magazine of the arts and Ted Berrigan’s “C” Magazine had appeared in June ’65 and May ’66, respectively, and The Floating Bear only appeared irregularly between 1964 and its final issue in 1971, this after coeditors Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones had cranked out an impressive twenty-five issues in 1961–62.

The World would go on to enjoy an extraordinarily long lifespan for a little magazine, with its last issue, #58, appearing in fall 2002, almost thirty-six years after the first. (It was not, however, published continuously through these years: after being put on hiatus in 1983, it was revived in 1992 by the Project’s then director, Ed Friedman, under the auspices of an editing and publishing workshop led by Lewis Warsh.) The World appeared almost monthly in its early years: there was a good chance that, if you heard a poem you particularly liked at a Poetry Project reading, you would find it in the magazine a few weeks later. Notable issues from a consistently strong run include the “Special Translations Issue” (#27, April ’73), guest-edited by Ron Padgett and with a cover by Rory McEwen, and two sprawling, information-packed issues of reviews, interviews, and commentary (#29, April ’74 and #30, July ’76) edited by Waldman, with covers by Philip Guston and Larry Rivers, respectively. (The World remained a stapled/collated affair until issue #45 [1992], with all subsequent issues published as perfect-bound journals.)

The nine-hole Gestetner mimeograph machine that the Poetry Project acquired in 1967 would be put to good use by a great many poet-editors and poet-publishers over the years. Scratching only the very surface, we find: Joanne Brahinsky (12th Street Rag), Susan Cataldo (Little Light), Larry Fagin (Adventures in Poetry and Un Poco Loco), Greg Masters, Gary Lenhart, and Michael Scholnick (Mag City), Maureen Owen (Telephone), Carter Ratcliff (three one-shot magazines: Reindeer, Seaplane, and Cicada), Harris Schiff (The Harris Review), Simon Schuchat (The 432 Review and Caveman), Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh (Angel Hair), and Tom Weigel (Tangerine). (Note: Angel Hair predates the Project, having been founded in the backseat of a car—en route to New York from Bennington—in 1965.)

Adventures in Poetry #1, March 1968. Cover by Ron Padgett. Courtesy Miles Champion
Adventures in Poetry #1, March 1968. Cover by Ron Padgett.

Joel Sloman left the Project at the end of its first year, and Anne Waldman became Oppenheimer’s assistant. She officially took over as director the following year—a position she held until 1978—although, as assistant director in the Project’s second year, she was in charge in all but name. With the premature curtailment of the New School’s administrative role, Reverend Allen needed to put something—or someone—else in place, fast. Enter administrator extraordinaire, Stephen Facey, whose vision and zeal over a good many years ensured that St. Mark’s remained far more than just a church. Hired initially to oversee the arts projects for St. Mark’s, Facey took on the church’s books as well, playing a central role not only in the arts projects’ search for alternative sources of funding after the HEW grant ran out, but also in the radically forward-thinking approach to community building, landmark preservation, and incorporation of the arts into a landmark site that St. Mark’s would shortly take (the church had been designated a New York City Landmark on April 19, 1966—only the ninth such landmark to be designated).

At this time, the church building was being vandalized and/or robbed more-or-less weekly by local gangs, and the historic burial sites had suffered years of neglect, with no funding or maintenance for one hundred years. But, at the same time, the St. Mark’s site was increasingly being used as a meeting place and play space by informal daycare groups: the grounds were fenced off, and could function as a sort of park, even if conditions inside were dangerous. These related situations provided the impetus for the creation of a summer and after-school youth employment program—the Preservation Youth Project—that proved to be a pioneering project in urban neighborhood preservation. Led by Facey, the Youth Project’s initial task was to reclaim the neglected graveyards as community parks.

Louis Fragosa, Anthony Rodriguez and Carlos Garcia of the Preservation Youth Project, ca. mid-1970s. Courtesy Stephen Facey
Louis Fragosa, Anthony Rodriguez, and Carlos Garcia of the Preservation Youth Project, ca. mid-1970s. Courtesy Stephen Facey

Controversially, and despite the protests of Mayor Lindsay and the Police Commissioner, the Preservation Youth Project’s first employees were the four young people who had most recently been arrested for robbing the church, and who now found themselves tasked by St. Mark’s to restore the East Yard. The Youth Project crew was trained and supervised by professionals; the East Yard restoration took the crew one year.

And so we move toward the end of an eventful decade. Anne Waldman is director of the Poetry Project, as well as editor of The World. There have been some very long nights at the Project’s “other office,” 33 St. Mark’s Place, home of Waldman and Lewis Warsh. Waldman, Warsh, Ted Berrigan, and Dick Gallup had been the first to hang out together regularly; they were soon joined by Jim Brodey, Michael Brownstein, and Lee Crabtree, and then, seemingly, everyone else showed up, to listen to an acetate of the first Velvet Underground LP. As Warsh has said of this time, “I only kept a journal five days. That was all it needed.” In 1968, Ted Berrigan left New York to teach at the University of Iowa. The Preservation Youth Project moved on to the West Yard, which kept it busy for the next seven years, with restoration work finally being completed in 1975, just as parts of the church steeple were beginning to fall into the street. In 1969, Waldman edited the first anthology of Poetry Project–related writing, The World Anthology: Poems from the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, published by Bobbs-Merrill.

The late sixties was a transitional time for both the Poetry Project and St. Mark’s: the transfer of directorial duties from Oppenheimer to Waldman had been gradual, and in October 1969 Reverend Allen announced his intention to leave St. Mark’s the following year. His assistant, David Garcia (who had been hired at the same time as Facey), became priest-in-charge and then rector. After Allen’s departure, both Stephen Facey and Larry Fagin—who had arrived at the Project in 1969 to work as Waldman’s assistant—were active as administrators and organizers. Facey had already rewritten the budget for the arts projects, and, in the years to come, funding was provided by the Noble Foundation (the Life Savers® people), the Kaplan Fund, the then-fledging State Council for the Arts, and the NEA, among others, as well as individual and private contributions. There was a sense of the Project’s becoming smaller, but also more focused. A lot of folks—Bill Berkson, Jim Carroll, Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, Aram Saroyan, Lewis Warsh—had split for Bolinas.

1970 flyer by George Schneeman. Courtesy Miles Champion
1970 flyer by George Schneeman.

In 1971, a second anthology of writings from the Project appeared, Another World, again edited by Waldman and published by Bobbs-Merrill. Also that year, Bernadette Mayer began teaching her experimental poetry workshops at the Project, workshops that have become renowned for the variety of textual approaches deployed, and for their emphasis on nonliterary (or not primarily literary) texts—such one-of-a-kind, genre-less books as A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist and Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. Mayer’s workshops ran every year until 1974, and then intermittently for the rest of the decade; among those who attended them or sat in on some of the more open/informal writing sessions that were appended to them: Kathy Acker, Barbara Baracks, Regina Beck, Charles Bernstein, Paul Brown, Charlotte Carter, Joseph Ceravolo, Ed Friedman, John Giorno, Suzanne Kaufman, Mike Mandel, Nick Piombino, Lynn Schneider, Peter Seaton, Peter Stamos, Terry Swanson, and Anne Waldman. In 1972–73, Mayer and Friedman edited three issues of a magazine—or “collaborative writing experiment”—called Unnatural Acts. The first issue was entirely written by workshop participants, the second by an invited group of writers (no “authors” were credited in either case); a third issue—consisting of postcards, including work by visual artists—was partially assembled, not issued, then later published—in more conventional form—as Unnatural Acts #5. A related publication, Workshop, edited by Piombino and Stamos, consisted of work written in Mayer’s 1973 workshop (Workshop is Unnatural Acts #4).

Mayer’s workshops weren’t the only ones to give rise to their own publications, of course. As always, to mention some is only to ignore others, but a partial list of magazines that had their origins in Poetry Project workshops would include: 8:30 (which came out of Lewis Warsh’s 1973 workshop), Ain’t They All Poems? (Bob Rosenthal’s 1979 workshop for children ages eight through thirteen), Grand Union (Neil Hackman’s 1979 poetry and meditation workshop), Life (Tom Veitch’s 1970 prose workshop), and New York Times (not a workshop publication as such, although editors Allan Appel and Paul Violi met in Tony Towle’s 1970 workshop, and began their Swollen Magpie imprint soon after, going on to publish four issues of the Times between 1970 and 1973).

Nor were workshop publications restricted to magazines. All twelve participants in Alice Notley’s 1986 workshop devoted to the long poem (or poem series) published a book through Unimproved Editions Press, the press they created for this purpose (Notley published her own Parts of a Wedding through Unimproved Editions, as well as Steve Carey’s 20 Poems).

1971 flyer by John Ashbery. Courtesy Larry Fagin
1971 flyer by John Ashbery. Courtesy Larry Fagin

Mayer has suggested that the great interest in her workshops was partly due to the fact that poets were “starved” for other information, and that it was out of this situation that the Poetry Project’s first lecture series was born, with the lectures supplementing Mayer’s regular workshops. As Mayer put it to Bob Holman in 1978, “It was a dream, that all the disciplines could enter into a dialog.” Among those who came to speak on Tuesday nights in the unheated vestibule of St. Mark’s: Michael Harner (professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research), Harold A. Rothbart (author of Cybernetic Creativity and dean emeritus of the College of Science and Engineering at Fairleigh Dickinson University), Dr. David L. Rubinfine (Mayer’s psychoanalyst [he contributed an Introduction to her second published book, Memory], who had been ostracized by the New York psychoanalytic establishment for divorcing his wife—who later committed suicide—and marrying one of his patients, the actress and film director Elaine May, in 1964), Martin Tamny (deputy chairman of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY), Montague Ullman (president of the Parapsychological Association and founder of the Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn), and Galen Williams (founder and director of Poets & Writers). Other writers and artists were sprinkled into the mix: Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, David Antin (whose talk was transcribed and published as “a more private place” in his 1976 collection, talking at the boundaries), John Giorno, Jackson Mac Low, Peter Schjeldahl (who lectured on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land), Alan Sondheim, Lorenzo Thomas (a lecture on Chomsky), and Hannah Weiner.

In 1972, Gordon Matta-Clark led a procession of artists, dancers, and poets—many of whom were associated with 112 Greene Street, the artists’ “raw space” run by Jeffrey Lew—from the West Village to St. Mark’s, where he planted a rosebush just inside the church gates, later enclosing it in a metal grid cage sculpture (“The Rosebush”). Matta-Clark also planned a six-story sculpture of similar grid design for Abe Lebewohl Park, as well as floating orchards on the Hudson River that would, among other things, serve to block the passage of military ships. (Who got there first, Matta-Clark or Robert Smithson?)

Gordon Matta-Clark, Islands Parked on the Hudson, 1970–71. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery
Gordon Matta-Clark, Islands Parked on the Hudson, 1970–71. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery

Around this time, both the Black Panthers and the Young Lords were using the basement of the Rectory at 232 East 11th Street as a “communications center,” and it wasn’t unusual to encounter FBI agents—men in suits pretending to be “from the phone company”—poking around St. Mark’s. Two of these phone company workers asked the Olitskis next door if they could perform some “routine maintenance” in the Olitskis’ basement; the Olitskis refused.

The Project had been in the habit of producing weekly flyers to announce its events since the 1969–70 season, but by late 1972, Ron Padgett, for one, was lamenting the loss of much of the earlier social fabric, and feeling that there was no mechanism with which to deal with certain issues. He proposed a newsletter to Waldman, and Waldman suggested he start one—The Poetry Project Newsletter, the first issue of which was mailed out to 400 people on December 1, 1972. The Newsletter consisted of two pages stapled at top left, their contents typed by Padgett with copies run off on the Gestetner: a mix of practical information, magazine and book recommendations, and gossip. The Newsletter went out on the first of each month, with Bill McKay taking over editorial duties in fall 1973, and Regina Beck doing much of the typing. A first grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines arrived in 1974.

Joel Oppenheimer once referred to the open readings on Monday nights as “the cross we have to bear.” They were run on a rotating basis in the Project’s early years, by Jim Carroll, Bill McKay, Jayne Nodland, and Harris Schiff, among others, as well as a student that Ted Berrigan brought back with him from Iowa, Henry Pritchard (who, according to Holman’s oral history, “really did not work out.”). In spring 1973, Ed Friedman was living in a loft at 28 Greene Street with Robert Stearns and Jim Burton, who were hosting concerts there under the rubric of Acme Productions, and who allowed Friedman to host readings amid the music events. That summer, 28 Greene became the temporary home for the Kitchen after the building that housed the Mercer Arts Center collapsed. The intermixed concerts and readings gave Friedman an idea. He and Mayer had been pushing for something more experimental at the Project, and, with Mayer’s support, Friedman approached Waldman with a proposal for Monday nights: one open reading per month, with the three/four other nights devoted to fifteen-minute readings/performances by three, four, or five people—more performance oriented, but with text as a component. Also built into the Monday night “concept” was the idea that Mondays would in large part be given over to younger and/or less established poets and performers—a distinction that would be informally upheld for the next thirty years. Waldman agreed, and the Monday Night Reading/Performance Series began on October 8, 1973, with Bob Kushner, Ann Powell, Rose Schact, and Peter Stamos. Friedman coordinated the series for the next five years, handing it over to Bob Holman in 1978. (Holman handed it on to Bob Rosenthal and Rochelle Kraut, who handed it on to Chris Kraus, who [etc.].)

Allen Ginsberg reads in the Sanctuary, ca. 1976 (Maureen Owen sits on the steps to his right). Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund
Allen Ginsberg reads in the Sanctuary, ca. 1976 (Maureen Owen sits on the steps to his right). Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund

One thing the Poetry Project has always done with style—from its earliest days, in fact, under Waldman’s directorship—is to organize giant group readings. By far the best known of these is the Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading, which also functions as a valuable fundraiser, with all funds raised being used to help underwrite the Project’s ongoing programs. The New Year’s Day Reading started out as a fairly modest affair on January 2, 1974. A full-ish list of the day’s reader-performers (please be in touch if you know different!): Helen Adam, David Amram, Regina Beck, Rebecca Brown, Michael Brownstein, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Gregory Corso, Larry Fagin, Ralston Farina & Friends, Ed Friedman, Allen Ginsberg, Ted Greenwald, Byrd Hoffman, Phillip Lopate, Jackson Mac Low, Jamie MacInnis, Bernadette Mayer, Taylor Mead, Joel Oppenheimer, Peter Orlovsky, Maureen Owen, Nick Piombino, David Rosenberg, Bob Rosenthal, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Johnny Stanton & The Siamese Banana Gang, Tony Towle, Paul Violi, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Joe White, and Rebecca Wright. In recent years, the Marathon has regularly featured readings and performances by 150 or more artists, dancers, musicians, and writers; it remains a much-loved and extraordinarily well-attended event.

Toward the end of 1974, a group of dancers calling themselves the Natural History of the American Dancer—Carmen Beuchat, Barbara Dilley, Suzanne Harris, Cynthia Hedstrom, Rachel Lew, and Judy Padow—approached Larry Fagin (then assistant director of the Project) about the possibility of performing in the Sanctuary. Fagin was enthusiastic: he had been a keen dance-watcher for years (shuttling between New York City’s three nodal points of Balanchine, Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater) and was one of many to credit Edwin Denby with having taught him how to look and see, and for allowing him to make connections between uptown ballet and downtown dance.

Carmen Beuchat of The Natural History of the American Dancer, 1974. The wooden cross at the Sanctuary’s north end was made out of beams from nearby burned-out tenements—a replacement for the church’s silver cross, which had been stolen (the wooden cross, along with the remaining pews, would be removed in the 1976 upgrade/renovation). Courtesy Danspace Project
Carmen Beuchat of the Natural History of the American Dancer, 1974. The wooden cross at the Sanctuary’s north end was made out of beams from nearby burned-out tenements—a replacement for the church’s silver cross, which had been stolen (the wooden cross, along with the remaining pews, was removed in the 1976 upgrade/renovation). Courtesy Danspace Project

Fagin and Dilley founded Danspace Project early the following year; the brief, as Fagin saw it, was to provide a performance space for those dancers from the Judson who were still working in New York, such as David Gordon, along with a new generation of innovative choreographer-performers: Frank Conversano, Pooh Kaye, Dana Reitz. Over thirty-five years later, Danspace continues to program new dance at the church (and elsewhere) as well as provide support for a diverse range of choreographers (Fagin stayed on as artistic director until 1980).

And so, the mid-seventies. Enter Maureen Owen and Rochelle Kraut. Waldman had competing claims on her attention (among other things, her ongoing work at the Poetry Project had inspired her to cofound—with Ginsberg—the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute); Fagin was scheduling wonderful readings but occasionally neglecting to tell the wonderful poets they had been invited to read; incoming editor Ted Greenwald tucked a few more pages under the Newsletter’s solitary staple.

In 1975, the Preservation Youth Project began a full-time training program (with a library and free health clinic), thanks to a startup grant from the NEA’s short-lived (one year only) City Spirit program.

“That nice young man just painted my sweater!” Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund
“That nice young man just painted my sweater!” Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund

The Youth Project now provided year-round employment for twenty-five local people—“dropouts”—between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, and the Friends of St. Mark’s was formed to support the full-time work and training schedule (the Friends included Dore Ashton, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Mead, LuEsther Mertz, Meredith Monk, and Lewis Mumford). On April 30, the church held a “Day of Celebration” to commemorate the reopening of the West Yard, with a noon performance by Meredith Monk (presented by Theater Genesis) and, in the evening, a reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (suggested contribution $2). In the afternoon, the West Yard was blessed by the Bishop of New York, the Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr. (father of poet Honor Moore), and trees were planted in memory of W. H. Auden, Frank O’Hara, and Paul Blackburn.

4/30/75. From left to right: Paul Moore, Jr., an unknown junior, Anne Waldman, David Garcia and Stephen Facey. Courtesy The Poetry Project
4/30/75. From left to right: Paul Moore, Jr., an unknown junior, Anne Waldman, David Garcia, and Stephen Facey. Courtesy the Poetry Project

An overall paint-up/fix-up along with restoration of the steeple (there had been talk of simply pulling it down) and an across-the-board upgrade for the arts projects began in earnest. At this point in time, half the original number of pews remained in the Sanctuary, the other half having been removed by the congregation in 1968 to enable worshipping in the round (their removal also signaling the exit of disgruntled parishioner Wystan Hugh Auden). The performers brought in by Danspace had to dance on linoleum laid in front of the remaining pews. Standing in the Sanctuary one day, Fagin remarked to Facey that it was a wonderful space for dance, with its fifty-foot-high vaulted ceiling. Facey immediately suggested pulling up the remaining pews, laying a hardwood floor, and turning it into a proper dance space. This work, too, was carried out by the Preservation Youth Project—in 1976—with, incidentally, full approval of the Bishop of New York. As Fagin put it, “I could sense the enormous verticality affecting the dancers’ brains, pulling them upward.”

By 1977, Waldman had been splitting her time between Boulder and New York for three years, with Fagin, Maureen Owen, and others overseeing the running of the Project in her absence. When she finally decided to leave New York, she created an Advisory Board to help keep the Project running day-to-day, and to ease the transition for Ron Padgett, who took over as artistic director in January 1978, with Owen already in place as program coordinator. Paul Violi served as interim director for the last three months before Padgett’s arrival (from South Carolina, where he had been working as a writer in the community).

The first new clock face goes up, summer 1976. Current and longtime Sexton at St. Mark’s, Jimmy Fragosa, is center-front. Courtesy Stephen Facey
The first new clock face goes up, summer 1976. Current and longtime sexton at St. Mark’s, Jimmy Fragosa, is center front. Courtesy Stephen Facey

The Poetry Project was now approaching its twelfth birthday and clearly wasn’t going to disappear overnight. Also, it had grown in prestige—locally, nationally, and, to some extent, internationally—and its immediate community had grown with it. While Waldman remained a devoted director, she was away for longer and longer stretches, and things didn’t always run smoothly in her absence. Some in the community were looking for a greater degree of transparency and accountability from the Project. Ed Friedman proposed Community Meetings, which he organized and led. From these came the suggestion that the Project draw up bylaws, which were written by Padgett and Owen in consultation with the board, and then presented for discussion at the meetings.

Funds from the CETA Artists Project allowed Padgett to hire Gary Lenhart as well as Bob Holman. Also, Padgett and Owen set up a Friends Committee to oversee fundraising (the Project was running a $35,000 program at this point, and the previous year, one NYSCA check that had been expected in October finally arrived the following May). Anne Waldman’s extraordinary energy had been the Poetry Project’s principal fuel for ten years; it was clear to Padgett and Owen that they needed to create a structure to help the Project survive, regardless of who was running it. The bylaws, Advisory Board, and Friends Committee were part of the process of the Poetry Project’s becoming an independent entity. For Padgett, these first steps toward institutionalization were an attempt to help the Project grow up, to ensure it had a future. Certain programming decisions would be occasioned by the need to obtain GRANTS. Meanwhile, the Preservation Youth Project had become a full-time concern for Stephen Facey, and in spring 1978 he recruited Linda Francis to assist him as parish administrator.

Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund
Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund

With the steeple repaired and the bulk of the $500,000 upgrade and restoration work completed, the church was nearly destroyed by fire on July 27, 1978. The fire—a three-alarm blaze that began around 1:30 p.m.—was apparently caused by a professional restoration worker’s acetylene torch. The steeple remained intact but was badly damaged, the organ was destroyed (Louise Nevelson removed parts of it and incorporated them into her sculptures), and the rear section of the church’s peaked roof—weighed down by heavy slate—fell in, with nine of the twenty-three stained glass windows lost. The Poetry Project office—the West Office, where Danspace is now—was also destroyed, but, luckily, the Project’s tape archive was neither heat- nor water-damaged. The Parish Hall sustained water and smoke damage, and the new hardwood floor in the Sanctuary was completely destroyed by water and falling debris. Ron Padgett was in Vermont when he heard the news, and Anne Waldman was in Boulder, in the middle of Naropa’s summer session. The cost of repair: somewhere over $2 million.

The day after the fire, local residents—including many of the Friends of St. Mark’s—founded the Citizens to Save St. Mark’s to help raise funds for the renewal project. The following year, the St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund was formalized as a 501(c)3 organization, thanks to a $100,000 grant from LuEsther Mertz. As before, everything that could be was constructed on-site, with skilled contractors—masons, carpenters, ornamental plasterers—brought in to train and supervise the Preservation Youth Project crew.

Stephen Facey assesses the damage. Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund
Stephen Facey assesses the damage. Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund

There had been no New Year’s Day Marathon Reading in 1978, due to the ongoing upgrade/restoration work, and the July fire caused the 1979 Marathon to be relocated to the Entermedia Theater on Second Avenue at Twelfth Street. (Now the Village East Cinema, the Entermedia Theater was where the bulk of the Nova Convention in honor of William S. Burroughs was held in 1978; it had been particularly well known in the fifties as the off-Broadway Phoenix Theater.) The Poetry Project was without a proper office (an interim office with makeshift partition walls was set up in the theater space) and the Sanctuary without a roof for the entirety of Padgett’s stint as director. While readings in the Parish Hall were able to continue, it was noisy and dirty, the sound was poor, and every chair and surface needed to be dusted off at the end of the night. It was frustrating, exhausting work. Workshops, at least, continued more-or-less as usual, having been moved across the street to the Third Street Music School.

The Sanctuary in November 1979. Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund
The Sanctuary in November 1979. Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund

In 1980, the Marathon Reading was held in the Town Hall on West Forty-Third Street—a last-minute change of venue as a result of things not working out a second time around with Entermedia’s management. There were some great performances, but the poor attendance was proof that the Project’s audience was primarily a downtown one.

Padgett might well have stayed on as director if the fire hadn’t occurred on his watch; as it was, he decided to make way for Bernadette Mayer, incoming director in 1980. Owen left too, with Bob Holman replacing her as program coordinator. Mayer brought the Marathon Reading back to St. Mark’s in 1981, splitting it over two nights in the Parish Hall, with—not surprisingly—overflow audiences both nights.

Ted Greenwald had passed the Newsletter baton to Frances LeFevre (Anne Waldman’s mother) in 1977; LeFevre passed it to Vicki Hudspith the year after that; and 1980 found Greg Masters at the helm. In 1981, Charles Bernstein and Edmund Leites organized a series of talks on poetry and philosophy under the Writing and Method banner—a precursor, perhaps, to the St. Mark’s Talks series that Bernstein coordinated at the Project in 1984–86.

With the Parish Hall clearly too small, Mayer moved the 1982 Marathon Reading to the auditorium of the Ukrainian National Home at 140 Second Avenue. The Project made occasional use of the Ukrainian Home—some parts of Ron Mann’s film, Poetry in Motion, were filmed there—until the Sanctuary eventually reopened on Easter Sunday, 1982. Work on the steeple was also finished, and four new bells—A, G, F, and C—were mounted in the tower, each separately inscribed as follows: “FOR THE ARTISTS WHO WORK HERE,” “FOR THE WORKERS WHO REBUILT THIS CHURCH,” “FOR THE PEOPLE OF THIS COMMUNITY,” and “FOR PEACE ON EARTH, THESE BELLS RING.” It took another five years to finish restoring the theater space, and to raise the necessary funds for fabricating and installing memorial windows on the second floor (all but one of which had been blown out by the Fire Department to ventilate the building).

Harold Edelman design for Rose Window in the second-floor chapel. Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund
Harold Edelman design for Rose Window in the second-floor chapel. Courtesy St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund

In 1983, Lorna Smedman donned the green eyeshades and metal armbands of the Newsletter editor. The following year, the Poetry Project incorporated—for financial reasons—to become the Poetry Project, Ltd. Its Certificate of Incorporation is dated July 2, and the Officers are Bob Holman, Gary Lenhart, and Maureen Owen. The Project’s Advisory Board was dissolved and reconstituted as a Board of Directors, with relations between the Project and its board becoming clearer (Project staff could no longer be voting members of the board, and vice versa). Other board members at this time: Barbara Barg, Jessica Hagedorn, Steve Levine, Michael Scholnick, and Jeff Wright.

Mayer vacated the hot seat in summer 1984. For the next two and a half years, Eileen Myles would serve as the Poetry Project’s artistic director. Patricia Spears Jones was program coordinator, and Linda Francis took on the full-time position of administrator at St. Mark’s, allowing Stephen Facey to leave for St. Luke in the Fields, to direct the post-fire restoration work there.

In 1985, Elinor Nauen began coordinating her Saturday Night Play-Reading Series. The series had its origins in the Poets Theater Festivals organized by Bob Holman in the seventies, as well as the Project’s 1979 production of “Joan of Arc: a spiritual entertainment,” which was co-written by Myles, Nauen, and Barbara McKay, and featured a seven-year-old Anselm Berrigan, who attended rehearsals—he had one line, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”—on the strict understanding that someone would buy him candy on the way home afterwards. Nauen’s series ran for four years, and featured staged readings of plays by Jon Kaplan, Dennis Moritz, Bob Rosenthal, and Johnny Stanton, among others. Nauen only ever turned down one play; its author, undeterred—perhaps even vindicated—went on to win a Pulitzer.

Tim Dlugos was Newsletter editor in 1984–85, James Ruggia in 1985–86. Also in 1985, a grant from Apple brought the Poetry Project office its first computer, thought by some to actually be the first computer. In 1986, the Project attained 501(c)3 nonprofit status, and in January 1987, it was Ed Friedman’s turn to approach the director’s chair. He would guide the Project into the next millennium.

Skyscrapers in-the-Bouwerie (and you thought NYU got there first!). Courtesy The Poetry Project
Skyscrapers in-the-Bouwerie (and you thought NYU got there first!). Courtesy the Poetry Project

The further computerization of the Poetry Project office was an ongoing concern, and, although the Project was a fairly independent entity at this point, it remained somewhat under the benign governance of St. Mark’s, with Linda Francis assisting Friedman with grant applications, budgets, and general admin. Francis also endeavored to keep the rents for the three arts projects scaled to their actual income; there was still a sense of collaborative cooperation.

Friedman had inherited nascent plans for a “20th Year Symposium,” which was intended to be a celebration-cum-fundraiser (the Project was facing a $20,000 deficit). The symposium—in May ’87—was successful on both fronts: it featured readings by many of the influential figures from the Project’s first twenty years and brought in a paying audience as well as some sizable grants and donations. A Jasper Johns alphabet painting was the publicity image for the symposium; for the “Poetry of Everyday Life” symposium the following year, a Roy Lichtenstein image was used, and Brooke Alexander Gallery began issuing limited-edition silkscreen prints to benefit the Project. The symposiums would become more-or-less annual events for the next ten years, organized by Friedman and the Project staff—Lee Ann Brown, Kimberly Lyons, and others—in consultation with Ted Greenwald, Erica Hunt, Ann Lauterbach, Gary Lenhart, Charles North, Ron Padgett, Bob Rosenthal, and Lorenzo Thomas.

Courtesy Gillian McCain
Courtesy Gillian McCain

A memorial for Joseph Ceravolo was held at the church in 1988, and the Poetry Project organized an increasing number of memorials in the years to come. Among those whose lives and works have been celebrated at St. Mark’s: Paul Blackburn, Joe Brainard, Jim Brodey, Jim Carroll, Robert Creeley, Tim Dlugos, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Bob Kaufman, Kenneth Koch, Steve Lacy, Denise Levertov, Jackson Mac Low, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, Charles Reznikoff, Leslie Scalapino, Carl Solomon, Paul Violi, Hannah Weiner, and John Wieners.

In 1991, a third volume of Project-related writings appeared, Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, 1966–91, again edited—with an introduction—by Waldman, and with a foreword by Ginsberg. The publisher, this time around, was Crown.

Two of Friedman’s ongoing concerns as artistic director were 1) how to increase the number of ways that poets could participate in Project programming, and 2) how to expand the range of audiences that might attend events. By 1991, it seemed there was room for another weekly series at St. Mark’s, and the following year, when Friedman interviewed Gillian McCain for the program coordinator position, he suggested she host a Friday Late-Night Series, with the idea that Fridays shouldn’t duplicate Monday and Wednesday programming, but be more oriented toward group events, talks, thematic readings, etc. McCain ran the Friday Late-Night Series (which still continues) for three years before handing coordinating duties over to Wanda Phipps. Some snapshots from it: Mayakovsky’s American daughter and only child, Patricia Thompson (Yelena Vladimirovna Mayakovskaya), attending a reading of her father’s poems (Thompson, a professor at Lehman College, had only recently revealed her lineage); ten people turning up for a talk by D. A. Pennebaker; Larry Clark’s talk being mobbed by hundreds of kids, and Clark insisting on being paid in cash.

Lester Bangs
Courtesy Gillian McCain

Also in 1992, St. Mark’s was attempting to rent out its newly renovated theater space. When Friedman learned of this, he called Richard Foreman to ask if he was interested. Foreman was, and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater—founded by Foreman in 1968—moved into the church, completing anew the triumvirate of residential arts projects at St. Mark’s. (Ontological left St. Mark’s at the end of its 2009–10 season, allowing the Incubator Arts Project—which grew out of Ontological’s own INCUBATOR! program, dedicated to providing resources and support to young/emerging theater artists—to operate year-round.)

Also that year, Friedman, McCain, and Phipps were joined in the office by intern Jo Ann Wasserman, who created a readings database and began archiving the recordings of Project readings from 1980 through 1992, building on earlier cataloging work by Bob Holman and tape archivist Harvey Lillywhite. Wasserman took over as program coordinator upon McCain’s departure in 1994, staying at the Project until 1998.

During the 1990s, Steve Clay (of Granary Books) and others were having success selling the literary archives of poets connected to the Poetry Project. In 1998, Clay and Rodney Phillips curated A Secret Location on the Lower East Side (an exhibition of mimeographed and small press publications from the 1960–80 period) at the New York Public Library. There had long been concern about the shelf life of some of the tapes in the Project’s archives, and the Project’s storage space in the basement of St. Mark’s was all but used up. Ginsberg had died; the century was almost over. There were traces of Historical Significance in the air.

In 1999, the Poetry Project set about inventorying and organizing the entirety of its archives. Much of the initial work was done by Anselm Berrigan, now twenty years older than when we encountered him last, and working as the Project’s program assistant. Did the Project actually possess recordings of every event that was logged in its readings database? What tapes were missing? A NYSCA grant allowed Friedman to hire archive specialist Elaina Ganim, who created a similar database for the Project’s paper archives. Friedman approached the board with the idea of selling the Project’s archives, and in 2001 it was agreed that Steve Clay would act as agent. Clay proposed that the Project offer its archives to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on the understanding that the library would restore, preserve, and digitize them, thereby making publicly available—for the first time—one of the two or three most significant and extensive archives of the New American Poetry in existence.

Clay and Wasserman—now publishing assistant at Granary Books—had several meetings with Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress. Dimunation understood the scope of the proposed project, and realized it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore and digitize such a sizable archive. Nevertheless, he was enthusiastic. The sale was agreed in principle in 2003, although it took several more years for a contract to be drawn up and funds secured.

The Newsletter saw many editors during Friedman’s tenure as artistic director: Jessica Hagedorn, Tony Towle, Jerome Sala, Lynn Crawford, Jordan Davis, Gillian McCain, Mitch Highfill, Lisa Jarnot, Brenda Coultas and Eleni Sikelianos, Katy Lederer, Ange Mlinko, and Nada Gordon and Gary Sullivan. Incidentally, only Greg Masters and Tony Towle have managed to pass the two-year mark as Newsletter editor; chalking up more than three years is thought to be irreparably damaging to one’s health.

By summer 2003, Friedman was in sore need of a change of air, having spent more than seventeen years at the Project’s helm, with several years on the Advisory Board—and five years as Monday Night coordinator—before that. It was time for a younger g-g-generation to learn that there’s no business like no business. All hail incoming artistic director, Anselm Berrigan. Among Berrigan’s objectives: to get younger poets more involved with the Project (through publications, readings, and workshops); to get the Project—its office, recording equipment, and website—technologically up-to-speed; and to complete the archive sale. Marcella Durand came aboard as Newsletter editor (she is also to be credited with developing and expanding the Poetry Project’s website in the late 1990s).

In April 2004, Berrigan organized the first of several silent auctions and fundraising parties to benefit the Project. Paintings, prints, collages, uncategorizable collaborative works, and rare books and magazines—even some original manuscripts—were on view in the Sanctuary (the Project’s office was also open for telephone bidding), with readings and performances in the Parish Hall, where refreshments were served. Like the earlier symposiums, the auctions—which were also held in 2006 and 2008—were highly successful fundraisers as well as wonderful celebrations of the various artistic sensibilities championed by the Project.

With the production costs of a perfect-bound journal resting on a slightly higher shelf than the Project was able to reach, Berrigan and his office staff began editing a new, decidedly modest photocopied-and-stapled magazine, The Recluse, the first issue of which crept into the world (or the shadow of The World) in June 2005. Also that year, Durand ceded the Newsletter reins to Brendan Lorber, and Milwaukee’s loss became New York’s gain when Stacy Szymaszek left Woodland Pattern Book Center to work with Berrigan as program coordinator. She succeeded Berrigan as artistic director in fall 2007. During these years, Berrigan and Clay had managed to agree terms with the Library of Congress, and a contract was finally signed—by Berrigan and Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington—on May 2, 2007. On June 30, the last day of Berrigan’s four-year stint as director, a large truck arrived to whisk the Poetry Project’s archives—some one hundred boxes—away to D.C.

Anselm Berrigan signs off on some forty-odd years of literary history (and, no, that’s not a large briefcase full of money). Courtesy Steve Clay
Anselm Berrigan signs off on some forty-odd years of literary history (and no, that isn’t a large briefcase full of money). Courtesy Steve Clay

Everyone who worked at the Project during these years—either on staff or as a volunteer or intern—contributed to the archive preparations, but Corrine Fitzpatrick and Michael Nicoloff were especially involved.

Which brings us, more or less, to now. There are three more Newsletter editors to mention: John Coletti (2007–9), Corina Copp (2009–11), and the present editor, Paul Foster Johnson. And even such a cursory overview as this would be incomplete without mentioning the numerous other people who work at the Project for little or no reward, week in, week out—longtime bookkeeper Stephen Rosenthal, the Project’s interns, volunteers, and box office staff. John Fisk was the Project’s sound technician for over twenty years, right up until his death in late 2004. This unsung but crucial work continues to be done by David Vogen, a technician at the Project since the early 1990s.

The Poetry Project is in rude health, some forty-five-plus years on, a vital forum for the inheritors of the New American Poetry and beyond, through the second generation of the New York School to Language writing, new narrative and lyric, performance, cross-genre and multicultural work, digital poetries, Flarf and the so-called new conceptualism, right up to whatever the plaid-shirted shaggy set are cooking up in Bushwick RIGHT NOW.

Further Reading/Listening

  • Clay, Steven, and Rodney Phillips. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980. New York, The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998.
  • Danspace Project—25 Years. New York, Danspace Project, 1999.
  • Facey, Stephen. “St. Mark’s Preservation Ethic—40 Years of Innovation: Lessons for the Future?” Presented in the Parish Hall as the 2008 St. Mark’s Day Annual Lecture and available as a podcast via the St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund at
  • Kane, Daniel. All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2003.
  • Waldman, Anne, ed. Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, 1966–1991. New York, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Thanks to Ed Friedman for substantial clarification of the Poetry Project timeline in the 1973–2003 period, and to Clark Coolidge for “They had an insane podium.” Thanks also to Charles Bernstein, Anselm Berrigan, Steve Clay, Marcella Durand, Stephen Facey, Larry Fagin, Abby Harris Holmes (Danspace Project), Bernadette Mayer, Felicia Mayro (St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund), Gillian McCain, Elinor Nauen, Charles North, Alice Notley, Maureen Owen, Carter Ratcliff, Tony Towle, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, and Jo Ann Wasserman; and, lastly, to the Poetry Project’s current office staff—Stacy Szymaszek, Arlo Quint, and Nicole Wallace—for their help, patience, and afterhours raids on the database far beyond the call.