Volume 74, Number 35 | January 05 - 11, 2005

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Eric Bogosian read over some of his own material while listening to friends perform.

Readings and art to start the New Year at St. Mark’s

By Jefferson Siegel

On New Year’s Day, while some people were in bars watching football games, home nursing hangovers or watching another “Twilight Zone” marathon, one of the most captivating literary and artistic events of the year was unfolding over the course of the day and night at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in the East Village.

For 31 years, The Poetry Project has presented a marathon reading of works by the famous and obscure, the literary equivalent of Woodstock, except without the mud and the attitude. In more than 12 hours, 160 poets, artists, dancers, musicians and raconteurs presented written and musical compositions to an audience of hundreds.

One of the day’s highlights came in mid-afternoon as composer Philip Glass, a co-founder of the Mabou Mines theater company in the East Village, played a new composition. Within the hour, Maggie Estep, who came to prominence at the Lower East Side’s Nuyorican Poets Café, read one of her recent works.

By late afternoon, as the hall filled up, Tribeca resident and peformance artist Reno provided a jolt of energy for the long night ahead. Her monologue reflected on how bad a year 2004 had been for her, both politically and personally, as she talked of the loss of a dear pet. Her comments on the banality of discourse in Middle America and the unfortunate election results echoed a recurring theme to be heard often throughout the evening. Concluding her presentation, like Father Time welcoming in Baby New Year, she reached down to a pet carrier and pulled out her new dog. As she held the dog over her head like a symbol of hope for the coming year, raucous cheers swept through the audience.

Like a rock concert, the marathon also had a backstage scene, and you didn’t need a pass to get in. A large room at the rear of the church served as a meal stop for the audience, with venue-appropriate fare like vegetarian wraps, hummus and pasta. The room also had tables selling the books and records of various performers.

As audience members ate and mingled with performers, they watched as legendary musician Patti Smith stood by a wall reviewing her notes, while in another corner Steven Taylor of the East Village’s famous band The Fugs tuned up his guitar before taking to the stage.

One fan brought a bagful of old LP records, soliciting autographs from poet John Giorno, who signed a record he collaborated on with William Burroughs. Patti Smith also graciously signed the LP’s of her music. Back outside onstage, Emily XYZ, a noted “two-voice poetry” performer, read from her new work, “The Emily XYZ Songbook.”

By 8 p.m. every seat was taken, the three-level carpeted bleacher seats lining both walls were packed, and standees filled the open space at the back. Unseen by almost all, noted writer and performer Eric Bogosian, a regular at this yearly event, slipped in through a side door and sat on the floor for over two hours listening to his friends and colleagues perform. He took a break at around 9 p.m. to go onstage and read some of his recent work, including a hilarious story involving the potential missteps of doing drugs with an attractive woman he didn’t know.

Regie Cavico was one of the evening’s hits. After reciting a piece to the accompaniment of tiny cymbals, he walked into the audience, asking everyone to call out, at once, their astrological signs. A roar of answers responded. He then approached one person after another, repeating their sign and creating a rhyming love story with people he’d never met. He concluded each piece by offering a small box of Godiva chocolates and, as a symbol of their “relationship,” asked: “Chocolate?”

Saxophonist Elliott Sharp performed “USA out of NYC,” which had the audience clapping and stamping their feet. Fugs guitarist Taylor sang “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya” a cappella. Musician Smith opened by wishing a “Happy New Year to my first-grade teacher, Bill Burkson.” Jonas Mekas, founder of the Anthology Film Archives, read poetry.

As the evening proceeded, two overriding themes were obvious: politics and sex. The marathon could have been an antiwar rally, only with better speeches and no police presence. Filmmaker and director Nick Zedd delivered a detailed and erudite protest of corrupt government. Asking “Who owns the voting machines?” he noted that when Congress voted to allow electronic voting, Republican officials inserted language prohibiting any paper trail. He blamed the major media for ignoring government misdeeds, discounting previously accurate exit polling that showed Kerry winning and not investigating blatant voting irregularities.

As the night progressed, underground film star Taylor Mead, who celebrated his 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve, read a graphic poem to the accompaniment of lush, ’50s-style orchestral movie music from a portable boom box.

Mike Tyler told all he was celebrating the 1991-’92 New Year because back then a Democrat was in office, the cold war was ending and the Riot Grrrls were starting out. He played “I Have Nowhere Left to Put the Pain,” a hauntingly ’60s-style love ballad.

Someone in the crowd said he planned to take out his 2005 calendar, turn to Dec. 31 and mark down: “Tomorrow: 32nd Annual Poetry Project Marathon Reading.”

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