20 Years of Monday Night Poetry at KGB Bar | Part 1

The Monday Night Poetry Series at KGB Bar was founded 20 years ago this month. The reading series shares this milestone with the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School, which marks its 20th year this spring. To celebrate, Creative Writing is featuring a series of interviews and reminiscences from former hosts about their time curating the legendary series. This is the first post in a six-part series.

Monday Night Poetry has always maintained a close connection to The New School. MFA poetry coordinator David Lehman was a co-founder of the series, and all subsequent hosts have been affiliated with The New School MFA Poetry Program either as faculty members or alumni. Join us for a glimpse behind the scenes of this beloved and very New York hot spot for poetry. 
- Laura Cronk, former Monday Night Poetry host, for The New School

Paul Violi and Star Black, the Monday Night Poetry Series co-founder, from The KGB Bar Book of Poems, HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. Photo: David Lehman

Star Black is a New York based poet with a dazzling array of accomplishments. She has published six books of poems, most recently Velleity’s Shade, with paintings by Bill Knott, from Saturnalia Books. She is also a working photographer and collage artist. She teaches “Writing on Location” courses at The New School, bringing students to The Met, MOMA, galleries, and even out into the New York City streets to write from street art.

We are happy to kick off this series with notes from Black on how the Monday Night Poetry Series came to be during the spring of 1997 and what some of her favorite memories are from the Monday nights she spent with David Lehman bringing poets together at the remarkable little East Village bar known as KGB.

Star Black: The poetry world in New York City in the mid-1990s was humming with various energies and schools of thought, creating an Olympic Games logo of interlocking circles. Uptown there was the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center hosted by Grace Schulman and then Karl Kirchwey, hosting guest readers like Ted Hughes, and the Columbia University writing program with Richard Howard and Lucie Brock-Broido. Further north was Sarah Lawrence’s writing program with Tom Lux, Vijay Seshadri and Marie Howe. Language poetry was alive and well on the Upper West Side, where its founders, Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, lived and entertained. Downtown was Saint Mark’s Church with Anne Waldman, Eileen Myles and Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Holman’s The Bowery Poetry Club. And, in the East Village, there was a collective of haphazard poets and artists centered around the boisterous Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe and Steve Cannon’s A Gathering of the Tribes. Steve, whose friends were the artist David Hammons, LeRoi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, and the writer John Farris, was a novelist and playwright and teacher of many years, known as “the blind professor.” Steve couldn’t see, yet he ran a cultural center, a poetry series, a publishing house and an art gallery. He also edited and published Tribes Magazine that showcased emerging visual artists, writers and his friends.

It was at the casual walk-in salons at Steve’s place in the East Village that I befriended Hal Sirowitz whose dead-pan “Mother Said” poems of stark wisdom and comedy would fuel his accent to being named Poet Laureate of Queens and being selected as an early-on performance poet nationally televised on the newly-launched MTV program. It was to hear Hal read his newest poems, along with another early MTV presence, the rock-and-roll poet Maggie Estep, that I first went to the KGB Bar in the late fall of 1996 and met Denis Woychuk., its owner and impresario, who was looking for someone to start a poetry reading series there. I told him I was interested and he said “I don’t know you from Adam. Send me your work.” Between freelance jobs as a photographer, I had completed an MFA in poetry studying with John Ashbery, William Matthews, Douglas Crase, and Joan Larkin at Brooklyn College (“When are you going to graduate?’ John kept asking when I was taking one course a semester for four years.) Searching for solace and stimulation, I wanted to connect with more poets and to actively contribute to the community. I mailed off two of my small-press books, Waterworn and Double Time, to Denis. He called me up a few days later and asked me to start and run a series for him.

When I went down to confer with Denis at the bar, I found myself in the company of a pragmatic idealist. There was to be no money involved in pure art. We were all working for what we loved. Any one could walk in and listen to good poetry. Anyone one running the show and lining up readers was doing good work. I liked what he said. I thought he was right. It did not occur to me that selling liquor could be involved and, if so, it was a minor detail. I loved the beauty of no one being paid for anything. I wanted the series to be just a gathering of poets, listening to one another read. I imagined that this was what was going on with The Beats in the very cool Fifties: a group of buddies reading new poems to each other. No podiums, no auditorium seats, no honorariums. I didn’t want readings to be limited to a single school of thought or practice, especially in a city where there were as many practices of poetry as there were poets.

With David joining me as co-director it was like giving Denis’ bartenders an instant influx of hundreds of customers and, pretty soon, the series was bopping with not only immediate friends but a steady stream of those from uptown, downtown, or out of town but passing through, who enjoyed writing and listening to poetry. Everybody from everywhere, it seemed, was willing to read new poems to fellow poets because the atmosphere was enjoyable, informal, and pressure-free. People came from New England: Frank Bidart and Bill Knott; from Europe: Harry Mathews, Alice Notley and Tomaz Salamun; from Australia: John Tranter who founded the innovative on-line Jacket magazine. Older hidden-away poets who rarely gave readings in New York, like Russell Edson, a master of the prose poem, expressed interest. Many mesmerizing readings from our earliest seasons were those given by poets of wildly various styles: Lucy Grealy, Tom Disch, Agha Shahid Ali. Tables filled up quickly and the readings were often delayed as standing-room-only, last-minute arrivals of all ages shuffled into place. The red-walled camaraderie on Monday nights in the East Village, combined with the pleasure of listening, plus imbibing and schmoozing during breaks, really caught on, and for six years, we had the pleasure of running a series that drew an ever-interesting, fluctuating crowd. My dream of readings given by all poets in the greater New York area and beyond who had not yet had the chance to share their new work with fellow poets at Denis’ bar, was on the move.

Coming up next for the KGB Monday Night Poetry Series:
Hosted by Matthew Yeager & John Deming
KGB Bar | 85 E 4th St, NYC
February 27, 2017, 7:00 pm
Featuring: Jennifer Michael Hecht & Adrienne Su

Stay tuned next Monday for words from MFA faculty and Monday Night Poetry Series at KGB Bar co-founder David Lehman.

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