20 Years of Monday Night Poetry at KGB Bar | Part 2

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 second post in a six-part series, to read Part 1 featuring Monday Night Poetry Series co-founder Star Black, please click here.

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

(L — R) Denis Woychuk, Jason Shinder and David Lehman, from The KGB Bar Book of Poems, HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. Photo by Star Black.

David Lehman has published eighteen books of poetry and criticism, including Poems in the Manner Of (to be released March 7 from Scribner) and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship among many other honors. He is the series editor for The Best American Poetry and edited the Oxford Book of American Poetry. He is based in New York and teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School. David’s work co-founding and championing the Monday Night Poetry Series at KGB Bar is only one example of his brilliant and bighearted support of poets and poetry. David is reading tonight, March 6, at KGB Bar with Katha Pollitt.

David Lehman: Star Black made the series happen. She had met Denis Woychuk, who owns the KGB Bar, and he asked her to direct a Monday night poetry reading series. This was back in December 1996. Star called me and said she would do it if I agreed to be her co-director. I said yes.

With poetry you are always surprised when something succeeds. Our series took off. I think we were enjoying ourselves too much to notice the acclaim. But suddenly the KGB Bar housed the hottest reading series in town. The place — its red decor, its curious history, and its location on Fourth Street near Second Avenue — was part of the charm. No one got paid, but the bar was liberal when it came to comping readers on drinks. The bartenders were friendly. And Star and I knew a lot of serious poets across the spectrum and we were committed to the idea that all deserved a hearing. In our first couple of years we got John Ashbery, Mark Bibbins, Robert Bly, Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Elaine Equi, Richard Howard, Marie Howe, Carolyn Kizer, Philip Levine, Honor Moore, Sharon Olds, Ron Padgett, Katha Pollitt, Charles Simic,Gerald Stern, Mark Strand, James Tate, Paul Violi, Susan Wheeler, Dara Wier, C. K. Williams, C. D. Wright,and Charles Wright and many others to read for us.

In addition to being an accomplished poet, Star is a professional photographer and she brought her camera many nights. Some of the photos she took appeared in The KGB Bar Book of Poems (HarperCollins, 2000). Star’s camera enhanced the atmosphere — the poetry readings felt like parties, like events. Both Star and I loved playing host. I tend to get impish and ironic under certain circumstances and sometimes we did stunts along the lines of a free drink for anyone who can solve a certain riddle or a free drink for the best explanation of why a New York hot spot might name itself after a defunct Soviet institution. Though we had no regular bookseller, we did our best when poets brought multiple copies of their books. One time there was one copy left and I said, closing the show, that we would auction this signed copy to the highest bidder — and by golly somebody put down $40. I remember the New York Times article declaring with wide-eyed wonder that “what began as a grungy salon of the downtown lit pack has begun to develop an outsize reputation.” The article was headlined “A Cold War Relic is a Literary Hot Spot.”

Anecdotes: There was a John Ashbery reading that was so crowded that the line to get in extended down the stairs and onto the sidewalk of East 4th Street. None of those people outside could hear a word but they all stayed. For the longest time a theater group had the space above us and it seemed every week that they’d be rehearsing a fight scene during our readings. One night in the fall of 2001 Jeni Olin was reading and in attendance was Larry Rivers and a Hollywood actor who had once served as Rivers’s carpenter: Harrison Ford. (He drank scotch.) Jennifer Michael Hecht pointed him out to me. He was happy to be there but did not want to be publicly acknowledged. In the weeks after 9/11 a small American flag was pasted on the mirror behind the bar adding to the incongruity — and to the pathos. I remember the sirens of fire engines and ambulances and how the noise seemed as suitable to the world as the alcohol. I remember my little notebooks where I would write lines and sometimes whole poems on a Monday night.

Star and I ran the series through spring 2003. I missed giving it up almost immediately but am glad that the series has remained a “top literary hot spot” under the supervision of a sequence of talented poets who were either students or colleagues in the New School Writing Program.

Coming up next for the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series:
Featuring: David Lehman and Katha Politt
KGB Bar | 85 E 4th St, NYC
March 6, 2017, 7:00 pm

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