The Power of Poetry
A glance into the alive-and-interactive poetry scene of New York City
“My friend Alex and I used to go to the movies, and we would go to the only movie theater that would show anything worth seeing — I lived in the California desert… And we would go to this theater and buy one ticket, and we would go from one theater to the next all day long to the point where it becomes almost painful… I don’t know, there’s something about the space [poetry] occupies in New York because there isn’t enough space for it. And that to me calls back to being able to afford one movie ticket and just being there at the theater all day. There’s something about the weird agony that comes out of ‘Oh god, another poet, really?’ so that when they do surprise you and change your life, that is the best feeling in the world.”
- George Kovalenko, Poetry Editor of Poets’ Country
On Oct 31 at Bowery Poetry, two typewriters sat facing each other on a small, dimly lit stage. As Halloween-costumed audience members raced to and from them, a jazz duo — one on the drums, one on a saxophone — played along to their frantic typing. The room, which doubles as a burlesque club Tuesday through Saturday — black-and-white wallpaper made to echo the architecture of a seventeenth-century French palace, drooping chandelier, white-table-clothed tables — was a hive. The audience’s task was to improvise feminist-themed haikus and to read them aloud at the tall microphone facing the cabaret-style room. Some, too embarrassed to read their own work, simply handed their poems off to the hosts of the affair — the Haiku Guys — and walked back to their seats to sheepishly listen to their own words being read from the stage. Others spoke their written words proudly into the microphone, mirroring with their bodies the female power they wanted their poems to convey.
Bride of Frankenstein
filed for divorce because she’s
her own lightning rod
I don’t do kegels
this is labia mantra –
and, you can’t touch this
I’m in my thirties
no, I don’t want children, and
yes I’m pretty sure
This activity was a quick break from the traditional poetry “open mic,” which had been going on for the past hour. It was what the Haiku Guys called a “Haiku Hackathon,” a speed-driven, timed haiku competition revolved around one particular theme or social issue. On Halloween night, feminism — with a spooky edge — was the issue to be hacked about.
This was my first stop on a journey to discover the poetry scene of New York, something I imagined to be dazzling, and gritty, and hidden somewhere just beyond Manhattan’s concrete façade. I imagined its essence to be like that of a real 1920s speakeasy: an emergence from the mundane into a secret world of beauty, one only heard about by word of mouth and accessed through hidden doors in back alleys or barber shops. I imagined the Allen Ginsbergs and Frank O’Haras of our age lurking about in dark corners of poetry bars and coffee shops, discussing literature or politics or the poetic form. I knew my expectations were founded in nothing but a romantic notion attached to the Beat Generation and the 1960s and many other unrelated things I’ve never seen.
The Haiku Guys — the company behind the feminist Hackathon — bring poetry to places no one would expect: to Google, to Bloomberg, to Airbnb, to name a few of the many companies that pay for their services. Dressed up in colorful clothes in front their typewriters, they set up “Free Haiku” stations at corporate events and let attendees come to them requesting poetry. In exchange for a word, a theme, or a story for context, those who approach receive a freshly typed-up haiku to carry home with them.
Lisa Ann Markuson, one of the company’s three founders and its current Managing Director, is the mastermind behind the Haiku Guys’ business plan. Poetry, an unusual commodity, is one she knew could be valuable to the unexpected demographic of the corporate world. “We realized that the corporate event sphere has a real lack of and a real hunger for genuine connection, for something that can wake people up and shake people up and help them connect in a way that isn’t so superficial and so boring, like the fanciest, most posh VIP event,” she said.
Markuson, who goes by LA, is equal parts poet and entertainer. She has tangible charisma, and is as relaxed on-stage as in one-on-one conversation. She has a partially shaved head, with a shoulder-length wave of electric-blue-and-purple hair that she either buns, braids, or lets fall to one side. She wears big blue granny glasses and a half-but-genuine smile, always, when she talks.
she doesn’t stutter –
she clears paths through the jungles
never looking back
- for damie
sometimes I’m speechless
to see the bright miracles
we pull from the dirt
- for daniel
because her humanity
hangs upon her notes
- for gabi
Markuson listens intently to her customers. She asks them to explain what they need to hear, what kind of a poem it is that they desire. And then she waits, often for an image, she says, to come to her before putting her hands to her typewriter. “It’s not about poetic talent or having published books or being able to write great haiku alone in your studio,” she said, speaking to what it takes to be a Haiku Guy or Gal. “It’s about love. It’s about genuinely putting aside your ego and putting aside any fear around whether or not the finished product will be good or cool, and just loving the person and going with that feeling.” Often, she says, those people leap, or cry, or dance around with joy when they read the poem she hands them. “To me this project, turned company, turned movement is very gratifying because of the effect it has on others,” said Daniel Zaltsman, another of the three co-founders. “The way it’s touched people on a very personal level makes me want to keep going and continuing to explore that space.”
Poetry, historically — even in a place as self-proclaimedly open-minded as New York City — has been for the poet. Poetry, simply, is not attractive to every New Yorker. It is something that one must seek out. It is not lurking in the most obvious corners of the city. “I think what surprised me about the New York poetry scene,” said Alexandra Franklin, one of the founders of a reading series and forthcoming literary publication called Poets’ Country, “is that it’s not just there for you. You kind of have to create it.” Unlike the beatniks of the 1950s and 1960s who took to the East Village when rent was cheap, contemporary would-be beatniks can’t afford their own poetry-centered spaces. In part because of that, the poetry scene exists in two spheres. On the one hand, poetry is academic, institutionalized. It exists in MFA classrooms and at readings in well-established poetry clubs like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, KGB Bar, and Bowery Poetry Club. On the other hand, it exists on roofs, in basements, in lofts, in more underground readings and gatherings organized by those who feel bored with the stiffness of traditional poetic gatherings. New York now boasts many poets and groups of poets seeking to create a new poetic connection, to redefine how one experiences rhymed, haiku’d, and passionately-strung-together words. These poets deliberately bring poetry to those who seem most unlikely to appreciate it.
The Poetry Brothel, founded in 2007, is a group that successfully straddles — almost literally — the two worlds of New York poetry. The non-profit group, co-founded by Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski, puts on a show that is a string of otherworldly acts, circus-like and glittering, revolved around poetry. Set up like a brothel in which the featured poets are “whores” from whom audience members can buy private readings, it combines burlesque, acrobats, accordion playing, and poetry readings by written word poets. It removes poetry from its quiet reputation. “I think the Poetry Brothel has been one of the major forces that has refocused the academic poetry community on performance and repositioned poetry in the realm of entertainment,” said Berger, one of the two founders. She was surprised, she said, by the poetry scene in New York when she first moved there, by its formality and the sense that poets used readings to network and to get their name out there rather than purely to share their art. Berger wanted create a space for written poets that felt the way poetry should feel, that attracted an audience both familiar and unfamiliar with the literary community, and that could pay them for their work. Really, it is about more than entertainment, she says. It “focuses on poetry’s ability to create connections between human beings.” It reveals to the audience, by creating a sense of excitement and intimacy, what it means to be a poet, or, as Stephanie semi-jokes, to be lucky enough to sleep with one.
Jackie Braje is one of the Poetry Brothel “whores.” A recent college graduate who moved to New York just over a year ago from Florida, Braje turned to poetry as a kind of “comfort food” during this radical shift. Braje is the typical 9-to-5 office-worker by day and poet by night, though often she writes on-the-clock at her day job at a quiet literary agency. Stephanie Berger discovered her poetry on Facebook once Braje began sharing it around. A tall, leggy blonde who thoughtfully exudes confidence onstage, Braje appears since to have seamlessly taken on her Poetry Brothel role, “Pavlina Vera.” Braje describes the Poetry Brothel as “a unicorn of an experience,” one that makes poetry feel the way it should. “Poetry is liberating, sensual, intimate, personal,” she says, “so why not share it while surrounded with silk sheets, candles and burlesque? Poetry takes weakness and turns it into something empowering and beautiful, so why not read my unrequited love poems while clad in faux fur and lipstick?”
I want to change my name
I want to change my shoes
I want to know your eyes as they are
I want you to come over and stretch
your legs out on my floor
I’ll hang a handmade sun from
the window and you’ll cut the leaves
from my houseplant
dump them in a dustpan
and there will be no beauty in the
dirt but you’ll rub it in your cheeks
anyway like war paint
like whore paint like
all the times you did to me
the misdeed of love.
I want to bend our bodies
together like a question mark.
- Jackie Braje
Sitting with the editorial team of Poet’s Country was about as close as I got to the part of my imagined New York poetry world that had me interviewing my imagined versions of Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara. I had covered the dazzling and the gritty with the Poetry Brothel. I had found the utterly unexpected in the Haiku Guys’ flirtations with Google. Sam O’Hana, George Kovalenko, Taylor Lannamann, and Alexandra Franklin are stunningly intelligent, a trait that expresses itself, conversationally, in eloquence and in the type of observation that only comes from a certain caliber of mind. “These two strata are both sort of very bourgeois,” Sam O’Hana said, for example, laughing in a London accent as the group took turns explaining New York poetry to me. I spent about an hour with them at a quiet restaurant around the corner from the Bowery Poetry Club, where we had met, talking about their reading series and publication, Poets’ Country. They described the beginnings of the publication, which will have exactly 100 issues, in a different format each time, beginning this year. Four recently graduated MFA students of poetry and fiction, they gathered together to create a community of poetic solace in an uncertain time. “In response to the catastrophic disregard for human life executed by nation-states, Poet’s Country is assembled to propose potential landscapes of humane existence. It understands humanity as part of an ecology, and in the service of providing personal and communal dwelling spaces, reclaims from abuse the concept of a ‘country,’” says the Poets’ Country constitution, which predates the November election.
Twice during my journey of poetic discovery, I found myself in the lobby of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital at New York Presbyterian, up in Harlem. Thomas Dooley, a poet, actor, and practitioner of narrative medicine, is the first Poet-in-Residence there. He is also the founder of a performance group called Emotive Fruition, which brings poets and actors together to create a new kind of onstage poetic experience. On Nov 17, he brought Emotive Fruition to the hospital for the launch event of Wavelength, a teen magazine that patients at the hospital will edit and publish themselves.
Three Broadway actors sat onstage in a partitioned section of the lobby. Each held a small stack of A4 paper, and they stood one at a time in rotation, reading from them. Dooley stood back to watch those three actors read out the poetry he had worked on with patients at their bedsides. He watched those patients, sitting in the audience, watch their poetry come to life.
Dooley believes in the power of poetry. He has seen it create new hope, new life, he says, for the children he has worked with, and for the audience at Emotive Fruition events since its founding in 2011. “Being in the world of a poem is the most alive place one can be,” he says. “And then sharing that world in a very immediate, visceral, human way is very exciting.”
Magic — in many different words — came up many times in my various conversations about poetry. It is a magic that comes from surprising people with real emotion, with a feeling that the world, that perhaps particularly New York City, is a smaller place than it seems. It centers around community, a sense of belonging and understanding that resonates because of the vulnerable place from which it emerges. “I basically think there are too many problems to even count,” LA Markuson said when I asked her what brought her to spread her Haiku across the United States. “The only thing we really have control over is ourselves, and if we bring new perspective to our own lives every chance we get, it eventually radiates out. That, I think, is the power of poetry, and that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to help promote it and grow it.”