Poetry In Conversation
Bob Holman with Monica de la Torre
Monica de la Torre: When did you start publishing?
Bob: In 1968 I sent in a clutch of poems to Rolling Stone. They published “Grandmothers.” My first book was published in… well, here it is. Tear to Open, Power Mad Books, 1979.
Rail: This was the precisely the book I wanted you to show me.
Bob: Tear to Open. And don’t forget the subtitle: This this this this this this, six times “this.” Those are my eyes on the cover under a paper bag drawn by dear departed genius pal Joel Chassler. He was an editor at Power Mad, along with Barb Barg. Some great press names in the early ‘70s—I remember Steve Levine’s Remember I Did This For You Press. I did a big reading at MoMA when Tear to Open came out and performed the cover. Came out with a bag over my head, tore it to open the reading. The idea of tearing to open is so brutal ¬¬– destroy something to open it. Eat this book.
Rail: Like those books that they used to publish, whose pages you couldn’t turn unless you tore them open.
Bob: But “tear” doesn’t necessarily have to be tear [rip]. It could be tear [teardrop] to open. I saw it on the little tab on a box of Entemann’s chocolate doughnuts, “Tear To Open.” Crazy. On the back of the book there’s a typed four-line poem that has written over it, in script, in handwriting, the repeated dream:
This is to let you know
That somebody is chasing you
This is to let you know that somebody is chasing you,
that it is me.
That it is me and there are two of me. And there are
two of me.
And it’s signed “Robert C. Holman” in the signature, ahem. Who’s that? My literary self? And typed Bob, Bob Holman. Performance self. Hmmm.
Rail: It reminds me of Borges’s “Borges and I” about the unfolding of his self through writing: one is the Borges on the page, the other the man who writes, listens to the guitar, dreams.
Bob: The idea of the text and performance. It’s always been central to my work. When you boil it down there is only the poem. The poem text is the same as the poem performed, same as the poem read aloud, however you want to define it. The media are different; the work is the same. It’s interesting that even the young hip-hoppers say that they are “reading the poem.” Even if it is memorized, they’re reading it.
Rail: What do you do to the text itself so that readers who have never listened to you read or perform get an idea of your performance style?
Bob: Not much. To me the page is the page. In Tear to Open the poem “Ten Most Wanted,” a list poem about wanting, was done using different typographies and crossed out words. Like Dada. Another poem has photo booth shots of me along the side.
Rail: How would you read a crossed out word out loud?
Bob: I just read the crossed out word. I would not comment on it, but would simply read it, maybe make an accompanying gesture and a bzzht buzzsaw sound. In my book The Collect Call of the Wild there’s only one poem that I messed with—it’s right in the middle of the book someplace. In “Hey what did I say?” the words are laid out upside down and around and if you refer to the notes you’ll see how it ought to be performed. That’s another thing: I use footnotes, which is a hoot, being a poet who’s thought of as the performance guy. “Hey what did I say?” is a PanicDJ poetry performance piece, ah. For many years I did this character who wore a question mark jacket, PanicDJ, touring with musician and main motor scooter Vito Ricci. “Hey what did I say?” was the poem that literally deconstructed to divide the introductory “poetry reading” from the full-tilt performance that made up the bulk of the show. The footnote reads: “Hold the single sheet on which the poem is written, tearing (there’s that word again) off each line or section as it is read rotating the page clockwise, tearing as you go, holding onto the shreds until only the center verse, beginning ‘the words themselves,’ remains. After the last line, ‘Oh air, carry them to ears that hear!’ is read, toss the scraps into the air so that they flutter down, ending the poem and leaving the poet empty-handed to carry on by heart.”
Rail: You would memorize the rest of the show?
Bob: Yes. That was the Big Deal! I became PanicDJ, this New Age White Hip Hop guy with a “Rock’n’Roll Mythology.” Thing is, when you memorize poems, many people just assume that they are improvised. A lot of people still think the poems in slams are improvised, that poets just stand up and boom voila create a performance. That’s how wedded we are to the idea that poetry is married to the book.
Rail: Right. I find it a little bit ironic that you are teaching at Columbia. I got an MFA there in 1995 and don’t remember anyone being into performative elements of poetry or the spoken word. What does it mean that you’re there now? Have things changed?
Bob: Yes, Monica, things have definitely changed. Never in my wildest undergraduate dreams did I imagine teaching at my alma mater. I went to Columbia as an undergraduate. Now I have become the man I used to laugh at! I highly recommend this to those of us of a certain age. Alan Ziegler, who came up through the downtown mimeo zine scene at the same time I did, now runs the Writing Department. He gets it, and hired me, with the dynamic also of connecting Bowery uptown, Columbia downtown. But I’m not dismissive of the so-called academic poets—everyone teaches in the university, even me! I too am an academic poet.
Rail: A MacAdemic poet you are not. I am thinking of how the American corporate logic has extended into the university system. You’re far from that. What do you teach?
Bob: “Exploding Texts: Poetry and Performance.” Not content with tearing anymore, now I’m exploding the text! This semester we read Pessoa, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Walter Ong, Frank Stanford. It’s the only cross-genre course that they offer at the Columbia School of the Arts. To me that’s really where the riches are allowed to make love, when you get all the arts to collaborate in a total performance or installation. That’s exciting to me, it stirs up the consciousness that gets so inbred in each of the different faculties.
Rail: They’re lucky to have you there. By the way, didn’t you study with Kenneth Koch at Columbia?
Bob: Kenneth let me in on the fact that it was okay to be a poet. He walked into class on the first day, threw his arms around himself and proclaimed, “Oh Walt, I love you!” I’d never heard anyone address a poet by his first name before. And this was a dead poet!
Rail: What did you do when you graduated? You lived in a commune, right?
Bob: A gang of us who were roommates moved into a brownstone in Brooklyn. This was the era that Jonathan Lethem writes about in Fortress of Solitude. We lived a year there and a year in Pennsylvania, back to the land, where the commune broke up. Back then everybody was moving around a lot—after Pennsylvania I lived in Bennington and in Chicago for periods of time. Started a theater company in Woods Hole. I was working at the Whole Earth Bookstore in Evanston when I met the young poets who were going to be formative for me. Before that I didn’t really hang out with the poets. David Lehman was in my class at Columbia, but we didn’t become friends until years later. He knew what to do, which was to hang out with Kenneth and the gang and take full advantage of it. There were all these workshops and seminars at Columbia that I didn’t feel were for me. I wrote poems for the commune—this was my new family. I left my own family. I was glad to get out of Ohio, to create my own family. Hey, where else would you like to be but in this room, with these people, smoking this pot, hanging out with these people, making dinner for everybody? It was like the Middle Ages. I’m still very close to those people—my best friend Stuart Hanlon, who is a radical lawyer in San Francisco, my brother was in it…
Rail: So when did you meet the New York downtown poets?
Bob: Mid-70s I guess. After I got back from Chicago and started hanging out at the Church. Chicago was a very open scene. It still is. The upside of the second city syndrome is “Hey you want to do it, come on in.” Is that Midwestern? Is that Nuyorican? Bowery Poetry Club? I don’t know, but it’s certainly me. There in Chicago I gave my first big reading, with Bill Knott, one of the gods of poetry. Ted Berrigan, another god, was there and had a huge influence on me, and Paul Carroll. Bob Rosenthal became my close friend and collaborator in theater, and then all of a sudden, it was one of those sea changes, we all moved back to New York. Bob and Shelley Kraut and Steve Levine and Barb Barg and Rose Lesniak and Neil Hackman and Joel Chassler and on and on. Everything was moving so fast then, you’d have four different addresses a year, it was a much more fluid culture. You were hitchhiking, on the road. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco, two different stints in Chicago, published in magazines there for the first time, traveled in Europe. Then came home to New York, and gravitated to St. Mark’s because of Ted and everything else. It was clear that that was the place for us. It was called Monday nights and Ed Friedman was running it. We just had a ball.
Rail: There were all those legendary parties afterward.
Bob: I know there are still wonderful parties! I remember when Saturday Night Live began, and whenever we’d have a Saturday night party, I would carry a clunky little black and white television to the party because I was so addicted to John Belushi, I couldn’t bear to miss it. We’d go to the Church every Monday and every Wednesday, without fail, and then we’d go to Alice Notley’s workshop, which had not only Bob Rosenthal, but also Charles Bernstein and James Sherry, the Mad City Crew of Masters and Lenhart and Scholnick, and Patricia Jones and Eileen Myles, so may others… Steve Malmude has this great recent poem about the parties: “all those coats piled on the bed.” That was it. I just know it’s still happening like that!
Rail: I’m afraid it isn’t.
Bob: It’s because of the horrific triumph of capitalism! It’s turned everybody into entrepreneurs. It’s catastrophic!
Rail: Did lots of people come to the readings?
Bob: Well, no. The crowds weren’t what they are today. We basically had 30 or 35 people and they were the same 30 or 35 people each time, but it felt like hundreds because—it was everybody. A reading lasted 45 minutes and you would never repeat a poem from reading to reading. You had to have all new poems. Except if you were Ted Berrigan—he could repeat his poems.
Rail: I like the idea of not repeating poems. This is a good segue into the Bowery Poetry Club. Tell me about your involvement with the Nuyorican Café and how it led to the Club.
Bob: When I was at St. Mark’s I got a job working for the federal government as a poet, it was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, CETA Artists Project, the largest federally-funded arts project since the WPA. This was 1977 and I got $10,000 a year to job myself out to schools, non-profits, community centers, the Village Halloween parade, the Children’s Museum of Staten Island, and I would get paid my salary by the government. I also took over the Monday night readings at St. Mark’s. And I was doing Poets Theater, had been creating plays with Rosenthal, and directed Jarry and Mayakovsky and Tzara. I discovered that I had this facility for organizing things in a kind of spontaneous way. “Spontaneity must be carefully rehearsed!” as Pedro Pietri used to say. As far as I know CETA created the first traveling company of poets. This was around 1978 and we were the Poets Overland Expeditionary Troupe, P.O.E.T, named thus by James Sherry who was also in CETA. Look at this photo—we were Sandra Maria Esteves, still one of the great voices of New York, and that’s her little daughter Christine there—she’d be 30 now. Brenda Conner-Bey, who’s a wonderful poet writing up in Westchester County. My buddy, Rose Lesniak, who left New York when after she acquired the habit of wearing a black ninja outfit and shooting cops with her sci-fi sparker gun. She still managed to produce the first poetry videos I know of: Ginsberg’s “Father Death Blues,” Anne Waldman’s “Uh-Oh Plutonium,” and my “Rapp It Up!” That was 1984. Now Rose is a private investigator in Miami. And in the middle, there is dear departed pal, Pedro Pietri, our hero.
Rail: You have such a history, Bob.
Bob: Sometimes I think it’s as if what I was doing was paralleling the ability to do what it was that I was doing. I get to St. Mark’s and the CETA program is there, I am invited to make poetry videos for WNYC and poetry-media collabs begin, I start the Slams at the Nuyorican and it’s the multi-culti moment… CETA allowed Ron Padgett to hire me for free. I asked him what he wanted me to do and he said do a history of the Poetry Project. So that’s when I did a bunch of interviews.
Rail: Where are they?
Bob: The Church has the tapes, I believe. The material is a little rough to be published, but Daniel Kane used a lot in his All Poets Welcome.
Rail: What happened afterward, when you left the Project? How did you meet the other Nuyorican poets?
Bob: I met them through Pedro, basically. I’d always loved the Café, I would listen to their radio show on WBAI. When I was running the church with Bernadette Mayer we did a collaborative series with Miguel Algarín and Lois Griffith—this was just after the café had moved from 6th Street to 3rd Street, around 81 or 82. We did a weekly series, one poet from the Project, one poet from the Café. It was held at the Café, and it was terrific. I got close to Miguel and Piñero, Bimbo and Pedro then. Pedro had the greatest parties… He and I did a talk show called the “Double Talk Show” because, ha, two hosts. We did it all over town: at the Life Café, at a Salvadoran restaurant in Williamsburg. We also ran a reading series that we got funding for called “Poets in the Bars.” You’ve heard of poets in the schools and poets in the prisons, but poets in bars? A natural habitat, and Creative Time funded it.
Rail: That’s wild.
Bob: We went to all kinds of bars: famous bars, like the White Horse Tavern, a Latino bar up in the Bronx. We went to a gay bar on the piers in Brooklyn to do a Walt Whitman reading. We’d invite a known poet to read who would pick a young poet, the idea of continuing generations of poets. Pedro and I were hanging out a lot. We were real brothers; we went to a lot of movies and drank a lot of cheap red wine. Then he and I had children at the same time, and they became close friends. This was after I had left the Project and had spent a few years just touring and doing TV. The city had a public television channel at the time, WNYC-TV. I worked with a producer named Danny O’Neal to create “Poetry Spots.” Danny died of AIDS soon after we got funding, so suddenly, I’m a TV Producer. The next six years I did seventy “Spots.”
Rail: I didn’t know about them.
Bob: They’ve never really been seen except back in those days. It was very simple straightforward stuff, basically poets reading their work.
Rail: Who were some of the featured poets?
Bob: Baraka, June Jordan. Helen Adam has a wonderful piece in there, Yehuda Amichai who died two years ago, Ashbery, Henderson, John Ash, Grace Paley, Padgett and many other poets. Allen Ginsberg does a brilliant rendition of “In My Kitchen in New York.” Allen had very strict rules about what he would read and not read from the page. Songs had to be sung and memorized, poems had to be read. We got around that by having him read the poem as a voiceover, and the camera followed him doing Tai Chi in his tiny kitchen on East 12th.
Rail: Before we get too far off track, when did the idea for the Bowery Poetry Club happen? But wait, we haven’t talked about your involvement in the poetry slam scene.
Bob: Well, that’s a fairly well-documented story. I guess it starts off with my riding around the Lower East Side looking for a place to rent to open a poetry club, circa 1987. There just weren’t that many places to read around the country and I had done the circuit two or three times. I was traveling in circles. I felt that not only was I repeating things but I was also clogging up the works for what comes next. St. Mark’s had to institute such things as the “two-year rule” for white males. It was a clique of sorts, but all of a sudden there were too many of us! Aiee! So I wanted to open up a club and that was right when Piñero died. It was at his wake that the idea came up of reopening the Club came up, David Henderson wrote a poem about this. The Nuyorican had been closed for 6 years, so I thought, why not, instead of renting some place, why not reopen the Café? There were all these rumors that the reconstruction money had been pocketed by different people and that it was in shambles. It was at this incredible party slash wake for Miky at Roland Legiardi-Laura’s loft that I approached Miguel Algarín and asked him about reopening and he said yes, let’s meet at noon tomorrow. And we did, we met at noon the next day, you have no idea what it means to get some poets together at noon on the day after a party, you knew this had to be some special energy. We saw the wreck that the building had become—it was like seeing the decimated neighborhood after the 80s. AIDs, Crack, Gentrification. Well, we dug in, and the rest is the end of history. We approached the city and got the Department of Cultural Affairs involved, Mary Schmidt Campbell. We did all the physical work and then got to work programming. This coincides with when the slams were starting with Marc Smith in Chicago—I read about them in the New York Times! I claimed Friday nights as Slam nights at the café. Paul Beatty won the very first one, even as Steve Cannon gave every poem a 1 because “they’re all #1 with me!” Hannah Weiner slammed in those days. Doug Oliver slammed.
Rail: What makes a good slammer?
Bob: Well, a good slammer then was different from who will win a slam now. Now there’s a style, a “Slam poem,” and plenty of strategizing to win. The purpose of slamming in the early days at the Nuyorican was to provide a platform for different kinds of poetry so that you could hear which kind you like. It’s still not unusual for people to say they don’t like poetry. But if you said, “I don’t like music” you’d be crazy. I’ve always thought this is because people aren’t exposed to different kinds of poetry like they are to music. It’s fine if you don’t like opera or hip-hop—maybe you’d like some Country Western poems? Everybody likes some kind of music. My contention is that everybody likes some kind of poetry. There was a chance to hear all kinds of poetry there.
Rail: Right, so no one school was prevalent.
Bob: Prevalent were the young people who hung out at the Nuyorican. That meant a lot of people of color, and it meant a lot of women, because there was no hierarchy in place for the men to rule through. It was a new thing and it was completely open and the women really took over. It was the beginning of hip-hop as poetry. Slam made it possible for the first time for audiences to come to poetry readings without having to admit that they were going to a poetry reading. They could say, “I’m going to the slam!” and it was a different scene from anything that had come before in poetry. Next thing, they’d be participating by being judges. That’s what makes the slam, the judges. The judges are picked whimsically from the audience, as opposed to experts who are going to explain to you what good poetry is. You are now the judge and the audience is going to heckle you for your score. Then you might even write a poem….
Rail: What about slam nowadays?
Bob: It’s in a hundred cities now, and I think it’s still the most active grassroots art movement in the country. It’s through slams that the poets in the Def Poetry Jam first got a following and now the height of the poetry world for young people who use performance as a component of their work is to be on television, to be on the Russell Simmons show, to be on tour and be able to make a living.
Rail: In your essay That’s What is American in American Poetry you wrote: “An art, once endangered, is moving into the center of culture.”
Bob: I still think it’s going to happen.
Rail: How so?
Bob: The participatory element of poetry continues to pull people in, as opposed to many of the other arts that require more than a piece of paper or a computer, where you are basically an observer. Digitalization, the ease of self-publishing, of webzines, of recording your own MP3s. This is the reemergence of the oral tradition in the digital age. Now to have a poem at a marriage or at a funeral is not unusual. You saw on 9/11 that the way that people tended to express themselves was through a poem that was left somewhere. People wrote poems. It’s feeling natural now to do it. It wasn’t natural before. Poetry has assumed a new place. The Bowery tries to actualize all these ideas.
Rail: I think it does. The range of people and poetries that intersect at the club is impressive.
Bob: That’s what couldn’t happen at the Nuyorican. There was a real strong feeling that it should be the Nuyorican Poets Café. At the beginning of its resurrection in ‘89 it was felt that whatever each of the directors did was fine and that was my guiding dynamic. I took it as far as I could, through the record label and the touring company. Nobody was getting paid to work at the cafe, we were all equals and we had roles. We stood for multiculturalism, not Nuyoricans. I was in somebody else’s playground doing whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t see it coming, the split it was leading to. After that I threw myself into the label and dedicated myself to teaching I started at the New School, thanks to Robert Polito, and then got a great gig at Bard. I love to teach.
Rail: Going back to the issue of poetry’s place within culture, there is always that problem of the sustainability of poets and poetry.
Bob: I think the only alternative to capitalism right now is the poetic economy.
Rail: Yeah, but how do you make a living?
Bob: Hey, I’m just the idea guy! These days of capitalismo gizmo, people have to cobble together jobs to get by. Poetry can be utilitarian—I learned that at CETA and I’m teaching that at Study Abroad on the Bowery, which is an applied poetics program. Students learn not only how to write poems but how to use them in the world. The thing about poetry is that its value cannot be counted in potatoes. There are very few poets like that, who make a living by selling poems, or books even. I consider that I make a living as a poet, even though you could say I run a bar, or you could say I’m a teacher.
Rail: What pays the bills at the club, the bar?
Bob: The hubristic idea was that The Poets Will Drink Enough to Pay for the Bad Habit of Poetry. What I didn’t take into consideration was that instead of pushing another drink, we ask people to Please be quiet and listen to the poem. That’s where the help from the nonprofit, Bowery Arts and Science, comes in, on activities that will never beak even. The poetic economy is one that we could riff on forever. Whatever it is, it is an alternative. Socialism doesn’t seem like an alternative anymore. How to trade in the poetic economy is being taught—created—at the Study Abroad on the Bowery program and other outrigger spots like the Church and Naropa. It is an engagement with the culture, with your poem as that thing in the middle, as Olson says in “Projective Verse”: the energy is from the poet through the poem to the listener. The poet is the citizen, in this case a citizen who believes in going to a school that doesn’t offer a degree. It is a lot cheaper, but no degree. The classroom can be in a bar and the creations that you make are not only poems on paper that you will workshop, they are also performances on which you can work on the stage with Karen Finley or Edwin Torres. Teaching, working with Alzheimer’s patients, developing a zine, an anthology or a reading series is part of your curriculum. Seeing your creation in terms of social utility turns the listener into the ear of the world.
Rail: It’s fascinating. It’s an incredibly efficient model.
Bob: And anybody can join in. What works and what doesn’t work surprises me. I did not expect the Study Abroad on the Bowery program to become so strong so quickly. I think it’s working because it is an extreme, and of course the inestimable and poetic value of having Anne Waldman behind it. If you want credit, we help you get a grade at your college, but you’re here for other reasons. It’s like Black Mountain.
Rail: What I really like about it is that you get to apply poetics, something you never get to do at an MFA program where you’re trained to teach at another MFA program and replicate the workshop model.
Bob: This is practicing poetry. This is for you to find your way to be a poet. Maybe you’re Gabriella Santoro, and you’re researching the different youth poetry programs in the city, and you wind up teaching there. Maybe you’re Nicholas Bredie and you end up going to New Orleans and creating a big Katrina Benefit, which will happen August 26th, the first anniversary. Maybe you are like Roger Bonair-Agard and are going to be touring the country doing the sofa surfing circuit, which is how he makes a living.
Rail: How intriguing. What’s sofa surfing?
Bob: You sleep every night on a different sofa. You go, you give a reading, you sell your chapbooks, you sleep on the sofa and the next morning after breakfast you go to the bus station where hopefully you made enough money selling your books and CDs to get on the bus and go to the next place and sleep on another sofa. The Sofa Surfing Circuit.
Rail: Very nice. You could do that just in New York and get to keep the travel fare. Think of all the sofas out there to sleep on.
ContributorMónica de la Torre
Mónica de la Torre works with and between languages. Her latest book, The Happy End/All Welcome, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, which also put out her translation of Defense of the Idol by Chilean modernist Omar Cáceres in 2018. Repetition Nineteen, her new book of poems, is forthcoming from Nightboat in 2020.
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