A Poet’s Journey 2 St. Clement’s Church

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, New York circa 1978

When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen. It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to script my own life.

Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room. *

“I came to a poetry reading here,” I said, and told him I knew Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran in Midtown several years ago. “I would like to work in the theater. Behind the scenes. Is there anything part-time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?”

Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, “I want to do something different, to work with a group of people and get away from writing.” I meant to say, though it took me from my usual writual, little that was new and unexpected seemed impossible.

“There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “It’s a place to start.”

I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. This would be on-the-job training.

“Would you be interested in helping build the set?

I perked up. “I think I could do that.”

Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the TD, which he explained meant Technical Director. As I was leaving, he said again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with the poetry program?”

No, I nodded, “I want to try this.”

Down, down, down the stairs I tumbled, into the shadowbox of the theater, a hall lit by hanging lamps, and tall windows in one red-brick wall opening on a garden. By the windows leaned tall plywood boards painted black, to be set in place to block off any light during performances. The other walls were a light-absorbing matte black.

Into this dark space, with its two visions of a secret garden, filled with roses in summer, a tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, appeared magically from another portal.

Richard Spiegel and Steve Cramer in the downstairs theater at St. Clement’s circa 1978

Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.

“How do you lift these all by yourself?”

Moving one end of a platform, he placed it on the edge of another. “Don’t lift when you can leverage.”

Some had rows of red plush folding seats bolted on.

“Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”

Roxy Theater, Broadway, NYC

We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop backstage.

“If you have to move furniture or other props, mark where they belong with small x’s in white chalk.” The poetry program and the church both used the space, but they had to replace anything they moved to its original location to keep the actors from being disoriented.

I watched the lighting crew work, clipping lights on the exposed grid of cables and pipes.

And I bloomed in the small space, as the roses did, and carried the secret garden within myself.

In the office I talked to Jeff. He said “At St. Clement’s, liturgy and the arts collide and divide, and sometimes coalesce. When it comes together, it’s transcendent.” He paused. “But when not, it’s a disaster.

He worried that Richard was trying to do too much. Benefits for causes, poets theater, weekly readings. “Richard could use some help with the Poetry Festival.”

I wavered. After all, I wanted to escape the fate of Emily Dickinson. I wanted to be out in the world. Did Richard need help? “I don’t know if he’ll want my help.

“I think he will.”

Wondering if I would fit in and what the future would bring, I sat with Richard as the poets arrived for the Monday night reading.

After a while, I asked him, “Would you like me to help with the poetry program?”

He answered quietly, but emphatically, yes. And began immediately to talk of scheduling readers.

* Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This and the previous post are from a memoir in progress called Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. All rights reserved. Photos by Mary Clark.

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