St. Clement’s. Beauty under the grime. Muted mosaics flaring in sunlight. Chanting poets.
Rich wanted to ask Allen Ginsberg to read a section of The Odyssey at an anti-nuclear event he was planning for a Sunday at St. Clement’s on August 6th, “Hiroshima day.”
He asked me to go with him to Allen Ginsberg’s reading at a nuclear disarmament rally. He read most probably from “Plutonian Ode.”
Poets we knew and became connected to moved forward, a gentle tide, rocked by the new thing, our ability to create oblivion, and to answer with our voices evoking the voices of consciousness to carol our spirits inside the death-rendering, until there we were, the Poets of Our Time right up in front of the crowd, serious, dolorous, Kerouac cool, smiling antennas up and on the tips of our toes. Ginsberg threw himself into the poetry, sparked our responses: nodding heads, nodding bodies. Handclaps, psalming our way beyond. We were in love.
I was in love. With Allen Ginsberg!
In the excitement Richard and I were swept away. Rich had no chance to ask Ginsberg to read at the St. Clement’s anti-nuclear event. We rode over the East River to a party at Maurice Kenny’s Brooklyn apartment, and after that, unwilling to give up the day, although it was midnight, we walked to the Esplanade to feel and hear the breath-song of New York harbor.
I’ve just published this book about my experiences running the poetry program at a midtown Manhattan church. This takes place before the time period in Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. This book is about the transition from the arts to community work.
A young, aspiring writer comes to St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in New York City looking for a job in the theater. Soon she is helping run the church’s poetry program. The New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s features many well-known poets of the 1970s and 80s as well as up-and-coming and marginalized poets. The poetry scene, occurring alongside Punk Rock and the waning days of experimental dance and theater, is part of the last grassroots artistic era in the United States.
Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey takes place in the rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side. This story is set in a neighborhood that reflects the passion of the times. By 1980, both the arts scene and New York neighborhoods are on the verge of change. The author’s life in the arts weaves in and out of the neighborhood’s narratives. She must make a choice between two possible lives.
St. Clement’s Church has a storied history in the arts, beginning with the American Place Theater in the 1960s to the present day. Cameo appearances in this memoir are made by Robert Altman, Amiri Baraka, Daniel Berrigan, Karen Black, Raymond Carver, Cher, Abbie Hoffman, Spalding Gray, Al Pacino, and Paul Simon. Erick Hawkins, June Anderson, and Daniel Nagrin dance through.
Poets and writers include Carol Bergé, Ted Berrigan, Enid Dame, Cornelius Eady, Allen Ginsberg, Daniella Gioseffi, Barbara Holland, Bob Holman, Richard Howard, Maurice Kenny, Tuli Kupferberg, Eve Merriam, Robin Morgan, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Alice Notley, William Packard, Robert Peters, Rochelle Ratner, Grace Shulman, and Kurt Vonnegut. Mentioned or discussed: Joseph Bruchac, Gregory Corso, Emily Dickinson, David Ignatow, Joy Harjo, Rashid Hussein, Kim Chi Ha, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Anais Nin, Ron Padgett, Pedro Pietro, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton, among others. Along the way, I recommend poems that can be found online.
This is the beginning of Chapter Two in my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street in New York City was home to a theater and poetry program as well as an active congregation. ∞
Up the wine-red carpeted stairs to St. Clement’s sanctuary, pilgrims found swinging leather doors stamped with brass studs. Opening on a vast space, the eye followed rows of tall arched windows resembling trees where stained-glass mosaics formed branches, flowers, and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.
Treading a red carpet on the stairs and in the offices, worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics, not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue, I came to another path inside/outside space, sensing, questing.
In the upstairs space theater and sanctuary vied within winged walls held aloft, spectacle and service fused, refused, in faith with the fallen, to recombine message and activism.
I praised the windows to Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers.
“Oh, they’re actually not stained glass,” he said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings as in the Chinese language. “They’re leaded glass.”
“There’s beauty under the grime.”
“We’d like to restore them, but it’s too expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”
A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval, home to armored knights more than chanting monks.
“Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.” In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. “Later she referred to it as ‘that funky little peace church on the West Side.’” Watty’s sigh had a reality bite. “She couldn’t remember our name.”
In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the hermetic basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.
The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.
So, the Upstairs Space had several names, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.
Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.
Working on PJ’s cryptic writing, I played with his new definition of Intuition.
At an elemental level, he described how we learn what advances our desires, and what thwarts our wishes. When the action or its consequence is harmful to ourselves or others, we learn to dissemble, all to ensure our “emotional security” by convincing ourselves of our innocence.
I made notes. What’s valuable and what’s not? How do we make these judgments?
With him I challenged his ideas on building the intuition in childhood. “What kind of intellect can a child have? What level of perceptual awareness?”
“A child’s sensory and perceptual apprehension of the world is pretty great,” PJ responded. “It has to be for the learning process to take place. The intellect evolves, often seeming to the individual to match the world’s maturation. It’s an incredible process, both gradual and immediate.” Then, he added, “But the concept of time is another subject.
“You see, you keep piling one lie on top of another and another on top of that,” PJ said, developing his theory of rationalizing guilt. “And the deeper you get into rationalization, the more you get away from ever becoming amiable again.”
This is a process over time, he said, and can lead to justification of whole sets of actions. Eventually we feel the overload and break down, and start over again with the slate wiped clean, or we continue to heap one justification on another until the intuition, swamped by guilt and lies becomes more hostile than amiable, and is unable to change.
“What about your conscience? Doesn’t that give you a guidepost to follow?”
“The idea is that once a person becomes saturated with guilt, he has to abandon his conscience, because he can’t do anything against his conscience, so he forgets he has one at all, and he is no longer a man integrated at all. He has no integrity anymore. You run across these people everywhere you go, as you know.”
Winter with PJ was a return to innocence, a primitive meta-state when human beings held the future in their opposing thumbs and “emanated” abstract renderings on cave walls.
He showed me a series of small designs he called “Emanations.” He said that he may have chosen the colors to work with on his watercolors and designs, but there was no way he could have planned the forms that came out.
“It was purely an intuitive thing,” he said. “And the intuition brings you back to innocence.”