March Blizzard Poetry

megabenefit2On March 7, 1983, the day of the “Rock’n’Poetry” Benefit for the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s Church (423 West 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York City), a major snowstorm hit the city. By late afternoon the streets were empty.

Allen Ginsberg arrived, shaking off a mantle of snow, about fifteen minutes before the reading. He was friendly, but a little shy. I showed him and a friend into the library where lamplight glowed on the blue, green, mauve and earth-colored leaded windows.

Spalding Gray arrived, and shook my hand. (He’d promised he’d come one day.)

Amiri Baraka called to say he was on his way in from Newark and battling the snow.

“I understand if you can’t make it.”

“The roads are still open, and it will be just as bad trying to go back to Newark. And I wanted to get into the city anyway.”

The audience filled the downstairs theatre and I began to worry about over-capacity. More than a hundred people had braved the storm.

Easing open the door, I saw a mound of snow creeping down the street. The mound pulled over to the sidewalk and Baraka piled out with his family.

I held the church door open. “I can’t believe what you’ve gone through to get here.”

“I was determined to be here,” he said. “There aren’t many places like this.”

I left him with Ginsberg and the other poets and their friends in the small library room next to the front office. Poets sat on the sofa, Ginsberg in a low armchair, and others on the well-worn, wine-red rug.

The reading was segue-ing from poet to poet. Spalding Gray said all he needed was a table and a chair. He sat at the table center stage with one spotlight, reading from his notebooks. His words flowed out intuitively, and the way he coupled the words, tangled, bickered, or united in conjugal bliss, exposed his inner turmoil and joy, his triumphs and losses.

Sheri spoke to me and I was jolted back to my responsibilities.

Applause followed me down the front hall. I counted the box office.

It was time to give Baraka and Ginsberg the heads up. I poked my head in.

Ginsberg looked up, making eye contact. “Are you doing well? Did you make money?”

“We did. We’ll be able to go on another year with the money we made tonight.”

He smiled. “That’s great.”

I stared a moment, not realizing before his commitment to poets and poetry groups.

Baraka went into the theater next, giving a reading filled with stamping meter and hard-edged images tempered by, well more than humor, empathy, or sense of injustice and hope, by love I would say.

When Ginsberg spoke people clapped, stamped their feet, howled, and sang, his voice rising like a cantor. The walls reverberated, the theater was heated by the crowd, a night of wonder.

Outside the snow had stopped. The poets left with the crowd, a beautiful sound in the silent snow-cloaked city.