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.

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A Visit to Monticello: Two Poems

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Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Monticello’s Dome

Was it 200, or 400,
or 600 unsung voices
I heard singing
in the bell
of Monticello’s dome?

Why is it closed off?
Why is everything so orchestrated
As if Jefferson felt he could direct
The course of nations
More easily than his legacy
Like a pair of doors that close
Together in accord by his hand

Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.

Ladders of Flame

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen
Copyright 2014 by Mary Clark
All rights reserved. For permission to use any portion or all of this document or photographs, please contact me at my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/maryclarkbooks

Excerpt from
Chapter 2 Ladders of Flame

Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their 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.

A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were 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.

Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

Watty Strouss 1981

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very 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.

“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “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 sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the 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 as well, 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.

From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars. Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.

I walked into the street: This is the fire, this is the glow as flames rise in the core, heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms, almost human, they flow along fire escapes: angels, angels walking on ladders of flame.

Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life – The Book

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In 1999, I published Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life, a collection of stories, poems, and art from Manhattan’s famous West Side neighborhood. Hell’s Kitchen is bordered on the east by Times Square, the Broadway Theater District and Fashion Avenue, on the west by the Hudson River, on the north by Columbus Circle, and on the south by the Chelsea neighborhood. I lived in HK for twenty years, working for community organizations. In January 1993, I started a monthly newspaper, the Clinton Chronicle, which I edited and published until early 1998. These stories, poems, essays, photographs, and artwork are drawn from editions of that paper.

Fiction includes Darryl Croxton’s “When Eagles Scream & Roses Bleed” about an unforgettable former Follies dancer, Forrest Clark’s feline adventure “The Broadway Cat,” and Chris Brandon’s edgy take on HK living, “The Kitchman.”

Non-Fiction includes Carrie Amestoy’s “The Color of Difference,” and Clayton Brooks’ “10th Avenue.” George Spiegler wrote of the infamous murders of neighborhood teens in “The Capeman Murders.”

Poets included are: Chocolate Waters, Shannon Mullen, Jameson Currier, R. D. Thomas, Raymond St.-Pierre, Marc A. Thomas, Bernie Steinman, John Newsome, Forrest S. Clark, and David P. Duckworth.

Artists: Raul Manzano (see his watercolor of The Broadway Cat), Cyn McLean, Forrest S. Clark, and Philip Levine.

Originally published in 1999, a second edition is now available for free download – Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life on Scribd.com – or in print form – Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life on Lulu.

A New World for Literary Eyes

Literary Eyes showcases my poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and interactive writing. I am on the internet and in the world at large, and in my own perceptive awareness, as Mary Clark, Erin Yes, mc eyes, and other personifications. In the best tradition of Isak Dinesen and the Greenwich Village Bohemians, I am always transforming into new identities. My work celebrates our primitive innocence and intuitive self-guidance. It’s a new world every day, experienced by the brave. Above all, the words are living. Read, listen, deepthink, and enjoy!