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.
At the next Monday night reading, I greeted people and collected donations at the door to the downstairs theater. Afterwards, Richard, and poets Rochelle Ratner, Jim Bertolino, Maurice Kenny, and I went for coffee.
A compact, intense but friendly older man with a short pony tail, Maurice was co-editor with Josh Gosciak of Contact/II, a Bimonthly Poetry Review.
I had noticed that he was selling postcards of Native American poetry and artwork at the reading. Maurice said he was a Mohawk from upstate New York. The postcards were from his Strawberry Press, publishing the work of diverse Native Americans. Among them were Joseph Bruchac, Wendy Rose, and Joy Harjo. (In 2019, Harjo was named the United States Poet Laureate.)
The conversation flowed as lively as a deep woods stream tangling with the strong tides of an urban harbor, a stirring concordance of languages. I had a wonderful time and did not get home ’til 2 a.m.
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.
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.”
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.
I had my poetic license in the back pocket of my blue jeans. And miles to go, miles of snow, a transfigured night and all in sight covered in a winding sheet of white.
Stopping at a snowy Ninth Avenue, face and hands wrapped against the wind, I contemplated the divide before me. Ice-crystals glittered in streetlights and snow fenced sidewalks. The city streets were deserted, and I was alone in the canyoned silence. On the avenue’s arctic slope, deep within the haunting sound of a muted city I could hear gypsy cabs snorting dragon-breath in the dark, and I would have stayed to watch fringes of icicles on fire escapes glow in the dying light. *
Crossing Ninth Avenue, I heard the wolf howl in the wind. Into a gap hacked in frozen snow I pioneered westward to a narrow trail leading past four- and five-story buildings. Snow camel-backed on parked cars. Bare choirs of trees fell silent, only ticking now and then in frozen despair,* until a faint glow, just the slightest cinematic glimmer, fell on the crooked path. I leaned back, one hand on a rack of ice, to see above me a living painting: a red brick building with tall arched windows of earth and sky-colored glass, indigo peaked gables and copper crosses with a green patina springing from a luminous, roiling gray sky.
Double wooden plank doors painted in vertical stripes of chipped and tattered red, white, and blue were shuttered against the cold and any vagrants or visitors who might venture in. Hiking up the steps, kicking footholds in rime-encrusted snow, I peered through wire netting at an empty stairway to heaven. Tracking again through Technicolor traces from the lighted windows, I discovered a second set of steps and a brightly lit hallway. A bare bulb in a metal cage hung above the steps. I looked up and down the street of tenements and brownstones, and on windowsills and steps festooned with snow, there was no other light.
A royal blue and white plaque with a strident red cross sparked through a crust of frost: Welcome to St. Clement’s.
On the far side of a railing, steps led to a single recessed arch, and winding down and up again, I began knock-knocking-knocking on heaven’s door.
A small round bell bolted to the brick caught my eye. I heard the buzz resound and die. *
Richard Spiegel, the director of the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, opened the door. “Mary?”
In his early thirties, Richard’s long, wavy chestnut hair and trimmed beard shone with a soft gleam of mahogany and substrata strands of red.
I stepped inside. “I promised I’d come one day.” My eyes pulsated with red and white light as I thawed from the glacial trek.
I was one of only three. We read wine-poetry and drank red wine in chipped cups from St. Clement’s kitchen.
Like an infant discovering sound after sound
A voice is finding its tongue
And we, in whom earth chose to light
A clear flame of consciousness,
Are only beginning to learn the language—
We who are made of the ash of stars,
Who carry the sea we were born in,
Who spent millions of years learning to breathe,
Who shivered in fear at the reptiles’ feet,
Who trained eyes and hands in the trees
And came down, slowly straightening
To look over the grasses, to see
That the world not only is . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . But is beautiful—
We are Earth learning to see itself,
To hear, touch, and taste. What it wants to be
No one knows: finding a way
In starlight and dark, it begins in beauty, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . It asks only time.
On 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.
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
We opened the pens and let them out On the Florida prairie, the young whooping cranes, They were so beautiful in that early light, As I watched them walk into an amber mist, Their cinnamon and beige feathers melding with The delicate reds and golds of the marsh grass, Before they disappeared in the morning glimmer That flashed like sparks from the lake
My mother raised me and my older brother After my father died, teaching me the ways Of the wild she had learned over a decade, Having been born in captivity, released from a pen, A one year old with no survival skills, A small instinctual handbook carried beneath her wings, And she taught me and my brother to be wary, Look both ways, and stay close by her side
I loved to stalk through the marsh, and romp In the prairie grass, splash in the swamp, Fly with my brother, hang ten With the Sandhills coming in to evening roost And my mother said they looked like our shadows, Friendly ghosts, who would help keep away the terror That comes in the night, but when I was six The terror came and took my brother
My mother and brother built a nest And we were surrounded by eyes cold With moonlight, as he stood with wings outspread To defend us, and the nest, our future, But they lept and dragged him away. Soon after I saw the large figures scrambling around The marsh, and then they cried out And took away his body
You can’t imagine the surprise my pilot and I felt When we flew over a marsh by Lake Okeechobee The little plane making a small insignificant shadow On the vast expanse of water and marshlands, And saw two cranes nesting in the wildest Of wild places, and when we landed we saw The older female, and with her, a younger female By a decimated nest
Okeechobee is not a safe place to be, to nest, To thrive, and we found the young male Or what was left of him, thanks to the transmitter And as we left we hoped the other two Would abandon this place, and fly north To the ranches and preserves of Osceola County, And again we agonized over the death toll Of this experimental flock
My mother and I flew back and forth from the big lake To the smaller one, and spent our days feeding From the troughs alongside the cattle, in spite of the odor, And whenever the large figures would appear, Holding black objects and huddling or darting around, Sometimes my mother would say, ignore them, And other times, let’s go, They’re getting on my nerves
I watched the cranes for another five years, The older female was over 20, a good Long life for a captive-raised crane in the wild, And her daughter, 1441, was over 10, Without a mate and only her mother For a companion; sparks of crimson And brilliant white In the tall green grass at sunset
And then I saw her, alone, on Canoe Creek Road Radiant on the ranches and farms of Lake Kissimmee, The younger female, now in her prime, And I went home, only to wake up in the dead Of night, and think of that whooping crane: How people who see her will whoop With pride at having seen her in the wild, And how resilient she is, and how vulnerable
And what does it matter, one lonely bird On one lonely road When there are people dying in Syria, When there’s the scourge of cancer, When children are caught in the crossfire? But I can’t help thinking of you, 1441, On this dark night
Copyright 2017 by Mary A. Clark
289 whooping cranes were released into the wild in Central Florida between 1993 and 2004 in an effort to create a non-migratory flock. In 2008 about 30 were still alive. The project was ended due to the high mortality and lack of success raising chicks. As of 2017 only fourteen survive. Four chicks born in the wild survived to adulthood. 1441 is one of them.