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.

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part)

In this “docu-memoir” I re-collect my first years in the midtown neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen (officially as Clinton). In the beginning I worked at St. Clement’s Church in the theater and poetry program as a volunteer. Later I ran the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, begun by poet and small press publisher Richard Spiegel a year or so before my arrival. From 1978 to 1983 the Poetry Festival was a great part of my life, as it still is: something we come to know as we grow older is that the past is always part of the present. Many poets, actors, and other artists appeared in PoFest productions. While I was working at the church, I came to know some of the neighbors and began attending local group meetings. Into The Fire is the story of how I found a place to call home.

This is an excerpt from Into The Fire, Part 1: 1978-1979

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.”

“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 the 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.