First Words

January 04, 2022
• New York

IT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME to be there for it all: the Poetry Project’s Forty-Eighth Annual New Year’s Day Marathon reading. Beginning at 11 a.m. and ending just after midnight, the fundraiser is my favorite New York City tradition, a sentiment echoed by many of the more than hundred and sixty poets who performed remotely over the course of the day on January 1, 2022. The Poetry Project—an institution by and for poets predicated on the virtue of nonhierarchical community-building—has been around since 1966, offering readings, lectures, workshops, and intergenerational mentorship to emerging writers. Just two weeks ago, I invited a friend from out of town to be my date for the promised in-person festivities, to be hosted at St. Mark’s Church, where I have spent so many New Year’s Days ducking in and out of that grand old stone building while poets read, danced, and made music to fluctuating crowds of kindred spirits. Then Omicron swept the city and my paper planner became a grid of erasures. Marathon organizers announced that the day would be a hybrid of prerecorded and livestreaming offerings, a haunting return to the strictures of the 2021 lockdown. So Tina stayed home in Philly while I made coffee and hunkered down in front of my laptop, spending the first half of the day in Jeanne Dielman drag as I cleaned my kitchen of the last night’s party dregs while poets came to me through the laptop.

Over text, poet Sara Jane Stoner and I debated the thematic trends we saw emerging across the poems. She noticed abundant talk of piss—ranging from the aromatics of cat pee to reference of Duchamp’s urinal to screened archival footage of deceased downtown doyenne Cookie Mueller reading a funny-sad story in 1989 about a man named Dodge who considers drinking urine as a homeopathic cure for AIDS. I, on the other hand, took a special interest in the recurring motif of trees, specifically the eighty-year-old trees currently being razed at the East River Park in downtown Manhattan as part of a highly contested flood protection plan. Indeed, the day’s first reader was dancer/land and water protector Emily Johnson, who implored viewers to follow the anti-demolition protest movement @1000people1000trees. Hopeful, yet trembling: she asked, “What of rupture is rapturous?” Later in the hour, her comrade Marcella Durand shared a piece in honor of the decimated foliage. Farid Matuk, presenting a video-poem featuring footage of desert skies, a pool at night, and the preparation of dolmathes observed in voiceover: “It’s the trees who own the poets.” Scribbling his wisdom, I looked up at the event’s chat to see this line being echoed by other listeners.

As the sun set, I masked up and carried the marathon with me to the gym, catching the word “otherworlding” and feeling confessedly cynical as I stared up from my elliptical at the row of television monitors blaring variations on ESPN. I started wondering what it would be like if I could petition the management to screen the marathon, if the muscled bodies performing slow reps would stop in the tracks of their ritual and find something akin to grace inside these language experiments. Or giggle through their macho focus, as I did earlier in the afternoon at my apartment when I watched Miguel Gutierrez slide a printed page in front of his camera with the following narration of what was to come:

in which I improvise a dancewhere I take inspiration fromghosts of those close to me whohave died while contemplating theenormity of life and the power andfrailty of this meatsack i walkthrough it in in front of myboyfriend, who may or may notchoose to watch as he lies on the couch looking at one of his photo books

Miguel moved around the room invoking a fairy-kissed scene cut from a Fassbinder film, the queeny touch of a Cabaret poster hanging above the chaise. As his impishly blasé lover flipped through that book—he appeared nude—the ASL interpreter watched in blissful repose, and I delighted after the sparkly thoughts in her mind.

I brought these musings into the grocery store, chuckling as I listened through headphones to former Poetry Project director Anne Waldman describe the “alienated classroom of your own mind.” In the fall, I brought a group of undergraduates to see her perform alongside bassist William Parker and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis from her album Sciamachy at the First Union Congregational Society and they felt nothing less than assaulted by her wailing, occult-inflected tirade against ecological crisis, precipitating at the time a minor personal crisis regarding the limits of my ability to contextualize the rhetorical strategies of old heroes to a fresh crop of knife-minded students.

In “Need Song,” a prerecorded performance my aforementioned friend Sara Jane shared in the early evening, she surveyed the cultural landscape: “word we was a three-sided knife / spreading a thing over a thing / fingered the wall, gave turns to each side / risked limbs to be skimmed for scum.” In her words, I recognize my own near-religious desire to be wrecked by a transformative ordeal: to not only hear others but be irrevocably altered by their disparate truths which somehow achieve the effect of a scary whittling. I locate another desire to be physically at St. Mark’s Church, ignoring the vibrations of my phone, pleasantly clocking someone in a crowded room with whom I once shared love, a cigarette, or an epiphany. To be inside nothing less than the walls of a temporary yet elongated agreement.

I stop on the corner outside the Bank of America to listen to Lee Ranaldo play a little, very beautiful something on his acoustic. It had started to drizzle outside and my screen became wet. Normally a dry-eyed citizen, I begin to cry along with the rain, the second time in the last eight hours I’d been brought to spontaneous weeping listening to a faraway stranger share a missive from my favorite country: someone else’s life. Beside my computer, still dutifully streaming what plays on my device, lies an open copy of Alice Walker’s 1979 Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful. Inside is a poem called “SM,” and I don’t really know what those initials mean, but it has been hanging over me all week. It seems to me a skeleton key to the problem of numbness. Walker writes:

I tell you, ChickadeeI am afraid of peopleWho cannot cryTears left unshedTurn to poisonIn the ductsAsk the next soldier you seeEnjoying a massacreIf this is not so.

People who do not cryAre victims of soul mutilationPaid for in Marlboros And trucks.


Violence does not workExcept for the manWho pays your salaryWho knowsIf you could still weepYou would not take the job.

 As I stare at the naked branches outside my window and marvel that I failed to notice when they lost all their leaves, Pamela Sneed shares a new poem that virtuosically moves from the perversity of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict to a bittersweet review of Halle Berry’s Bruised. My sleep-inducing edible has just kicked in, I’ve purchased Kay Gabriel’s Kissing Other People or the House of Fame in a smitten-fit of tiny decadence, and now Kyle Dacuyan, the Poetry Project director, is raising a glass of whiskey to the end of the night—$47,000 in the coffers. I make a New Year’s resolution to purge my poisons, say more “no’s” to what compromises my integrity, and pay closer attention to this tree that has kept me company the last ten years.

— Jess Barbagallo