|Kurt Lamkin performs an improvisational jam with a West African kora, a 21-string harp-lute, at the Bowery Poetry Club. (Globe Photot / Joe Tabacca )|
NEW YORK - This is a city where spaces are sometimes tiny but love of the arts is intense, so I'm accustomed to elbowing my way through crowded music venues and dodging people for a better view.
This evening I join a packed house in the East Village, but we're not here for ska or punk but to watch a slam poetry contest. Patrons at the Bowery Poetry Club nurse beers and cocktails as they nod to the rhythm of words. When a performer finishes, applause reflects only mild appreciation. If you really dig a poem, you stomp your feet and holler.
No longer relegated to bookstores and libraries, literary readings are assuming a bigger place in the city's night life. Not since the Beat Generation have bars been so central to literary culture, and this time the venues and offerings are more diverse. Poetry clubs, old and new, pack in crowds for slam competitions. Intimate lounges and neighborhood pubs supplement live music shows with readings and open mikes. Publications like The Village Voice, TimeOut New York, and The L Magazine have separate readings listings. Having attended readings all over downtown for a few years, even I was surprised at how many venues I could visit in a single week.
The Bowery Poetry Club was founded in 2002 by Bob Holman, who previously organized slam nights at the Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side. The performance space is in the back, through the Bowery's organic cafe. A DJ booth looms over the bar area, and eclectic artwork hangs on the exposed brick walls. Next to the stage sits a Lite-Brite portrait of Walt Whitman. Cocktails bear names like Leaves of Grasshopper and the Allen "Gin"sberg.
The Bowery stands out from other poetry venues because of the number of events on its calendar. Besides slams, there are book launch parties, staged readings, and fringe theater with ninja puppets performing Shakespeare. This evening's show was pure well-rehearsed poetry, with teams coming from as far as Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio. The diverse groups recited rhythmic, emotional, and often angry monologues on race, gender, politics, and poverty. Speaking of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, Carlos Gomez from Columbus exclaimed, "How does a Thai villager prove his family has lived in this plot of land for five generations when he has never needed a deed to come home?"
A teacher from Columbus dedicated a poem to his Latino students, who draw themselves in art class with light skin and blond hair. "Look for other colored pencils," he said. "Smile when you look at yourself in the mirror." There were few performers for whom the crowd didn't stomp or holler.
The Nuyorican Poets Café is a slightly smaller but no less popular poetry venue that dates from 1973. It also has ties to the Beats: William Burroughs once read here, and Ginsberg showed up frequently to listen or perform. Poet Miguel Piñero, a co-founder, said the mission of the Nuyorican is to be a performance space for artists from diverse backgrounds who are underrepresented in the mainstream media. The event I attended was an open mike slam for new poets. Some appeared painfully shy and read off paper, while others were extremely comfortable, even taking the mike into the audience.
According to John, the emcee who goes by his stage name Jive Poetic, the Nuyorican is a multicultural stronghold in an ever more gentrifying area. "It's not a matter of Nuyorican fitting into the neighborhood," he said. "I'm worried about the neighborhood fitting in with the Nuyorican. As long as the poets come, the Nuyorican will still be here." The large crowds at each slam, both performers and listeners, suggested that the club still has plenty of fans.
The East Village has no shortage of quirky literary bars, but the one I find myself returning to often is the KGB Bar. The brownstone that houses the KGB usually has at least a few book-clutching literary types hanging out on the steps. The bar on the second floor plays up its history as a former clubhouse for Ukrainian socialists by decorating its walls with Soviet propaganda posters and photos. Whatever your political affiliations, it's hard to argue with the KGB's egalitarian approach to literature. All the readings are free. Drinking is encouraged but not required. According to the KGB's website, the writers receive no compensation for reading except for free drinks and an attentive audience.
These incentives have drawn such literati as Jonathan Franzen, Michael Cunningham, Augusten Burroughs, and Rick Moody. At a recent event hosted by the NYC Writers Circle, local writers Jennifer Belle and Jon Armstrong read from recently published novels and shared their experiences. Another event featured novelist Arthur Phillips, who read from the first draft of a work in progress. He enlisted the help of an audience member who did a dead-on Billie Holiday impression to read and sing a few lines as the jazz singer; the cooperative effort elicited wild applause.
Outside the East Village, literary venues have a bit more polish. The Half King in Chelsea is a classy pub that draws neighborhood regulars in collared shirts and summer dresses. In the candlelit dining room, table tops held more wine glasses than beer bottles. The Half King has featured not only its acclaimed co-owners Sebastian Junger and Scott Anderson, but also Philip Caputo, Bret Easton Ellis, and Myla Goldberg.
Clay Ezell, the readings organizer, said that although the Half King occasionally presents fiction and poetry readings, it "might be the only place in town that focuses on narrative nonfiction." The clout of the bar's owners has attracted top-notch writers and a steady audience since it opened five years ago. "Some nights we have to turn people away because of fire code regulations," Ezell said.
He is quick to point out New York as a literary haven. "There are great readings all over town, like at the KGB. New York attracts so many writers that venues can show off different angles and styles."
From the foot-stomping energy of Bowery's poetry slams to the intimate nonfiction readings at the Half King, my literary bar-hopping showed that books and drinking happily coexist in the city any night of the week. Now to decide where to go next . . .
Diana Kuan, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.