The Poetry Kit
New York and what I did to it.
Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen is Manchester’s very own undead performer extraordinaire. She has been described as ‘one of the country’s finest performance poets’ (Apples and Snakes) and a ‘must-see act’ (The Fed).
Earlier this year she decided to take on America and set off for New York City.
I dumped my bag on the floor and turned the air-con on full. So, what made me think for one moment that I could take on New York and come out on top? Where on earth had I found the confidence to come here on my own with a 6-day run of performances that I’d blithely set up in the comfort of my computer chair 5000 miles away? What was I thinking?
Outside, a thunderstorm was wondering whether to break. The temperature had swooped from the 70s to the 90s in under an hour and humidity was off the scale. Welcome to a New York City summer. It was possible I’d made a terrible mistake.
Time for my first gig, a quick stand-up-and-do-a-poem at the Bowery. How many years had I dreamed of performing here? More than I can count. Excited to the point of ‘uncool’? You betcha.
I turned up; not many people about. I went to the bar out the back and asked, very politely, if Gary Glazner was about, the new organiser who had invited me to come along and perform a poem or two. The barman looked at me as if I was something dirty (& not in a good / sexy / interesting way), said not here, and then returned to his fascinating monologue on what constitutes lager beer, aimed at the five scrawny boys polishing the counter with their elbows (apparently it’s a light beer. I never knew that. Thanks, barkeep). I wondered if this was the kind of greeting New York was going to give me all week. I understand ‘New York Rude’, but oh dear, this wasn’t it. This was just plain f*cking unwelcoming.
New York Rude has a life-affirming energy to it. Oh, here’s one I prepared earlier…
New York Rude knows why it’s here, and what it wants
How it’s going to get it, the shortest route to make that happen.
New York Rude shouts outta my way!
Because you aren’t looking where you’re going,
And it is, and its eye is firmly on the prize.
New York Rude says cut to the chase!
Not because it hates detours,
but because yours are only there to make you look good.
New York Rude sharp-elbows its way through any cat’s cradle
Of Town Hall hooey thrown in its direction.
New York Rude is I-am-here proud.
New York Rude leans out of its taxi window, gives you the finger
And screams fuck off, asshole!
New York Rude shouts butt out lady!
Stop busting my ass!
Because you are.
You have no idea of its journey from there to here,
And just how long it took.
New York Rude will not step to one side on a busy sidewalk
because it built that goddam sidewalk
and yes, it might clean out your hotel room,
But that does not ever make it your servant.
Despite my less-than-warm welcome (ahem), I stood up, did my poem, hung around for a beer with the seven other people there, then left, dignity intact (hey, I don’t have to carry that attitude around, he does). As for the Bowery: the wonderful, loving guidance of Bob Holman is no longer evident (he drew back in January 2007 for very good personal reasons). Is it searching for its new self? Perhaps, and I wish it well.
I’m glad that was the first gig. Get the shit stuff out of the way early on. The next night was my true New York welcome, at the enthusiastic and crowded Pink Pony West, run by the inspirational Jackie Sheeler. Sadly, it was the last event of its run, and I was so moved that she had invited me to be the New York Pride special guest poet.
It was packed to the back wall, with people who wanted to take poetry seriously, rather than themselves. I didn’t hear one (disputation) on lager beer. People spoke to me like they were pleased I was there. I realised I was pleased I was there.
I walked home through the West Village to my hotel off Union Square on 17th, through the noisy rain-wet streets where the temperature had tumbled to a fabulous 80 degrees (the US still does its temperature readings in old money). I felt enveloped in New York warmth walking up 3rd Avenue. I also felt safe. New York City has changed. I wouldn’t have dreamed of walking through Union Square 12 years ago when I was dating a Brooklyn gal. But that’s another article…
The next day brought two more poetry dates, two very different experiences. First up was Stark: Poetry on the Edge. Memorable, but not for the reasons intended. When I’d found it on the net in my search for gigs, I was drawn to its strapline ‘Poetry without boundaries: Without frontiers’. I thought, that’s for me.
In reality the ‘without frontiers’ translated as ‘without safety’. Its ‘anything goes’ ethic meant that the poetry I heard was overwhelmingly homophobic, sexist, racist, unedited, self-indulgent, badly-written porn. The turned-out insides of unfocused minds angry that the world doesn’t hail them as masters of their art. One performer (the best in my opinion) shrieked ‘Christianity is a whore’ repeatedly.
I snuck out, feeling guilty.
Later, I headed to The Bread is Rising at their base in the Peace House on the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker Street. Still a collection of outsiders, but with a connection to each other and to the world. A group of writers who have a strong affinity to their local area, and the struggle many have to get a living.
Outside, I got talking to a homeless guy who it turned out was on his way to the same gig, and who read about being a crack addict for thirty years. Cecil, a skinny camp black guy, read Maya Angelou and sang Aretha Franklin. I was reminded by everyone’s stories and anecdotes that the writing in the US is very connected to experiences of marginalisation.
And something I did not expect was The Bread is Rising People’s Poetry Award they gave me.
A place where people on the edge can genuinely find community, a space, a safety. And home-made food, thanks to Carlos’ mum.
My last two nights could not have bee more different - cabaret shows at the legendary Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row. All the Myspace goth friends I’ve made over the past year turned up in force, laughing and cheering.
I was bathed in the generosity and friendliness of New Yorkers. Especially by Brother Schmm who opened the night at The Bread is Rising with a libation to the ancestors. Long slim hands and long slim nails, calling on the spirits of those who’ve gone before us.
So, here’s to New York.
To Jackie Sheeler who picked up my tab at Don’t Tell Mama.
To Lillie who came to three of my gigs and offered to pay my Monday night tab (but I wouldn’t let him).
To the city that welcomed me to walk home through its streets every night.
To the subway, which I finally got the hang of.
To Hotel 17 and its lovely staff and its raddled punk guests telling me they liked my dressing gown when we collided in the corridor in the middle of the night.
To my small but perfectly sized room, just the right size to stretch out and enjoy.
And finally to the Joe Junior diner on 3rd and 16th, and the coffee that arrived the moment I sat down.
© Rosie Lugosi 2007