Chapter 42: Poetry and Politics

Bowery Poetry Club in downtown New York City, 2002

(This is chapter 42 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

Heavy emotions hung in the air around New York City in early 2002.

By early 2002 the pile of debris at the World Trade Center site had finally stopped burning and smoking. The “Have You Seen ___?” posters and handbills all over the city had peeled and crackled to the ground during the winter. Meanwhile, the discussions of why the attacks happened, and how the USA should respond, continued to heat up.

I had felt like a blank slate immediately after the attacks: I had never heard of Al Qaeda, had never remotely imagined that such a thing could happen in my city. My first emotional reaction to the attacks had been a strong feeling of gratitude towards my fellow New Yorkers and fellow Americans for bearing the horror with such dignity and unity. But in the weeks and months that followed I also became aware that the attacks had unleashed a new level of hatred between people of different nationalities, religions and ethnic groups around the world.

It was clearly Osama bin Laden’s goal to polarize the world with his shocking act of violence, and it was very frustrating to realize how well he succeeded in doing this. For instance, there was a steep rise in bombings and atrocities in Israel and Palestine after September 11. Meanwhile, many Americans began arguing that we needed to respond to the attacks with a show of force: invade the Middle East, get tough, finally kick some ass. Many believed that we now had a rare opportunity to depose warlords and dictators, install democratic governments, solve the Israel/Palestine standoff in the bargain, and eventually make peace with the defeated Arab lands just as we’d eventually made peace with Germany and Japan after World War II. When George W. Bush gave a State of the Union speech in January 2002 containing harsh words about an “axis of evil” including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, many commentators began to wonder if we were ramping up for aggressive military initiatives along these lines.

I was vexed to learn how many of my own friends, family members and neighbors believed it would be a good idea for us to fight a major war against the forces of militant Islam. It was widely believed that Al Qaeda represented some new kind of enemy, motivated by religious fanaticism, implacable “like Hitler”. Because I am Jewish, I was expected to support a muscle-bound strategy in the Middle East. I heard constant comparisons to Hitler and Chamberlain, and constant reminders of the dangers of appeasement. I noticed that many people seemed to also feel some sentimental attraction to the bygone patriotic spirit of World War II and hoped for a new manifestation of that spirit — as if the USA would go to war and there would be milkshakes at drugstore fountains and kissing in Times Square.

Having done a lot of reading about the real misery and obscene waste of human life that was World War II, I was very disappointed to realize that many Americans felt that a new major war could be a constructive force in the world, or a “character-building experience”. I’d sooner believe in Santa Claus.

I was as outraged as everybody else about the September 11 attacks, but I could not see any value in this outrage unless there were ethical principles behind it. The idea that a valid response to our city being bombed was to bomb other cities left my head spinning.

When I expressed this to my friends and family members and neighbors, I was often told that I didn’t understand the extreme fanaticism of our enemies. “Islamic fundamentalists are different,” somebody would tell me. “They don’t even care if they die.”

“How is that different?” I’d ask. “What about kamikaze pilots in World War II? What about Nathan Hale? What about Pickett’s Charge? What about Masada?”

“Yeah,” I’d hear back, “but Al Qaeda is still totally different.”

“Different how?”

“It just is.”

Because I was against a preemptive war, many people I talked to suspected I’d become a soft-brained peacenik liberal, or a self-hating American, or a self-hating Jew. I was often told that Muslims could never live at peace with Jews, to which I usually responded that Muslims and Jews had lived together much more peacefully than Christians and Jews during the last 1000 years, and could certainly do so again in the future.

The debates I got into tended to be intense, and helped me harden my own convictions. The wisest politician I can think of is Mahatma Gandhi, and I find his arguments for pacifism utterly intelligent, important and correct. Many people tell me that humanity is fated to fight wars forever, that peace is impossible. I believe, with Gandhi, that peace is not only possible but obvious, and I think it’s reasonable to hope that ordinary people around the world will eventually wise up to the fact that military-backed ethnic nationalism is a fraud and an unsustainable way of life. It’s funny that people call me naive, when they are the ones who believe that war can help people’s lives.

Anyway, it happens that I had a lot of time to sit around debating political philosophy with friends and neighbors in early 2002, because I was still unemployed, and not finding any new consulting work at all. Maybe the economic problems added to some of the general emotional intensity of the time, especially in New York. The economy had already been bad before the September 11 attacks, but now it was even worse. And it was especially bad for software developers, because many companies froze new project spending after September 11.

I had picked an absolutely terrible time to begin my career as an independent consultant. I had already burned through my savings and was heading for big trouble. By the spring of 2002 I’d begun putting my rent onto my credit cards, and desperately trying to find full-time or part-time work through headhunters, connections, newspaper ads … anything.

I didn’t know how to be poor. I had never checked prices in a supermarket before, had never had to think hard about whether or not to buy a CD I wanted or take the kids to a movie. I had to lower my monthly child support payments to Meg, which meant her financial situation was now in trouble too. We both cut spending severely and began explaining to the kids why we couldn’t buy them things like we used to. I was impressed with how easily they brushed off this news.

I also didn’t know how to spend my time unemployed. It wasn’t a good feeling to wake up alone on a weekday morning and feel the day’s empty hours shaming me. Before, I’d never had enough time to do everything I’d wanted to do. I never imagined that I’d find myself with time and nothing to use it for. I listened to a lot of music, watched TV, read books, wrote new articles for LitKicks, sent lots of copies of my resume out with little hope of hearing anything back.

As I became more involved in the public dialogue following September 11, I found myself yearning to do live poetry events again in New York City. I hadn’t done any readings at all since the big blowout at the Bitter End in the summer of 1999, and I felt completely removed from that world, totally out of the circuit. It seemed like a good time to jump back in.

My first chance came when two Dutch poets I’d never heard of emailed me: they were flying into New York City and doing a big show in a 500-person theater in the Lower East Side — did I want to perform and did I know any other good poets? I recommended Brian Hassett, my blogger friend Leslie Harpold and a LitKicks poet from Queens named Lucy Torres. I figured it’d be fun, though I couldn’t imagine how this Dutch couple thought they would fill a 500-person theater with a poetry show.

It turns out I was right, because I got a phone call about 1 pm on the day of the show. They were calling from the airport: “You know how many people will come to the show?” one of them said in a heavy Dutch accent.

“I have no idea.”

“The theater says we must sell 100 tickets or they will lose money. Did you announce on your website? Can you put posters up?”

I had announced it on LitKicks, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to run around doing last-minute publicity work for somebody else’s show. It was now obvious that these two poets had no idea how to arrange a poetry reading. “No,” I said, “I can’t put posters up for you on the day of the show.”

“Is there a radio station you can call, get the word out?”

“I’ll get right on that,” I said, laughing to myself. The night turned out to be a hilarious disaster — a 500-person theater without a single attendee except for the other poets, Lucy Torres’s family and two friends of mine who were nice enough to show up and pay the entrance fee. But we all had fun, even if the two Dutch poets looked slightly shell-shocked and the theater owners very angry. It felt good to stand up on a stage again for the first time in a year and a half.

Just a few days later, Jamelah Earle posted an invitation to a LitKicks poetry gathering in Battle Creek, Michigan. I didn’t know Jamelah very well at this point, but I got a kick out of the fact that she just decided to have a LitKicks gathering without even telling me in advance, despite the fact that I thought LitKicks was mine. Just for the hell of it, and because I didn’t have much to do back in New York, I decided to drive out for the event.

I brought two excellent poets with me, George Wallace of Huntington, Long Island and Deb Ruel, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter eager for new venues to play in. We drove all the way through Pennsylvania and Ohio — where we stopped to see a memorial for Hart Crane — and into Battle Creek, Michigan, the town where breakfast cereals were born, where we found a hip art gallery owned by a guy named John Hart packed with a rollicking local crowd very receptive to hearing poetry from a few strangers who’d just rolled in from New York.

Unfortunately, I think my own performance that night was terrible — stupidly, I’d expected to find an empty room like in the theater on the Lower East Side and had barely prepared anything at all. But George Wallace and Deb Ruel both rose to the occasion, and we ended the event with a long, lively open mic in which every single member of the audience eventually got up and did something, even if it was just armpit tricks or dirty jokes. We then retired to a local saloon to get really, really wasted. It was one of my favorite poetry readings ever.

Back in New York City, my friend Eliot Katz told me that Bob Holman was about to open a new poetry club on the Bowery near Bleecker Street, across the street from the legendary nightclub CBGBs where punk rock had been born and the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith all started their careers. I sent Bob an email and he invited me to come to the Bowery Poetry Club’s opening in April 2002.

The opening was a beautiful event. I marveled at the empty, still-unfinished industrial brick-walled space, met many of the folks who would become the Bowery Poetry Club staff and regulars, and read an impromptu poem on a makeshift stage. Bob had been at my Bitter End poetry show in 1999 and now asked if I wanted to put together a new LitKicks poetry show in a few weeks. I had a lot of free time on my hands, so this seemed like a fine idea.

I started emailing poets I wanted to perform: Todd Colby, Eliot Katz, Papa Susso, Nicole Blackman, Stephan Smith, George Wallace, Mark Thomas, Brian Hassett, Pat Russell, Will Hodgson, even my sister Sharon Groth. For a special finale I invited Sander Hicks, onetime publisher of Soft Skull books (and, unbeknownst to many, an excellent lead vocalist) to perform with his punk band White Collar Crime.

Since it was April 2002 and there hadn’t been much poetry during the long winter, they all seemed to understand without my telling them that this would be a memorial show, and very different in mood from the typically riotous spoken word poetry show. I invited them each to read works about September 11 if they wanted, and told them the event would have a “peace” theme. I then made a bunch of posters and pasted them up all over New York City.



It was a good, touching show. We didn’t pack the house like we had at the Bitter End in ’99, but we filled at least half the room. I thought Nicole Blackman and Sander Hicks were especially good that evening, and I was moderately happy with my own performance of a cut-up poem called “Fight”, a collage of clashing expressions of violence that expressed what I was feeling at the time.

It felt great to do something on a public stage, and to help open the Bowery Poetry Club, one of my favorite places in New York City to this day. And when it was over I found myself back at home, watching TV, working on LitKicks, looking for work, watching my credit card bills grow.

9 Responses

  1. This wonderful chapter
    This wonderful chapter celebrates the germ of poet power and how it needs feeding. You fed it. Jamelah fed it. Bob Holman and all fed it. (It’s hard to be a poet and eat)

    Your poster is wonderful. How’s the committee doing? Jerusalem and Tibet are still separate words.

  2. Oh, that first reading. So
    Oh, that first reading. So many things I could say, and so many things I’ll not say at all. I remember being totally surprised that you were going to show up. I of course didn’t really plan anything, other than to have some people read some stuff. And some people read some stuff, so that part worked out really well. I learned a lot from that reading, like that I should put some thought into events before they actually happen, and not to plan things for Michigan in March (remember the blizzard?). I was really happy to meet you, though. Also, that John Hart sure can throw a party.

  3. I forgot all about that
    I forgot all about that blizzard! Yeah, there was a whole lot of snow in Michigan.

  4. …..i remember the times
    …..i remember the times well….wondering when the world is going get righted still…..i had just opened my wireman gallery in baltimore during that summer of ’01 and was doing good until 9/11 changed all of our lives…..i remember posting on litlicks in december that i’d perform poems by litkicks poets who wanted me to do so, at funks democratic coffee house in baltimore….there was a great response to this offer, culminating when i performed 12 litkicks poets on a tuesday night in february 2002 for a packed coffee house….i learned a lot from those performances….

  5. Two Thousand and two was a
    Two Thousand and two was a heady year. Things were hopping here in Chattanooga also. Meanwhile, in New York, I didn’t realize that the Bowery Poetry Club was that new.
    I thought several years ago that it was something affiliated with the St. Mark’s -in- the- Bowery church “happenings”. I knew that there had been a fire at the church. I lost touch with the news and didn’t find out if it had been renovated and restored. Has it?… Anyhow, you guys got in on the ground floor on this “happening”-as we used to call these events back in the day. More power to New Yorkers, et al, who stayed in touch and had their ears and eyes open. We had our ears on down here too, but not quite as much. At least we elected a Democratic governor…

  6. did you mean to say you
    did you mean to say you didn’t have a lot on your hands ?

    I had a lot on my hands, so this seemed like a fine idea.

    empty theater sounds like my kinda venue

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