I do love to work on commission. Michael Scharf wrote in asking me to expand on how “New York feels different now,” as I asserted in my list of things I miss. He asked me to include even the most obvious observations on the topic.
Of course New York has objectively changed, particularly since 9/11, although I don’t think 9/11 was the catalyst for my feelings about how the city has changed. I also know that New York has changed objectively in the last few decades, but everyone knows that, and I didn’t come here until 1999, when all of the gentrifying socioeconomic changes were well underway, so I really didn’t mean that.
I was speaking purely about my subjective feelings about the NY poetry scene, which are of course created by my relationship to it, which has changed greatly in my near-decade here.
I remember saying, when I first got here, that the scene felt like a Renaissance court. It seemed to me that there were clear holders of power that one had to sort of kowtow to in order to curry favor. I’m not sure if that was really true, but that was my received impression from talking to Gary, Chris Stroffolino, Mitch Highfill, and Drew Gardner, who were more or less my first points of contact on arrival. Like most poets, they have their paranoiac tendencies (I hope they don’t mind my saying so), and their sociology of the scene very much colored mine, initially. At any rate, I was a newcomer looking in, and everything felt novel and strange (and hence, exciting).
For one thing, I had just arrived here from Japan. My frame of references was different. I felt a little like Rumpelstiltskin. I could talk about contemporary American poetry, mainly but not exclusively from the West Coast, through 1988. Beyond that, all I could talk about was butoh and Terayama Shuji. I also conversed in a different mode, at first. I couldn’t interrupt properly. I couldn’t really be ironic (isn’t that ironic?). And I certainly didn’t get ANY of the pop culture references. Lots of colloquialisms were lost on me, too: I remember Gary used the phrase “don’t go there” in one of his early emails to me and it sounded totally bizarre. I would cringe when I’d hear people say in pizzerias, “Can I get a slice?” Now I say that, too, although I try not to eat pizza.
I mean, I was in Japan a hell of a long time and during very formative years (24-35), and I arrived here under very bizarre circumstances, never having lived in NY before, and having only spent a week with Gary in the flesh before moving in with him (and, for a little while, with Chris as a roommate). I remember in the first couple of weeks being afraid to walk around the city, just like a Japanese tourist.
All that being said, the formations of the crowds at (for example) the Zinc Bar (and parties, and other spaces, although maybe not St. Marks, which continues to feel for me like a church) from 1999 to, say, 2003 (not sure if that’s the delineator, but anyway), seemed to me almost utopically intimate, and quite unlike, in terms of a shared poetics, what I was able to experience as an expat in Tokyo. The atmosphere also felt looser and differently engaged than what I remembered from San Francisco in the 80s, less like an austere display of intellectual plumage and more playful, even kind of familial. I loved how the audience at the Zinc Bar in particular was practically right up against the reader, even though it was an awkward space, ergonomically (although not as awkward as the old Double Happiness, which was also, incidentally, an intimate-feeling space). Book parties at the now-gone Teachers & Writers space also gave poets a lot of friendly mixing time.
It’s funny, but I hadn’t thought about the extent to which physical space affects the social formations of poetry. Now most things happen at the Bowery Poetry Club, which is a narrow and distancing space that doesn’t, because events are so rushed in a little window of time, necessarily foment intimacy. I think the new Zinc Bar is beautiful, ideal really, and could be something quite wonderful if more people would actually go habitually and make a core audience. I remember some days at the old Zinc Bar, Gary and I would be like 40% of the audience, and we went really regularly. We should have got a medal or something.
If I compare NY to my trips to San Francisco, where readings so often take place in people’s living rooms, I feel very sorry for this city indeed. Poets need lots of leisurely, playful, friendly time together, and readings should be packed with people in not-very-big spaces. That way the poet gets a lot of “chi” (energy) from the audience and the room starts to sort of vibrate.
Perhaps for us, the flarflist has become that “not-very-big” vibrating space? As more poetic activity (for us, anyway) has gone online, the less there is non-virtually? That could be one difference I feel.
I didn’t mean by my statement that “New York feels different now” to simply telegraph angst. For one thing, I certainly don’t feel like an outsider looking in anymore as I’m very often likely to be the one curating an event I’m interested in. I feel very happily connected to so many brilliant people here, perhaps more people of more awesome stature and achievements than I could ever have dreamed of knowing. So I’m grateful for that.
I suspect many of my feelings of “difference” could simply be connected to my age. Friends have children (O but I love when Safi or Coco are around at events), obligations, wearinesses. (Or they have moved out of New York for better employment and standards of living?) There are very likely other poetry scenes going on in NY right now that I’m not privy to as a near-elder (I thought it was PMS, but now I’m hot-flashing: god, this bridge-age is terrible). It’s like maybe I’m seeing everything through bifocals now and so it feels different? I don’t know. Mike, what do you think? I know you’re not here right now (or are you?), but I’d love to hear your perspective, especially as a recent (future? I think I’m confused about where you are) expat.
Other New Yorkers? Your thoughts?