This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Painted Bride Quarterly and its stepsister the Painted Bride Art Center (as some of you may know, we share a name but we are separate non-profit entities). To celebrate, the Quarterly thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at the fine work the Art Center has done, particularly in bringing poets and writers to Philadelphia to read in its remarkable reading series.
What started out as a celebration quickly turned into an exploration– of aesthetics, economics, chance, and community. We discovered alchemists among the Bride’s poetry curators. Behind the scenes at the Bride have been a long line of curators whose aesthetics and passion have inflected the reading series held there. These curators have helped create a treasure of the most ephemeral kind: a world-class reading series. Despite the powers of video tape, once the readers have read, the special magic of writer/audience/word/voice disappears. We hope here to document what goes into the work of curating: part inspiration, part intuition, and part secret knowledge. Though we would love to have talked to all of the curators who served the Bride, we chose curators Gil Ott (from the Bride’s early years) and Major Jackson (who ran the series during the 90s) to share their thinking on the subject of curating, community, and the pleasures of poetry.
PBQ: How did your personal aesthetics (what is good poetry, what good poetry does/sounds like/looks like) inform your curatorial choices?
Gil Ott: Not too much. You’ve got to realize when I was curating: the late 70’s and early 80’s. My own aesthetics were formative, but more so, the task at the time was to build a community. There was great, enormous talent in Philadelphia with very few venues to hear it. Each new venue comes with a new way of encountering the art, with the concomitant social aspects. I wanted to build a series that tapped this impressive pool of local poets, and gave the public as many ways as possible to participate. I helped put together the Active Poets Theater at the Bride on South Street, an informal salon which met weekly and which evolved to publish a journal called the Plum Series. I also coordinated a weekly poetry radio program on WXPN, back in the day when the station was community oriented. Since I was also publishing my own journal, called Paper Air, at the time, I wanted to promote alternative publishing in Philadelphia, so I organized two small press book fairs at the Bride. These were very successful. My first actual reading series was held at Myles Pettengill’s Middle Earth Books, and was aesthetically eclectic. Eleanor Wilner one week, Sonia Sanchez the next — many really great “local” poets who are still among us. I went on to curate the series at the Painted Bride in Old City, and continued to respond to the need for breadth and inclusion.
In answer to your question: I think I consciously suppressed my own aesthetic impulses for the perceived greater good of building community. This is not an altogether bad thing, but I did become frustrated at the lack of intellectual and aesthetic dialogue that is generated by a reading series, which tends to be more promotional and bottom-line oriented. By the mid-80’s, I was out of poetry curating (save for my own Singing Horse Press) entirely.
PBQ: What impact did curating the series have on your own writing? Or on your way of thinking about poetry?
Gil Ott: The aim of presenting is seamlessness. There’s a illusion, a magic that exists between the artist on the stage and the audience, and while one concern of mid to late 20th century performance has been to question and play with that relationship, it remains crucial. Where the curator benefits most is in the events which surround the organizing of the reading: the enhanced contact with writers s/he admires.
But perhaps your question is about the differences between the written/published poem, and the performed one. While it’s easy to say that these two exist on a continuum, they really are very different things. Writing/reading, these are more private than the public reading, which brings with it its own set of conventions and possibilities for invention. These differences are now so pronounced that it’s difficult for many to speak of the conventionally published poem and, say, the slam poem in the same breath. Poetry is perhaps the most flexible of arts, because it is the most basic. It seeps into every new crack. Poets collaborate in every conceivable artistic discipline; we have poetry on buses, on the Internet, in the schools. And it all remains poetry so long as it refers back to its foundations: the heart and mind, which are combined in the body, which yearns for community.
PBQ: What do you say about the interaction of the audience & the poet & the Bride (art center– and mag)? How did the readings build your audience/build community? What impact do you think poetry readings have?
Gil Ott: Philadelphia is very lucky to have the Bride (mag and Center). Both are class acts, with high production values, informed curating/editing, rich history, and independence (by which I mean non-academic). The alternative arts movement, with its government subsidies, which grew in the 70’s and 80’s, was damaged by the NEA censorship wars of the 80’s. Many cities lost their Painted Brides. The Quarterly has been a consistent ambassador to other cultural hubs for Philadelphia’s emerging arts in ways that the Art Center alone could not be.
I do not think that poetry readings have much impact. If they did, they’d be better attended. For the most part, they are historical, a sort or “reading into the record” — and promotional. But a place like the Painted Bride, which has the longest running poetry series in Philadelphia, gains cumulative substance. Occasions like Etheridge Knight’s residency there in the mid-80’s, or the spontaneous reading of THE SATANIC VERSES, with nearly 100 writers in attendance, when Rushdie’s fatwa was announced — these are events which could only have happened at the Painted Bride. We have needed a Painted Bride to serve as a flashpoint for the community.
PBQ: Who were your favorite readers, favorite poems? Put another way, what event was most memorable to you?
Gil Ott: Going back to your first question, about how curating informed my aesthetics, I organized two events at the Bride which were seminal to me personally. One was a week-long residency by the wonderful and influential poet and publisher Rosmarie Waldrop. A surprising number of poets (about 20) signed up for her workshops, and she was a very generous presence to have around. Early on I was influenced by (and I still listen very closely to) the poet John Taggart. I even dedicated an issue of Paper Air to his work. That issue was the first publication of his long work “Peace on Earth,” a prayer of sorts for Vietnam and our war there. I remember that I was so moved by the poem that I read it aloud, all 40 pages, on South Street in front of the Bride, in full, Whitmanic voice. I was surprised when I brought John to the Bride to read it, and his voice was soft, hypnotic, not at all what I’d assumed.
PBQ: Would you consider curating an art?
Gil Ott: Well, of course, curating can be approached as an art. For something to be an art, the putative artist has to approach it humbly, with an open mind and a willingness to be fully involved, to understand silence, to suggest when appropriate, and to respond when appropriate. Most curators don’t manage this, because the “form” of the reading comes with many constraints and demands. The appeal of an art form lies in its ability to support the artist’s freedom. Curating is more dialogical.
Editing is too, though its substance is more directly the creative act.
PBQ: How did your personal aesthetics inform your curatorial choices?
Major Jackson: Aesthetics are a great deal more fluid than what we are used to thinking. Some of the writers I was introduced to earlier in my life I simply did not appreciate. When I came to the Bride as first an intern, and then Finance Director, curating kind of fell into my lap after Lamont [Steptoe] decided to leave for various reasons. The Bride gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, as long as it was financially solvent.
What I’m trying to say is that I stepped to the job with a sense of arrogance, naivete, and an air of the impresario. My first programs wholly reflected my influences, my taste — performative and socially-relevant — unapologetically did not have much range. A key component of my vision as a curator was to provide an artistic forum for under-represented voices. I also wanted to open up and strip down the elite veneer of the Bride so that certain populations in Philadelphia could enter and not feel like art or its venues were alien to them. So, my first reading featured Amiri Baraka and The Roots (formerly Square Roots) and the Bride was packed: literary types, college students, old-guard activists, and Philly’s hip-hop community. It was an amazing evening! It represented all of my world’s, the spaces I then occupied; however, it was a poetry reading and tons of people were there, something like 250 or more, which made the Bride happy since they had not seen that kind of attendance in a long time for poetry.
Fortunately, if you live with a particular aesthetic for too long, (or anything for that matter) you tire of it; you desire something new. Additionally, I was reading and writing myself, broadening my grasp of contemporary writers and techniques, but also familiarizing myself with the community of local poets in Philadelphia. (That’s how Word UP!: City-Wide Poetry Fest came to being.) But I can honestly point to meeting Thomas Sayers Ellis and members of the Dark Room Collective as a turning point. I booked the Dark Room Collective to read in Philly. Afterwards, we became friends and a whole host of writers opened up to me. Too many to mention. Okay, a few: Bob Kaufman, Seamus Heaney (Thomas and Kevin Young had studied with him), Sam Allen, Clarence Major, the experimental community of writers that surrounded Brown University’s Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, Peter Gizzi and others.
All of this to say, aesthetics evolve. I still believe art administrators and curators should consciously seek out under-representative voices of our diverse communities. I still am attracted to socially relevant poetry, particularly when the critique is substantive and some element of the poetry is being pushed, is at stake, as if the volume were turned up, artistically speaking of course.
PBQ: What impact did curating the series have on your own writing? Or on your way of thinking about poetry?
Major Jackson: I’m not sure if it impacted much. However, it did heighten my appreciation for language and its use(s) in society. It’s a privileged and sacred space; no other moment in our lives do we gather to honor its importance than when we attend a poetry reading. I am still struck to awe whenever I listen to a poet, young or old, emerging or established. The idea of active listening, being engaged by another’s understanding of the world or dread or sense of fragmented reality, which is then rendered in this wonderful artifice of language and shared communally, excites me greatly. The music of thought and feeling, the life-rhythm embodied in the cadence of the voice (marked time, if I may), empowers, fortifies, and reaffirms who we are. I read somewhere that all poetry aspires to song, and songs are about praise, even songs of lament. So, my hope as a curator is that the audience walks away with their humanity in tact and ringing loudly in their ears.
I am lying. Of course curating impacted my writing but much later in my tenure. I tend to be a zealous kind of person. If I discover or am introduced to a writer, I consume their work, their corpus. I believe in imitation, in poetry as an art, a craft to be studied. (This gets me into a lot of trouble.) After reading a poet’s entire work, I want to physically hear them. Of course, I did not go through this process with everyone. But, this is how I honor them.
I majored in Accounting as an undergrad at Temple University. Curating was my means of catching up and I’ve learned a great deal about writing. Levine taught me about narrative movement in a poem; Sharon Olds taught me how to anchor a single, vibrant image in a poem. John Yau’s wit and sense of humor is underappreciated. Elizabeth Alexander is heir to Michael Harper’s project of creating open-ended myths through historical figures. One could learn much about lyricism couched inside a narrative frame by reading Garrett Hongo. I could go on and tell you what I’ve learned from most of the writers who read at the Bride while I was curating.
PBQ: Who were your favorite readers? What were your favorite poems?
Major Jackson: That’s a tough one. Most of the poets who gave successful readings at the Bride are not necessarily performative, the benchmark for a “good” poetry reading these days. I especially enjoy poets who do not rely on the dynamics of the stage but rather create a propulsive and redemptive space for the audience to leap into and to be swept away. I am thinking of Mark Doty’s “Mercy on Broadway,” Marie Howe’s “Kissing,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Anodyne.” Yusef often gives us a suite without much prefacing; you know, his presentation is seamless where each poem reveals even through all of the artifice an emotional center that is both familiar and alluring. Two days before Yusef first read at the Bride, another Louisianan artist performed, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard. He played the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s movie X, “The Malcolm X Suite.” After hearing both of them, in close proximity, I gathered the nature of Komunyakaa’s appeal. Levine struck me as avuncular with all of his stories and hilarity; but once he begins you understand it is a means of buttressing the absurdity in the lives of the people of which he writes about. I’ve also found this to be the case with Gerald Stern who is one of the most tender human beings I’ve met on the page and in life.
PBQ: What were some of the most memorable events you recall from your time at the Bride?
Major Jackson: In 1997, I left the Bride to attend graduate school at University of Oregon. I returned that fall for a reading, my only featured reading at the Bride, with Sharon Olds. I arrived and Sharon offered to read first; I laughed.
Most memorable event? Gwendolyn Brooks sitting at a table in the Bride’s cafe, signing books and talking, at length, to everyone that came out that beautiful Sunday evening – at least 250 people. Her reading lasted about 45 minutes; her one to one conversations went on for two hours. Crazy, right? Again, think about this in comparison to all the hype about web sites and email discussions.
In 1993, Audre Lorde died. I never met her, but I read her amazing poems of love and resistance. Coal particularly comes to mind. I decided to have a memorial reading. Half of the poetry and candle event was programmed with the help of Aisha Simmons and Jordan Keith and the other half was free-styled. So many people came out, brothers and sisters, lesbians and heterosexuals, gays and students, mothers and fathers. Essex Hemphill was still alive and gave a moving reading. There was a video presentation. Afterwards, we drank wine, ate bread, talked, folks brought fruit and water. All poetry events should be so festive.
PBQ: What do you think/feel about the interaction between the audience & the poet & the Bride (Art Center– and magazine)? Could you say something about the impact of a reading series and the art of curating?
Major Jackson: Not only am I a zealot, I tend to be a naive idealist. The first City-Wide Poetry Reading had as its aim fund-raising money to be split among the cafe reading series, and small presses that sent poets to read on their behalf. I wanted poets who read nightly in Philadelphia to be compensated, even if it amounted to nothing more than $20. Philadelphia, like many medium-to-large cities in the early to mid 90s, was barraged with a ton of poetry readings. Everyone walked away with $18.50. More importantly, the event brought everyone together; that kind of communal appreciation for poetry is always electrifying. Have you ever attended the Dodge Poetry Festival? It’s almost like church. . . well a little more cultist. I do not use that word pejoratively either. This country has a robotic-like drive for industry, technology, money, sports and competition. It saddens me when mega-mergers and mere Dow numbers become our headline news as if their was something courageous and heroic about it all. So, to attend poetry readings or festivals, large and small, reawakens my belief in humanity’s capacity to enrich and to feed that part of us — if its not dead yet — that wonders and looks on in awe at the miracle of existence.
Even if I only attend one reading per year or crack open one page of the PBQ per month, there is something extraordinarily edifying that no cell phone could come close to providing. Charge me with comparing apples to oranges, but to answer your question, this is the impact of a poetry readings, of literary journals, of art.