Given his involvement with the No 7-Eleven campaign and the relaunch of the Bowery Poetry Club in a new location, the poet Bob Holman occupies the crossroads of several vectors of change on the Bowery. Not that that’s anything new for him: since the ’70s, in his various roles as coordinator of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, author, editor, emcee and archivist (among other things), Holman has perhaps done more than anybody else to foster and grow the Bowery’s long and storied oral poetry tradition.
That tradition is ineluctably political, too, especially in the face of change in the East Village and Lower East Side. Like many other longtime neighborhood residents, Holman decries the increasing “homogenization” of the neighborhood, and is doing everything in his power to prevent it.
Tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the St. Mark’s Bookshop, he’ll read from his recently published book, Sing This One Back to Me, which includes transcriptions of West African griot poems sung to him. We decided to give him a call.
I haven’t attended much to publishing in my job as a poet, but Coffee House Press has published many poets that I revere, and the founder, Allan Kornblum, is someone I’ve known since 1971. He said, “I want to publish you,” and I said,”Great!” It took us a while to get it together, but this is the result, and I’m very happy with it. It’s got three parts: the first part is ekphrastic poems, which means art that’s based off other art; it often describes poems based on visual art. And since I was married to the painter Elizabeth Murray, visual art has been a real important part of my life.
The second part is poems translated from Mandinka, as sung by Papa Susso. He is a griot from Gambia, and is my teacher. Over the last dozen or so years that we’ve known each other and performed together, I have come to appreciate that the oral consciousness — and by that I mean a culture that doesn’t use writing — is not a pre-literary consciousness: it’s a separate and equivalent consciousness to writing. It’s a different way of remembering things. Instead of going to a book, you go to a person. Nowadays, instead of going to a person or a book, you go to the Internet — I believe that digital [comprises] a third consciousness that we’re just entering into, which makes it an exciting time. I don’t think it’s the best of times.
Poems are different in every culture — that’s something I’ve learned. These are the poems of the jeli tradition that goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Papa and I performed together and translate together. As far as I know, this is the first time these poems have been in English. And it’s the first time this [cultural] connection has been made through poetry, rather than anthropology.
The third part is personal poems, about my wife and her death six years ago, about our children, about that Bob Holman who goes home at the end of the poetry reading.
Because of the horrific triumph of capitalism! To be a poet now, you must be an entrepreneur. In West Africa, the poet performs, and the money comes — the poet is part of the culture. But the way it is defined now [here], the artist is outside the culture, unless you find a way of distribution that brings you into the media. Otherwise, you do it for yourself. I really think things will get better when we start regulating the banks again! So that this inhuman greed that seems to be catapulting the economy is moderated by love.
It’s painful to watch the Bowery Poetry Club’s old model have to become the new model. I’m looking out on the Bowery now, from my front window, and I see change. Across the street, where I used to see McGurk’s Suicide Hall, now I see this extremely bland architecture — a new apartment building. Luckily it has a lot of glass, so I can see our own building reflected back at me, which was also built in the 1860s. I’m up in the garret, the pitched roof above me, so I can look both ways.
The original role of the poet is to be the keeper of memory, narrative and tradition, and that was a crucially important role before the invention of written language. Is trying to monetize that and turn it into something that works in a capitalist economy a perversion of the poet?
Really great. Because we have stripped down the operation, we don’t really have much overhead. So we’ve been able to use this summer to experiment with programming and get organized for the fall season, which opens next weekend. And that’s all the work of the two new co-executive directors of Bowery Arts and Science, which is the nonprofit that has always been around the Bowery Poetry Club, but hasn’t always been apparent as the Poetry Club has had to focus on paying the bills [by booking events seven nights a week]. With Duane Park—while we are condensed into two days [Sunday and Monday] — they pay the rent. And they hire the bartender. They’re very successful already. It sharpens a lot of contradictions to be working with a burlesque club, but they do harken back to the populist arts of the Bowery in a way that I think is really exciting. And the club looks amazing.
We’re lucky down here on the LES, with this tradition. And the Club’s reputation as being a global meeting point of spoken word, whether it’s slam or griot or Basque improvisers, has its place in that. Nikhil Melnechuk and Adam Horowitz, who are both in the 20s, have a new agenda to add to the continuum of multilingual performance poetry world. One direction is to go more into digital and create a new poetry, with new media; another is to be a center for the arts within a civil dialogue. Poets are situated in a way to help all the arts.
What happens when the street meets the fancy? We’re going to find out. The derriere-garde, or the avant-garde, can rock the house just as much when the Bowery Poetry Club looks like the Duane Park design as when it looked like the old brick-wall, poet-behind-the-bar station it was before.
I wanted to talk about how No 7-Eleven got started. When did you decide that something needed to be done?
It’s just so incongruous. I can live with these enormous hotels, the sensational irony of having the Bowery Hotel across the street from the White House, the old flophouse. You pay $500 a night in the Bowery Hotel, and the guys who’ve lived in the flophouse pay $500 a month to live across the street! This, I can live with. But when an international conglomerate wants to come in with their blazing, bland-ing branding and say “we’re going to be convenient for you,” when the neighborhood is filled with marvelous local mom-and-pop shops, they have all the advantages. Reagan and Bush gave all these corporate advantages. They can intrude on our turf because there’s nothing to stop them.
People say we should have local controls so we don’t have so many bars, and the community should have a voice about that. I also believe the community should have a voice about how many chain stores are allowed in, because to me, that changes the neighborhood just as much, if not more, than having bars. It makes us part of this trend that homogenizes the world, when we live in the very heart of individuality here.
The rich people are getting smarter about getting rich. Ultimately, it’s gonna be a battle of the pocketbooks. But can people bring their consciousness to it, when they feel like a Slurpee and some instant mashed potatoes? I don’t know.