In 1963 Newsday reported on artists who had abandoned Greenwich Village for the Lower East Side, “New York’s newest bargain-basement bohemia”: “Poets aren’t lacking on the Lower East Side. Cynthia and Moe Margules, who operate Le Metro, a coffeehouse on Second Avenue, have found that poets are regular, if not heavy-spending customers. Once or twice a week the poets drop by in force to read to each other.”
Café Le Metro, like the Tenth Street Coffeehouse and Les Deux Mégots on Seventh Street, was a popular hangout where poets gathered to drink coffee, socialize and recite their work. Readings at Le Metro regularly featured Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima and Gregory Corso as well as poets Ted Berrigan and John Ashbery of the New York School, who were influenced by the era’s abstract expressionist art.
In 1964, Le Metro was at the center of a First Amendment battle. New York City’s repressive Coffeehouse License Law, which defined poetry readings as entertainment, required cafés like Le Metro to purchase expensive permits. After a group reading orchestrated by poet Jackson Mac Low, Le Metro was issued a summons by an inspector who said he had seen people “saying words.” The New York Civil Liberties Union argued that licensing the reading of poetry violated Le Metro’s free speech rights; a judge agreed and the complaint was dismissed.
Despite the victory, Le Metro by 1966 had run out of steam. Poetry’s popularity had faded and Moe and Cindy Margules were forced to close. Many of the poets formed the Poetry Project and moved to nearby St. Mark’s Church. Today the site of Le Metro, at 149 Second Avenue, houses The 13th Step, a sports bar.
We recently spoke with some of the poets who took part in the readings at Café Le Metro.
Going down to Le Metro was a little daunting at first – but poetry was in the air in those days and if you were going to be a poet in New York that was where you went. Once I got there it was a welcoming place. You just sat down at a table and listened to other poets read or talk and waited for your turn to read a couple of poems, or if you were that night’s featured reader read for 20 minutes or so.
I remember Taylor Mead with a transistor radio on softly beside him as he read poems from his diary. It was like an instant John Cage piece with Taylor’s innate funniness thrown in. I remember Paul Blackburn with heavy tape recording equipment going about taping readings.
It was, at the time, a kind of Manhattan Poetry Central for young poets, so it was very important indeed. It was how we checked in with each other week to week. I suppose for us it was something like what CBGB was for the rockers in another decade.
There’d be a whole group of us poets waiting in line outside. Then we’d have to sign in on a roster. It would be first come, first served. Who signed in first would get to read first.
It would be freezing out there in the winter. At that time we had army surplus pouches where we would keep our manuscripts. Ted Berrigan and Paul Blackburn carried bottles of whiskey in there. So we’d be standing outside there freezing and they’d pass the bottle of whiskey around so we wouldn’t die of frostbite.
The Beat Generation had been around for a long time and this group of poets in New York was considered the second wave of the Beat Generation. I think we all thought of ourselves as part of a resistance against the establishment, the status quo. We were the resistance to John Q Average American.
The ones that I remember most vividly and associated with as friends were Paul Blackburn, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ted Berrigan. Allen Ginsberg would read there. Jack Kerouac, when he was in New York, would show up. Gregory Corso was always available. When Andy Warhol was established in New York he would come and read from a journal about him and his friends.
Le Metro was a very important place in my life because that’s where I made my debut. I was a very shy person, I really did not want to read anything that I wrote in public. It was Paul Blackburn, my friend, who insisted that I read.
He put his arm around me and said, “You know, you have to go up there and read.” I said, “I can’t, I’m too nervous. I can’t go up there.” He took out a bottle of Wild Turkey and he said, “Take a couple of swigs of this.” I took a couple of swigs of the Wild Turkey and I felt like Superman, ready to take off.
As a poet I was trying to do something different, but I didn’t think of myself as being revolutionary, and though I knew I wasn’t going to live like many socially conservative Americans of the 1950s, I never stated it in such broad terms. I was just happy to be in New York City, where a lot of people felt the way I did – or I assumed they did.
I do remember Diane Wakoski reading and Carol Bergé and was happy to see women poets at that time who were assured, confident. The room was filled with a crowd of poets who were starting to be “legendary” in my young imagination — Paul Blackburn, Ted Berrigan. You felt the poets were trying the work on — often for the first time. The energy of the place indicated it would find expanse.
Café Le Metro was clearly a deep taproot, a prototype for open-ended experimentation, artistic community – a “temporary autonomous zone” (a Hakim Bey phrase) free of institutional demands and infrastructure pressures.
It was a special scene, a special time and place. Le Metro was a magnet for people who were creative, who wanted to share their writings and listen to other people from all walks of life.
You didn’t know what to expect. And it wasn’t like you had 20 different venues to go to either in the city or outside the city at that time. At the time it was unique because people did come from all over the country. I think it should be remembered as a place where poets could congregate and share their writings and listen in a very open, free way.
Le Metro gave a group of poets a hospitable and public place to meet and showcase their poetry. The open mic nights were like auditions for all of us, the prize being to win a scheduled reading. Better than any poetry workshop, except one taught by a master, and we all know that most poetry workshops are rarely taught by masters.
I remember Le Metro as a haven to which I’d come after work, a place where I could be myself and, while reading my poems, hope that others might like or respect me.
We felt all of those affinities with the Beat poets and the folk singers but we thought of ourselves as experimental poets, avant-garde poets, connected to the European avant-garde, the surrealism and Dadaism and the modernist poets of France, Spain and Greece.
There was a lot of camaraderie. In those days we didn’t just go down to read ourselves. We went to hear everybody that was reading. It was a big laboratory. The people walked in just to see what experiments everyone was trying.
The coffee was good, the pastries were very good. It was a comfortable place.
The poetry readings used to be packed, you couldn’t even get in there it was so crowded. Those readings would go on until one or two o’clock in the morning. The poetry ranged from really good — I remember Paul Blackburn guffawing when somebody would read rhymed poetry. The open readings were incredible. Some of the stuff was terrible but even the bad poetry was interesting. It was lively.
Moe and Cindy became friends. One of the problems that Moe had was that people came in and they’d order a cup of coffee and that was it for the whole evening, four or five hours. They were going broke.
In order to make the coffee shop sustain itself, they showed films, they sold antiques, old furniture and they had a friend in there who sold comic books. They were just typical working-class people that were trying to make a go of it and they opened their coffee shop up to the poets.
People started getting interested in performance art and other things and the audiences got smaller. It was hard for them to make a living there and they decided to move on.
Frank Mastropolo is a freelance writer and former network news producer. You can find his Fillmore East concert photography here.