Estep was a fixture of the East Village slam-poetry scene who rose to national prominence via her grunge-era appearances on MTV and on HBO’s Def Poetry, and went on to perform in front of massive festival audiences.
After moving to Manhattan at age 17, the Summit, N.J. native cut her teeth at ABC No Rio and broke through at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, whose executive director, Daniel Gallant, sent us the following statement.
Maggie’s passing is a loss for the poetry community at large, and we at the Cafe will miss her hugely. She was a member of our slam team, her work appeared in the Cafe’s landmark anthology Aloud!, and her record [No More Mr. Nice Girl] was released by the Cafe in the mid-90s. Maggie epitomized the potent early wave of slam poetry – she helped shape this rebellious art form and infused it with musicality and punk sensibilities while paying homage to earlier generations of poetic pioneers.
In “Think of This As a Window,” an essay recently published in Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, Estep recalled moving to New York in 1981 and taking a “slanted-floor, two-room hovel on Ludlow Street,” in a building where Warhol superstar Taylor Mead lived above her. After that, she spent time on Suffolk Street, two doors down from “an empty building with a thriving heroin trade” (Estep battled addiction herself, and once wrote about cleaning her dealer’s toilet for a fix.)
After briefly leaving New York to study with William S. Burroughs at Naropa University in Colorado, she moved back to a much-changed East Village, into a rent-controlled apartment on Avenue C and Third Street, a block from the Nuyo. (Well, not that much changed: “There were rats,” she wrote. “I could hear them at night, knocking things over.”)
After Estep began earning money as a writer, she moved to a studio apartment on East Fifth Street where, once again, she had an eccentric genius for an upstairs neighbor: Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields.
That’s where Estep was living when The Times profiled her in 1994. “She constructs humorous spoken pieces out of the pointless situations that occur on her doorstep, from the drug dealers who see her every day but persist in their futile efforts to offer her crack and ‘smoke’ to the male passers-by who yell ‘Hey, baby’ in her direction,” wrote Neil Strauss, referring to the video she made with fellow East Village spoken-word fixture John S. Hall in 1994. (At one point, “Hey, Baby” had the dubious honor of being scrutinized by Beavis and Butthead.)
Estep stopped performing at the Nuyo after her mentor, Bob Holman, had a falling out with the club. In an interview with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (just reprinted by Radius), she recalled the jealousy some of her Alphabet City slam peers felt as she rose to fame on MTV: “People hated me or liked me, people who never given the time of day suddenly wanted to be my friend. It was very drastic. And other people from the Nuyorican suddenly being very snotty to me.”
Those tensions were, in part, what drove Estep away from performing, in favor of writing novels such as Diary of an Emotional Idiot and a mystery trilogy.
But before that, she performed on the Lollapalooza tour in 1994. Beth Lisick, a writer who appeared in the “poetry tent” with her, shared the following via e-mail:
Her stuff was so pointed and angsty and hilarious. She was serious about her work and generous to us groms who were just starting out. Up until her, there had been a handful of amazing performers who were writers and used their poetry or prose with back-up bands – Patti Smith, Exene, Lydia Lunch, Jim Carroll, Ann Magnuson – but she was the first pop culture star of the tv generation who knocked people over using only her words and her attitude. Today there are lots of poetry slammers and rappers, tons of storytellers and comedians, but Maggie Estep was the world’s only spoken word star.
As Estep became a national fixture (at one point making out with Courtney Love, hanging with Billy Corgan, and dating M. Doughty of Soul Coughing), changes in her home neighborhood began unnerving her, as she wrote in “Think of This as a Window”:
By the late 1990s my beloved Lower East Side wasn’t squalid anymore. The once-vacant buildings had been scrubbed, the people selling books and bicycle parts from blankets spread on the sidewalk were replaced by sandwich boards hawking gourmet foods. The Key Foods on Avenue A no longer required the full-time services of rent-a-cops to stop the shoplifting junkies. There were no junkies They had all died or moved, migrated to the outer boroughs or to cities that were still sordid, like Baltimore or Philadelphia. Tompkins Square Park was now a clean, safe place where white women with small children gathered and purebred dogs frolicked in the dog park.
I hated it.
Estep eventually moved to Williamsburg, and then upstate. Last year, in a blog post, she admitted Williamsburg wasn’t her favorite neighborhood: “It was once peaceful, quiet, cheap. But that was a long time ago. Now, it’s like rush hour Midtown Manhattan peopled by the cast of the HBO show GIRLS.”
Her trademark acerbic wit, social criticism and rapid-fire flow were on display as she wrote about the show and the neighborhood.
GIRLS, as best I can tell, is about privileged, parent-funded, well-educated young white people making culturally imperialistic commentary on New York’s less-privileged citizens and having shocking experiences like: “OMG, I accidentally smoked CRACK when I went to a party in a slightly non-white neighborhood, OMG!”
I’ve done enough yoga that I don’t get completely homicidal trying to navigate walking two dogs through waves of would-be GIRLS extras in Williamsburg, but I can’t say I enjoy it very much. I grit my teeth until we reach McCarren Park where there is some chance of walking a few steps before a GIRLS extra smacks into me as he or she texts and walks and chews gum and listens to Mumford and Sons and upgrades her phone’s operating system at the same time.
Even though I lived in NYC for more than 20 years, I like QUIET and SPACE. I like art and music and people (usually) so I do love cities, and passionately loved NYC for a long time. But I need to be able to hear myself think, to walk slowly and SEE stuff.
If you walk slowly in Williamsburg these days, a GIRLS extra smashes you over the head with an ironic totebag.
When I first came to NYC, I lived on the Lower East Side and it was QUIET. It was also dangerous and, accordingly, cheap. That was fine with me. The Guys-With-Firearms-Chasing-Junkies Factor kept the obnoxious, entitled types confined uptown and in the suburbs. The cast of GIRLS would not have lasted five seconds.
After Reed’s death, Estep wrote about the time he swatted her on the ass right before she went on stage in the early 2000s. “Now, he is dead,” she wrote. “And it makes me feel shaky, like a small piece of me is gone. And I’ll never know why he swatted me on the ass.”
“Maggie was smart and really funny and what a sharp wit,” Blue recalled on-air, going on to describe her as “really creative and she really knew how to live life and she was a lot of fun. She had great life and has left behind a lot of people who’s minds are really, really blown.”
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Flock