Yesterday, we got the sad news that Maggie Estep, arguably the face of the ’90s East Village slam movement, died at 50. Today, we spoke to Bob Holman, who helped propel her to fame as co-director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and Mark Pellington, who directed her classic “Hey Baby” video. Here’s what they had to say.
Maggie came out at the Nuyorican Poets Café when the Nuyorican had just reopened. Slam had just emerged in Chicago and I imported it here – and it became their signature, where the multiculti voices found a home. Maggie’s punk-absurdist, angry-comic voice was a leading edge. I ran the slams, so I was the one who called her up and told her, “Oh, you really are good, you really do have to come back and let us hear some more.”
Maggie was nervous. She had to be talked into it and wasn’t really into it. You have to understand that at this point there was no scene, so the idea that there was going to be crowds of people, that it was going to grow into a national and international movement, that was still to come.
I had been working at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project before this, for about 10 years. I had seen some of the great poets of our time read and nobody knew about it. But all of the sudden a movement toward African-American identity and African-American departments, ethnocologists, women’s studies and Latino studies and Asian studies started happening. And you could either read about it and study it at the university or go down to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on a Friday night and hear young people from those cultures speak the words for themselves directly.
That — in sync with the rise of hip-hop and performance poetry and with this outrageous event form called the poetry slam that engaged the audience and made sure the poet was up there for just three minutes — just created a whole new vibe. Prior to the Nuyorican, you’d go to hear a pair of poets whose names were on the flyers, but with the slams you just went to the event and there was no hierarchy behind it. There were a lot of extraordinary women there — women kind of ruled at the Nuyorican in those days. Besides Maggie there was Dael Orlandersmith, Tracie Morris, Dana Bryant…
I wrote press releases at St. Mark’s for years but at the Nuyorican there was no time to write press releases because of everything that was going down. And it didn’t matter because the press was in the audience anyway and you were watching history unfold, through the voice not of preordained poets or those who had worked their way through a tenure track but of people who really had something to say who never had a forum to say it in. And that’s when Maggie took off.
I went with Maggie — as well as with a whole gang of poets from the Nuyorican – from there to MTV to a touring company that went all through Europe and the United States. The first label, which I did with Bill Adler and Sekou Sundiata, was called Nuyo Records. It was put together with a guy who had heard Maggie on MTV, wanted to put out her records and thought that to start a label with me was a way to get Maggie to sign on. The best tour was “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Poetry.” It was led by Mouth Almighty Records, part of Mercury, which put out her second album, Love Is a Dog From Hell.
I think the version of “Emotional Idiot” that’s on United States of Poetry, directed by Mark Pellington, who was one of the original MTV directors, stands as one of the great classics. It’s in black and white, with Maggie stomping down the West Village, leaning into and pulling away from the camera in this dance that was exactly the way her character kept writhing closer and closer until she was further apart than ever. It was the kind of riptide-ricochet that she really was the greatest at, complete with a super whine and a perfect pout.
She did a crazy piece about her and her girlfriend working at a motel, and instead of changing the sheets they’d just look around and try to pick up all the stray hairs they could find and just sit around taking drugs for the rest of the day. The emotion that came out of most of the things Maggie did was rooted in a punk ethos, but it was really funny on a great human scale. It could see through the hypocrisy of the society that these motel workers were seeing, but it also saw through their own hypocrisy as well, and that was one of her great gifts. She was an artist that had this radar focus, who was able to, with absolute precision, dissect the hypocrisy going on around there.
And nobody escapes that. When you think of punk you think of these arrogant artists just railing. That was not Maggie, she was revealing herself and railing at that persona as much as she was taking aim at anything else. She took on the itty bitty backpacks – there was a moment there in the ’90s where all of the sudden the fashion was for women to wear these backpacks the size of a wallet, and she just took that idea and personified it into an epic portrait of what was going on.
I’ve read everything she’s written. I love her mysteries — they’re little classics. Her character, Ruby, was just like her — a smart smartass.
Everyone was in love with Maggie — she was always funny, she was always personable. At the same time, she was not a great social being — she was not “on” except when she was on stage. Her stage persona and her sweetness as a human were both totally at odds.
She always thought her life would be complete when she had a grand piano, and finally after she left the city for a few years she was able to put it together to get one. She was working on this huge novel, she’d always laugh about that. No matter what was going on she was still working on that.
One of the last times I saw Maggie was when I saw her jogging in Woodstock, which I have to say I found to be a pretty astonishing image. She was with her dogs — she really came to love those dogs.
She seemed very healthy. She was not only healthy but she was attendant to her health — she would talk about what she’s doing or what she’s eating or exercising, laughing at herself all the time as usual. One of the heart-stopping facts of all this was that, as far as I know, she was really incredible at taking care of herself.
I got a few texts that all said the same thing, which was just “Maggie.” I couldn’t believe it — everybody was the same. Just her name and that was that.
I saw Maggie perform at the Nuyorican Poets Café in ’93. I had done a PBS spoken word film called Words in Your Face with Henry Rollins and a bunch of poets. That was produced by Bob Holman, who was one of the founders of the Poets Cafe. So we would go there all the time and I would remember seeing her there and kind of being blown away by her. When we did The United States of Poetry, she decided that “An Emotional Idiot” was the poem that she wanted to do. At the end of our shooting she had the record coming out. Then when she was releasing her record we made “Hey Baby.”
Offstage, her personality was very different. She was quite insecure and very droll. We went out a few times, you know just like as friends and maybe, I think, I was interested in her. I think she intimidated me a little bit, and I’m like a big guy and she intimidated me because she was so smart. And yet she was very sweet and once you got to know her you realized that it was all a front, her neuroses and her craziness. She was very funny and droll and sweet and just kind of insecure. Not physically, but just, like, artists are sensitive. She wasn’t walking around being loud and brash — that was just her persona.
The “Hey Baby” shoot lasted one day, in the meatpacking district. It was pretty simple. It was a performance set-up with her and her band, just kind of a dolly, a directly-at-the-camera performance with cutaways. John Hall, as the creep, is just silly. I had made a lot of videos that were darker, more intense. This one really had a sense of humor. It was all about her. This guy comes at her, and she kind of asserts herself. When we’d go to editing it she came by and gave her opinion, had her thoughts on it.
I’d made videos that were huge hits, and I made videos that never saw the light of day, and this was somewhere in between. It had its little zeitgeist moment. Just remember this was in the era of the TV so there wasn’t any Internet, videos were watched in one central place. So one kind of cool little hit would have its moment and then something else.
Maggie merged spoken word and rock in a way that probably other people hadn’t done and not many people did after her. It was an amalgam of influences that had her have that moment. I can’t speak for her, but where could it go? More records? I think in her heart she was a poet and a writer more than she was a rock star.
Maggie had her music and she entertained and loved and shocked and she did so many great, great, great things with her time here. When I read about the death it hit me like I saw her yesterday. I think she’d be the kind of person who’d be very matter-of-fact. Like, “Alright, I’m gone. Read my shit.” She was that kind of truth-teller, which is what I really appreciated about her.
Borne out of her own insecurities, she had a true gift and power that will be missed. Yet her art remains. I’m honored to have worked with her. She was vintage, pure old-school punk art New York.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of Tracie Morris’s name.