For 52 years, poets have gathered at this public forum in and around the Bowery, to read, listen, learn and inspire. The first ‘church’ of verse, located at 131 East 10th Street, has recently had a changing of the guard, but the transition has been seamless. In this exchange, new director Kyle Dacuyan and outgoing director Stacy Szymaszek share insights about poetry, the project’s punk lineage (Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Richard Hell), legendary performers like Carolee Schneemann and John Giorno, as well as the “job of a lifetime”.
The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church is singular in its commitment to innovative poetry, and has been doing its thing for 52 years. Its thing is being a public forum for poetry readings – also holding writing workshops and publishing poetry and poetics. This mission is straightforward. The challenge the Project sets for itself is how to do meet it with autonomy – with wonderful and necessary weirdness. Its singularity has something to do with always finding the edges of any given time, to recognize the times, and figure out how to turn the ship on a dime. To be relevant to even the most curious and restless and questioning of poets.
Being the Director of such a place, having something to do with shaping it for the 11 years I did the job, was an intense and emotional experience that I can only begin to really contemplate a year later, and spending the summer in the Sonoran Desert with “nothing to do.”
I knew Kyle Dacuyan was the poet for the job because he immediately struck me as having the right doses of free-spiritedness and decorum (style and grace). Prior to joining The Poetry Project, he served as Co-Director of National Outreach & Membership at PEN America, where he led the launch of a nationwide community engagement fund for writers. He has all the credentials, including being a solid, working poet who is invited to read his own work often. This conversation between us was conducted over email in April 2019.
Stacy Szymaszek: I’m really excited to talk to you on the record, Kyle. You’ve been the director of The Poetry Project for eight months now. I know from talking to you during the time that we overlapped that you consider leading the Project a job of a lifetime, which is also something I would often say during the course of my tenure. Can you go into detail about some of the ways this is so for you?
Kyle Dacuyan: Eight months! That reminder is helpful, thank you. I do consider leading The Project the job of a lifetime. Though when we overlapped, it had been not fully one month, so I think my feelings at that time were closer to imaginings — sort of pre-ideas of why the work felt an honor. This kind of utopian, kind of anarchist notion of poetry church, and The Project’s improbable, deeply important endurance. There was an aura I perceived. From things like the New Year’s Day Marathon, John Giorno’s acid punch sermon from the belfry. The difference is now I feel more inside the dailiness of that aura. There is extraordinary poetry and art that happens here on a regular basis. And it happens at The Project in a way that is different from anywhere else. The poets, the volunteers, the staff, the audience all pass through the same doors into the Parish Hall and make the room together. There is no “backstage.” And so I am definitely astonished by the work that gets presented here, but I am also astonished when we all set up and put away chairs together, or when I see someone offer their chair and sit on the floor to make more room for listening. I feel very grateful that this is the atmosphere of my routine. The other night as I was locking up with the staff — who also make this a job of a lifetime — someone said, “I am exhausted from fun,” and that’s been pretty much the case for me too these last eight months.
There is also an energy of place I experience, which is difficult for me to describe right now, though maybe I’ll approach the language over time. A feeling of intensely simultaneous presence and history. The other night I was alone in the building when I got the news that Carolee Schneemann had died. I went through recordings and writing of hers. I found a photograph of her lying on her back on a table in the kitchen here at St. Mark’s, from a performance in 1966. It took me a second to recognize the sink, the windows, the particular lamplight from 11th Street. But the kitchen, in a lot of ways, is still the same. When I left that night, I turned off the lights in the office, then the Sanctuary, then I walked downstairs and turned off the lights in the Parish Hall, where there had recently been a labor organizers meeting. Then I went into the kitchen, where the last light in the building was on. I felt reverence for something that was and was not there. The energy of the work that happens here lingers, and I feel that most strongly, I think, when I am just about to switch the lights off.
It’s been those sorts of things that have made me feel incredibly lucky in this job. Were there other ways later in the game for you, over 11 years, that the job surprised you as a job of a lifetime?
Stacy Szymaszek: I’ve seen ample documentation of “Water Light-Water Needle” but never that photograph in the kitchen with her cat. I’ve spent so many hundreds of hours in that kitchen doing everything from preparing reception platters to going over an introduction to talking to Jimmy (church sexton) so it’s a powerful moment to recognize Carolee inhabiting it as performance space. It demonstrates your point about there not being a backstage at the Project. The spaces get democratized. How the New Year’s Day Marathon line-up is made is a good iteration of this anti-celebrity ethos. Performers from “all walks” are literally co-mingling in tight quarters and in the line-up. I recently participated in an event with Bernadette Mayer at Poets House and they scuttled us to a “green room” away from the large audience that was gathering downstairs – and there were bananas and tangerines and some white wine. I got really uncomfortable because I essentially was being deprived of something the Project values, which is allowing everyone to set the room according to their role. So as an admin, I want the chairs a certain way, I want the intro to communicate certain things to prepare the audience. I want to poet to know I engaged with their work. As a poet, I want to be able to energetically commune with the room before the event. This is the kind of organizational sensitivity we develop over time. I have a poem in A Year From Today, which I read at The Project the other night, where I say this attention to detail can make or break an event and I do believe that. We have more power than we think as organizers to make something feel beneficial. This is part of the job that made it a job of a lifetime for me. I lived in a state of attunement with the organization. I am the most surly poet-centric person I know so where else could I have gone?
Carolee really was one of my favorite Project people. Also Jim Carroll. They got the space, maybe because they were young people in the space. They treated me with a unique kind of familiarity but also respect and they showed me a remarkable level of trust. (Others did too). Kind of hard for me to believe to this day. I hosted at least three events with Carolee – at one of them, she said “do you have any vodka?” So, of course, we went out and got a bottle for her. Then we screened her video “Americana I Ching Apple Pie” and about five minutes into it she got up and walked over to me and whispered “It’s not supposed to be in black and white.” I don’t remember the tech issue as much as her hilarious response. That’s an anecdote that speaks to the space as well as her humor. What are a few of your favorite Project events so far and why?
Jim Carroll reading at St. Mark’s Church, October 7, 1998. He starts at the 1:40 mark:
Kyle Dacuyan: That’s tough because I feel like on a pretty weekly basis I have the top of my head taken off by the readings. But that “energetic communing” you describe is important — and it’s those before and after and between moments that make certain events favorites. Like I am remembering at the first reading I hosted here, for Pamela Sneed, a poet (I won’t say who) had just come from John Ashbery’s apartment and showed up with a West Elm bag of his martini glasses and serving platters. And Steve Cannon showed up, which I think was really special for Pamela because Steve had given her so much support when she was a young person who had just moved to New York. And then other friends from different parts of her life — performance, queer activism, mentorship — and then many, many people who just really idolize and look up to her. I like when that confluence happens in the audience, of people who are friends and people who are star-struck, because you are right, part of what we do at The Project is recalibrate this in some way, we sort of make the container for whatever ripple effects are going to happen from the reading.
And then it’s special when I can feel that not-to-be-missed energy, that people are really showing up for the momentousness of the event. Like at the reading we just had for you, frankly. Not to be sycophantic! I appreciated at that reading when Renee Gladman looked at the audience from the podium and said, “Some of you I’ve known for thirty years, and some of you are kids I don’t know at all.” Then I think she paused a few seconds before saying, “That’s wonderful.” Because it is — it’s just wonderful how The Project makes that sort of convening possible.
Then the other thing I’ve loved, maybe something I admire the most, are those events where longtime Poetry Project people show up for younger readers, sometimes readers whose work they don’t even know at all. We had an event with Camonghne Felix, Denice Frohman, and Porsha Olayiwola that was just incendiary. Anne Waldman came — I think specifically because she didn’t know the readers’ work — and just gave them her deepest attention. It really moved me to see how gracious she was in thanking each of them afterward. Oh, and not even a week before that, I’m remembering, we had a reading with Kay Gabriel and Andrea Abi-Karam that was just so perfectly, ruthlessly punk, and at the end of this kind of cyborg manifesto section, the poet Lix Z surgically stapled electrical wire to Andrea’s body. It was sort of terrifying and out-of-body, and also deeply embodied at the same time. I loved when Eileen Myles turned to me during it and said, “I don’t want to miss one second of this.”
Stacy Szymaszek: I was always moved when longtime Poetry Project people showed up for readings by younger poets. It’s the living of curiosity, which I think is part of the Project’s ethos. I’d add John Godfrey to that list too. I started the mentorship program out of a desire to strengthen intergenerational conversation. I saw the photographs of Andrea lying on a table being stapled on the Project’s Instagram, with the Della Robbia in the background and was actually shocked and also appreciative that their iconoclasm shocked me. Certainly no one has ever been surgically stapled in the parish hall before. This gets me thinking of the Project’s punk lineage – Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Richard Hell. I was in a cafe in Tucson recently and suddenly Jim’s “People Who Died” was playing. It gave me the chills, remembering my few warm interactions with Jim, remembering his performances at the Marathon, knowing his history at the Project (started there working box) and the history of that song (inspired by the Ted Berrigan poem of the same name). I’m wondering if you’re thinking about this particular aspect of the Project’s history as a lineage in the same way the New York School is or any of the others we trace, where poetry and punk inter-relate, in your current programming? How do they still interrelate?
Kyle Dacuyan: I do think about this. I think about what overlaps and diverges between some of these different lineages – New York School, punk, post-Beat – and how all of that transmits to right now. I am interested in improvisation, how poets have responded and are responding to instability, unpredictability, how they magnetize themselves to different kinds of brink, and what they do when they get there. What they’re making out of what they find or thrift.
John Giorno on The Death of William S. Burroughs, Poetry Project Marathon, 1998:
One way I think about it is like whose journal would I be interested in listening to – partly, sure, because of gossip and taste and curiosity, but mostly because I want to hear writing at its freest. I think that freedom, that comfort of voice changes how we talk to one another. The Project is a place for poetry but it is equally a place for conversation before and after poetry.
Cookie Mueller read several times here and I love that so many of the things she brought were pulled from her journal on the way to St. Mark’s, or written day-of, just accounts of the albino cockroaches in her apartment, figuring out how she would hassle money from the bank that day, in between gallery shows and parties and dropping off her son at school. I admire that she wanted to share with her friends how she threw herself into her day to day, and of course, I admire how that came out in the writing.
I do think some of that energy and wattage we associate with these interrelated lineages comes from the city itself, and what it takes to navigate living here. But more than that, it persists (and changes) because there are people who want to pass that along. We’ve been talking about the live readings here, how people show up for one another, but I also think of this in regard to teaching and mentorship at The Poetry Project. How do you think those things happen differently here from how they happen in other places?
Stacy Szymaszek: Well now that’s an interesting question for me as I am beginning to comprehend the structure of the MFA program and academia after not only running the Project but also taking full advantage of the nonprofit to educate myself in poetry (at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee). In founding the Project’s mentorship program, I wanted to formalize the pedagogical role (but not overly) that the Project has always served with its readings, workshops, publications and sociality. Simone White and I used to talk about how the Project, after 50 years, was an institution, but what we were good at is staying weird. There is a feral quality to the Project that I knew how to maintain – which has much to do with the energy of NYC, the ratio between the transient and the regulars, the diversity of lineages we hold, the focus on the work in progress, which to me is another way of saying – the material life of the poet – the unpredictable alliances formed… . I miss these things now that I’m working with young writers in an academic setting and having to understand a very different power structure that has more in common with corporations than nonprofits. I’ve been thinking about how lawless it feels but without ethically integrity so a frightening lawlessness. The Project has always been about the poet and run by poets, hence, weird, and radical – and I believe that kind of off-kilter space is very conducive to learning.
I love knowing what people I admire are reading and listening to. To wrap up, would you share five books you have loved this year and five songs and a little bit about why?
Kyle Dacuyan: I love that too. Okay, five books:
Arcana, Stephen Jonas, edited by Garrett Caples, Derek Fenner, David Rich, and Joseph Torra, with an introduction from Joseph Torra – laureate of addicts and hustlers, gay and black, prophetic poet I didn’t know I had been waiting for, and I am just supremely grateful that we finally have this selection of poems thanks to City Lights.
The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand – This book has the most clearly queer sense of time that I’ve encountered maybe ever – archive, canon, future, presence – romantic, critical, lucid; I think it is the book I have most wanted to put in everyone’s hands this year.
Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin, edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder – Andrea Dworkin is irreducible. Just at a writing level, her sentences go to a whole other plane
Rabbit, Sophie Robinson – I preordered this book as soon as I knew I could and started and finished it this morning. I might read it again later today. Even though she lives in Norwich I sort of think Sophie Robinson is one of the most New York School poets alive right now.
The Dirty Text, Soleida Ríos, translated by Barbara Jamison and Olivia Lott – I hadn’t heard of this poet until Kenning Editions sent a copy to The Poetry Project. She is an Afro-Cuban poet making visionary, terrifying, erotic, revolutionary, anti-state work. “Dirty” in every way I love.
And five songs:
Soft Stud, Black Belt Eagle Scout – I saw the music video for this song at an event that Demian DinéYazhi’ organized and haven’t stopped listening. The guitar is what I hope my summer will be.
Rosebud, U.S. Girls –creepy tender disco synth, sort of sugary with a threat.
Ivry, Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith – the sound of walking in the desert becomes the underscore for Patti Smith reading a poem about Antonin Artaud’s last hours in Ivry-sur-Seine, after time he’d spent as a peyote disciple and then as an electroschock patient.
77 Million Paintings, Brian Eno – this song is 44 minutes long, kind of an outer-space-scape, good for listening to when I want to both focus and drop out somewhere for a while.
Cellullar Songs, Meredith Monk – really this is a multiple song performance I have been thinking about all year, meditative, communal, wordless with one very important exception. Rearranged me.
What are your five and five?
Stacy Szymaszek: I’m also reading Arcana and The Last Days of Hot Slit! And I love The Blue Clerk. I’m so into the overlap in our reading lists. I just finished Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes and Roberto Flores Sánchez with my graduate seminar and it is greatly impacting my own work as I am try to make work that presumes that I am free – and I am writing to figure out how I am not and how to change it (to paraphrase Dworkin). Not related to teaching, I just started Vile Days by Gary Indiana because I do miss NYC sometimes so like to turn to writers of “downtown.” It’s the place I’ve felt most at home. My music listening ebbs and flows but most recently I’ve been favoring Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, Hilado Negro’s This Is How You Smile, and lots of Baroque music, mostly Henry Purcell. I know that’s not five but I’m letting it be. Thank you so much for talking with me Kyle!