"Outlaw" poets hog the mike

Even a maverick needs a little attention.

By Maria Russo

Published November 4, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

On a recent rainy Friday evening, an event billed as a "historic gathering of outlaw poets" took place at New York's St. Mark's Church. An intriguing mixture of aging hippies and downtown hipsters packed a large, well-lit room at the back of the East Village church. But as gatherings of outlaws go, the mood was pretty tame. At least, no one seemed likely to be packing heat.

All the poets who read have work in "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry," to be published next month by Thunder's Mouth Press. What, exactly, is an outlaw poet? The evening's assortment of readers suggested that the notion is pretty broad. It was dreamed up by Alan Kaufman, a veteran of the San Francisco poetry scene, and more than anything it reflects Kaufman's own excitable, anti-authoritarian personality. Down-and-out Bukowski imitators who dropped out in the '60s, anti-Vietnam activists reprising their cleverest anti-war rhymes, angry young African-American slammers shouting it out to whitey, respected older poets who work in experimental forms - all took their turns at the podium. The rangy, bearded Kaufman seems to distrust success absolutely, yet he was clearly pleased with the stellar lineup of outlaws he had assembled. Kaufman loomed over the podium like a mother giraffe, heaping extravagant praise on each poet he introduced.

While the evening was remarkably peaceful and orderly, two incidents set off minor fireworks. Both involved outlaws who hogged the mike. The first, not surprisingly, was Kaufman himself. After delivering his exuberant introduction, he read a long, dreary poem called "On Reading Whitman's 'Song of Myself' at One O'Clock in the Morning." ("I've got a vision, Walt, of savage/love for the one-eyed drunk ... of the cosmic benefit of sound nutrition/of medical attention" and on and on.)

When it was finally over, he was preparing to read another when raven-haired performance artist Penny Arcade (another poet on the evening's roster) shouted out from the audience, "Oh come on, Alan! What the fuck are you doing? We got a lot of people here waiting to read. Bad enough you're all over the book." Kaufman appeared rattled for a second, but he went ahead with the poem -- which turned out to be by Jack Micheline, the late San Francisco poet and political activist who, Kaufman said, gave him the inspiration for the book. Penny Arcade scowled near the back.

Then, toward the end of the evening, jazz poet Herschel Silverman, who's getting on in years, read a seemingly endless poem consisting entirely of alliterative rhyming words. Another poet, Susan Scutti, got tired of waiting, stood up and started walking very deliberately toward Silverman, stopping right in front of him. There was a tense moment: Was she going to knock him aside? In the end, she picked up one of the other mikes on the stage, but just as she was getting ready to interrupt Silverman, the old guy finished and strolled sedately away.

Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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