good bye John Ashbery

sign, St. Mark’s gate

It seems fitting to post this picture of a humble sign placed on the gates in front of St. Mark’s Church. Today’s morning sky was BRIGHT as in BRIGHT and the air a soft chill.  Adam Fitzgerald, Emily Skillings,  Eileen Myles and the staff at The Poetry Project organized an informal, intimate farewell in the church’s austere sanctuary.  A place where John had sad many a time.  The last time I went to an event like this was the one organized for Amiri Baraka, which I chronicled in an earlier post.  Since it was early and I live in Brooklyn, I got there about half hour into the proceedings just in time to hear David Shapiro, shaking and frail, tell anecdote after anecdote, mostly it seemed about himself, but really about the relationship he had with Ashbery.  He read a letter Ashbery sent to him when he was 15!  He read a beautiful poem.  He made me want to just sit him down.  I did not cry.  But I think Emily did as she played an audio of John reading from a recent poem–every once in a while he would cough, but then his voice would regain vigor–that performance thing that kicks in no matter what.  I had not realized that Emily was one of Ashbery’s many assistants.

Marcella Durand talked about his inscriptions–they were often lines from specific poems in the books and she read the inscriptions and then the excerpts from the poems.  Fred Moten told us he never met John, but had some words to say and so he said them–it was a fine salute.  Dorothy Friedman talked about being part of Ashbery’s first class for the Brooklyn College MFA program back in 1974.  Her voice boomed out and she noted that a week or so after Ashbery’s demise, she got a letter from him (the post office is really getting slow) thanking her for her review of his recent art show.  Todd Colby also talked about that program, but by the time he got to Brooklyn John had left–that MacArthur grant made a huge difference.

I think that because John travelled, wore suits on occasion and was a most courtly of gentlemen poets, some folks thought him rich–he was not.  He worked hard all his life and you could see the range of that work in the kinds of pieces poets used.  Bob Holman talked about creating a performance script from Girls on the Run, Ashbery’s booklength poem based on the Henry Darger art work.  And he read a fine tribute poem. Jeff Wright told a joke that John liked to tell.  And Paul Muldoon read the final poem Ashbery published in The New Yorker.

I was going to read from The Vermont Notebooks, which is not the most sophisticated of Ashbery’s ouvre but maybe the most fun–it’s the collaboration with Joe Brainard.  And there they are on the cover looking super masculine-lots of hair, work clothes oh so 70s! Oh before AIDS.  Anyways, I left the book in my living room and well basically said I represented all the Black poets (Fred included) who really loved John’s work and also the ones who knew him.  And I read my poem for John’s 90th birthday: “Le Tribute

Le Tribute

Funny you request 90 words for 90 years

Okay the thing about Ashbery

Is that he makes us

unsure of which direction is the direction home

But, there is always home in Ashbery’s work, now isn’ t there?

Home & fame’s odd wit.

John tells me about seeing Marlon Brando Boston tryout

in  A Streetcar Named Desire.  A new masculine norm.

The abstracted beauty of it all & odd tempered music

and the ears ready to hear.

That he has

Something to say

and will just

Say it. So there.

Then Adam Fitzgerald gave story and anecdote and quip and love in the form of stories, anecdotes, quips expressing his deep love for his mentor and friend.  I did not hear John sing Old Man River–that might have been too much, but I got back for le restroom to hear Rachmaninoff-Ashbery’s favorite music.  Tres romantic.

Walking out into the bright mid day–I knew that a mass murder took place in New Orleans, that our President seemed to have an inability to communicate with people who are not White, rich and male, that there are more people sleeping on subway benches and that the subways frequently breakdown and the sun will set and it will rise as we humans regard:

“The climate, the cities, the houses, the streets, the stores, the lights, people.”  John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebooks.

He’s got many friends in Poetry Heaven–I bet the party has started.

May is here, but April was amazing

Before April–I had the great pleasure of reading from my new book, Living in the Love Economy at Berl’s Poetry Shop with Erica Hunt and Anselm Berrigan, two great poets and very good friends.  Joey Infante, et al brought my vision for this collection to a bright fruition.  I am so very proud of it  and the chapbook Swimming to America, from Red Glass Books  both serves as a platform to my New & Selected coming out in 2015 from White Pine Press.


As I’ve often said, April is Cruel to Poets Month–there were so many readings and so little time esp if you are a poet!  So I did my best. Heard Cyrus Cassells in conversation with Charif Shanahan at NYU. It was a lively and reflective dialogue after a fine reading by Cyrus.  It was great to hear him talk about finding his voice after early and high praise. His new poems are taking even more lyric leaps.

Earlier in the month, went to the CUNY housed Chapbook Festival.  My new chapbook, Living in the Love Economy was on display and sold!  Song Cave, CUNY’s brilliant Lost & Found series-a must have for serious poetry scholars and readers–and of course Overpass Books were there.   Amiel Alcalay, et al read and discussed the latest Lost & Found series including 2 booklets of Adrienne Rich’s writing about teaching at CUNY in the SEEK program.

Brenda Hillman was in town and I got to hear her read at Berl’s Poetry Shop with Evelyn Reilly–a great evening brought to us by Belladonna Collaborative.

And finally, it was really wonderful to attend A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman at Poets House on April 26.  Maureen Owen was in town from Denver; Bill Berkson, co-curator from Boston, Alice Notley in from Paris, and Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, et al from NYC.  Padgett who was the other c0-curator was an affable presenter and the readings and comments conjured a world where spontaneity and chance were as much a part of collaboration as talent and the ability to take risks.  In an era where folks are waiting for funding for . . . these poets worked with a painter who was open to words as they were open to his artistic vision.


Maureen Owen & Bob Holman, Poets House

Maureen Owen & Bob Holman, Poets House

I read in very disperate events:  the Ruth Malaczech Art & Impact event at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at CUNY Grad Center where the living members of Mabou Mines and other avant garde theater people discussed the life and art of the great actress and founding member of Mabou.  The Reading of the Inferno by Dante at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Maundy Thursday organized by Marilyn Nelson–saw some wonderful friends and it ended before midnight!   And  an Alice Notley  tribute reading for the Downtown Literary Festival; and finally for Nita Noveno and Sara Lippman’s fine series, the Sunday Salon with Terence Degnan, et al.  They posted a video.

And now it’s May–the sun is shining FINALLY and on May1, I saw photographs from The Birmingham Project by Dawoud Bey at The Mary Boone Gallery on Fifth Avenue.  Bey has grown as an articulate and fierce documentary photographer of the Black Experience.  His artistry is at its best in these works that were done in Birmingham in response to the legacy of the Black Alabamans who struggled for civil and human rights and the children who now live in the city.  It is a major work and should be seen and housed in a major museum and soon.

Carrie Mae Weems and Sandra Payne at Dawoud Bey's exhibition.

Carrie Mae Weems and Sandra Payne at Dawoud Bey’s exhibition.

Tribute to Amiri Baraka, April 5, St. Mark’s Church, Manhattan


photograph by Patricia Spears Jones

The Poetry Project and Cave Canem did a great job of paying homage to Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones poetic roots and branches this afternoon. Poets and musicians performed Baraka’s works and/or paid tribute in poems to him. Quincy Troupe’s “Avalanche” had us thinking of Baraka’s welcome to that “unknown country” that he has now gone to. Julie Patton deconstructed his name melody collaborating with a bassist. David Henderson read his work/a Baraka poem and also a fine poem from Diane DiPrima. Cornelius Eady and Rough Music (Poetry’s house band) did a gorgeous multi-vocal arrangementl. I was also moved by Tracie Morris and Vijay Iyer’s deconstruction of “My Favorite Things”.
Bob Holman’s exegesis on Baraka’s most famous poem, you know the one about 9-11, the one that got the New Jersey legislature to remove the Poet Laureate position, which as Bob pointed out leads Baraka to be New Jersey Poet Laureate in perpetuity. It was a masterful critique of the poem, poet and situation. Thank you Bob Holman.
Steve Dalachinsky almost matched his wonderful performance at Jayne Cortez’ memorial last year w/ a wonderful piece in collaboration Matthew Shipp. Greg Tate brought some of Baraka’s prose from Black Music (me thinks “The Changing Same” is one of the great essays of the 20th century, just saying) reading a short riff on Wayne Shorter. And Martha and Basil King who met “Leroi” in the 1950s, Latasha Diggs, Toi Dericotte and James Brandon Lewis added to a generous and diverse group of poetic and musical voices in the tribute.
I almost left and then I realized I had to stay for Anne Waldman, who along with Henderson, Troupe, the Kings was a long time friend of Baraka and so her perspective had to be heard. She read a lovely elegy from Hettie Jones, Baraka’s first wife. Anne also discussed Baraka’s connection to Naropa. and the she and her band Ambrose Bye, Steven Taylor, and Devin Waldman served the material well. Because Anne did a fiery version of “BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS from “The Dead Lecturer”. I remembered how fascinated I am by the readings of poems across genders and Baraka was very much the enraged hetero male and Anne brought out her masculine side and worked those words. And then she ended with a kind of blessing on Baraka’s spirit and for all of us from her own summoning of female power.

I agree with Ammiel Alcalay who remarked that there are more works to unearth from Amiri Baraka and that he was extremely generous to the scholars and poets at CUNY Grad Center. Baraka, indeed all of the poets, Black and White who created the downtown literary scene deserve more scrutiny, to be read, wrestled with. They were not all Beats or Buddhists. They were as diverse as the neighborhood they lived and worked in. I am a huge O’Hara fan as many of my friends know, but I am also glad to have been part of the downtown scene in it’s third iteration in the 1970s w/ Anne and Lewis Warsh and Bernadette Mayer and Ted Greenwald and dear dear Lorenzo Thomas as my mentors, teachers, friends. It is good to see Bernadette and Ted begin to get their due and Lewis is now carving out more poets at LIU. As Steve Cannon told me, “Roi” always came back”. In many ways Baraka went back to Newark but Leroi/Amiri came to New York for friends, fun, the chance to wear his boogie shoes. And finally, Oliver Lake’s solo was extraordinary and his tribute poem a thing of great joy and admiration. Plus, he wore the most beautiful garment-truly a shirt of many colors. Where ever Baraka is he was tapping his feet.
I thank all the poets/ musicians and all the great people who made their way to the Sanctuary to pay tribute.


photograph by Patricia Spears Jones