Get Thee to KGB
(This piece first appeared in the Lumina Journal blog of Sarah Lawrence College on 11/6/14; link below)
Where else can you drink a mean G&T under the hammer-and-sickled Red Banner of the (former) Soviet Union and listen to the best poets around (as well as fiction) in an intimate setting for free (or nearly free) and feel like you’re doing something illegal… or at least illicit?
First, you have to find it: a skinny redbrick walk-up at 4th and 2nd Avenue, marked with a small neon sign. The downstairs lobby (if it can be called this) is painted bordello red and is slightly frightening…so one naturally assumes that it’s expected that you climb up the steep, creepy staircase in search of other humans.
Turn right at the top of the stairs and you will have arrived. Dimly lit and equally red, tin ceiling, wood bar, unemotive bartender. If it feels like a speakeasy, that’s because it was. The conspicuous display of Socialist agitprop (political posters with their gaudy graphics, statues of Lenin) is more than marketing spin. According to noted expert Wikipedia, “before its present incarnation, the second-floor venue was a speakeasy for Ukrainian Socialists who met behind its double-locked doors to hide their political affiliations from the rampant McCarthyism of the era.” Cool.
Owner Denis Woychuk grew up going there as a child with his family when it was the Ukrainian Labor Home, a social/political club back when the East Village had a large Ukrainian population. The tenement building offered dance lessons downstairs and upstairs, whisky and perogies. Flash forward several decades, Denis now a successful lawyer also involved in various creative endeavors who takes over his childhood haunt in 1993 and tries to make a go of it as a bar and literary venue.
KGB offers regular poetry and fiction readings as well as hosting special events and private gigs. My fave is Monday Night Poetry, which runs every fall from September to December and then February to May in the spring. The fall 2014 openers were Richard Howard/Julie Sheehan, followed by Erin Belieu/Josh Besh, Mattea Harvey/Brett Fletcher Lauer, and Camille Rankine/Rusty Morrison.
Tonight we will hear from Star Black and James Richardson. Star, first up to the mic, founded the series with David Lehman in 1997. She was a young poet living in the City who was friends with the owner Denis who was looking to beef up the bar’s literary cred and the rest is, well, you know.
Among the poems Star read were “87 Words for John Ashbery,” a poem she and others were asked to write upon the legend’s 87th birthday earlier this year. She also read “Slow Answer,” her poem in response to Ashbery’s “Quick Question.” She dedicated a few poems to Bill Knott who passed away earlier this year; Bill and Star were friends and used to spend time together making art. I loved her surrealistic images and there was one line I was prompted to write down on the bar napkin, “the ocean’s surface so far above that I can no longer drown.” In addition to her published works, Star teaches at SUNY Stonybrook and is also a painter and collage artist.
James Richardson, on faculty at Princeton since 1980 and a widely published and acclaimed poet and critic, read from a selection of his impressive body of work, including fragments from “Vectors 4.1,” a collection of his signature aphorisms. Again on my bar napkin: “Bless the things so small there is no need to doubt them,” “Man [is] the animal who is not quite himself,” and “After a drought, the first drops bounce.”
In addition to hearing amazing poets read, one of the most delightful aspects of Monday Night Poetry is listening to the poets’ introductions given by the series’ co-curators Matt Yeager and John Deming. Their remarks are both sweeping and incisive, thoughtful, funny, well-informed and clever (before this was a bad thing).
Monday Night Poetry Series co-curators John Deming (left) and Matthew Yeager
Matt and John, both poetry alums of the New School and practicing poets themselves, have been co-curators for about 3 years, give or take (Matt preceding John by about a year). Before KGB, Matt used to co-curate a poetry/comedy series called “The Church Basement” with his old roommate at the now defunct Mickey’s Blue Room on Avenue C. When not immersed in KGB-alia, Matt is to be found either reading, writing or working as event captain at a catering company. John also runs a poetry/literary review called Coldfront (www.coldfrontmag.com). When not immersed in verse, they sometimes discuss pro football. Or possibly guitar (“John’s an outstanding player; I fingerpick a little,” says Matt).
I asked Matt how much planning they do to put together such an amazing line-up. It’s part preparation, part serendipity. They regularly discuss poets they like, poets with new books and poets who have contacted them. The rest of Matt’s answers to my questions were so well-put that paraphrasing doesn’t do them justice.
Says Matt, “What I love about this series overbrims what can fit in a single paragraph. KGB’s Monday Night Series is on a lot of poets’ bucket lists. This means that the poets themselves are glad to be there, and I’ll take a poet in a good mood over nearly any other type of person. We try to have a full room that isn’t too full; poetry readings are like subway rides in that it’s better to have a seat than be standing. In some cases, this means that we do the bare minimum of promoting. If there were a fire in there on certain nights, I’d be better off jumping out the window than trying to get out the door.
Selfishly, as a poet myself, I love what the series does and has done for my ear. The ear and the ‘eye’s idea of the ear’ are very different entities, and having the best seat in the house for over two hundred readings has developed an understanding of these differences. It’s brought the ear up to speed, in the way that being unable to use your dominant hand (because it’s in a cast, say) will improve the coordination in your weaker hand.
Many years ago, I had a short passing conversation with D.A. Powell, and he casually mentioned that when he reads a poem on the page, it’s exactly the same to him as if he were hearing it aloud. I was all of twenty-five at the time, and I remember thinking, “Ok, now that’s impossible.” It might yet be impossible – the jury’s still out – but it’s a lot less impossible than I once thought. When you read a poem, there’s so much you’ve learned about the poem even before you’ve read the first word. You dive in, and it’s like diving into a swimming pool with the depth painted clearly on the poolside, in that you can see the last line sitting there a certain amount of lines away. And of course you’ve already internalized the poem’s physical shape and located that shape in a tradition. In some cases, you’ve already passed judgment. If you could somehow chart the course an eye takes as it skates across the surface of a poem, I would doubt, even on a first reading, that it moves from the beginning to the end without ever looping back. In any event, all that’s out the window when you’re merely listening.
The idea that poetry that’s excellent aloud
is excellent aloud because the reader is a skilled or energetic or performative reader is a fallacy. It’s like saying a paper airplane flies not for the aerodynamics of the shape it’s been folded into, but solely on account of the throwing motion of the one who flicks it out into the air. Poems that work aloud work aloud primarily because of the words that constitute them. Poems that move forward (as opposed to sideways, endlessly and needlessly apposite), poems where every syllable has rhythmic weight, poems that take real risk: these are poems that succeed. It’s easy after awhile to strip away a poet’s performance and hear the mere language, and likewise, hear the intent….Truthfully, I feel like a poem can hide on the page more easily than it can hide aloud. Certainly its content is more hidden on the page; its strategies and styles for moving are also more hidden on the page; out loud, you hear what begets the next line.
The ear knows better than the eye the difference between an utterly surprising turn, one prepared by the material leading up to it, and a pre-determined commitment to the non-sequitur, which is fool’s gold, and shows itself as such. You can hear whether risks are fake or real. You can hear whether poems that have elaborate and mysterious and filagreed surfaces have them on account of a submerged depth, or have them merely because it’s chic to have such a surface. On certain rare occasions, you feel something like the poet’s soul, his whole relationship to reality, come swimming out into the room, and what comes out almost seems to float. When Henri Cole read, it was like that.”