Bob Holman in conversation with Jordan Stein
J: I was delighted to discover the vintage Poetry Spots stash of videos from the 1980s–a real pandemic bright spot–and wonder if you can tell me how it started and evolved.
B: OMG, am I vintage already? Until Poetry Spots, I had thought of poetry and television as opposites–who pays attention to a poem if they’re watching television? So when this friend of mine, Danny O’Neil, who worked at WNYC TV…there is still a WNYC Radio in New York, it's the NPR station and doing very well. Rudy Giuliani tried to sell both, and the ratio station had a listener support system—they were able to buy 93.9 FM from the city. But a city-owned public television station, who had ever heard of such a thing? So the license was bought, and now it’s morphed into the local news Channel 1. But back in those days, it was a terrific place—not public access, it was a curated station, a professional staff, totally city-centric. Danny O'Neil worked with D.A. Pennebaker and got a lot of dance on WNYC as well as the big networks. He approached me, said, “What do you think about doing a poetry series on TV?” WHAT?! I was ready to slug him. “TV is the Enemy of Poetry!” But before fist met jaw, I thought, “Hey. Wait a minute. What if you were flipping around on a dial and you came across a poem? What if instead of being enemies, we could use video as a medium for the appearance of poetry? Collaborate art and science!” And I wanna tell you that changed my life.
So we went to work, me and Danny. But he got AIDS; the grant letter that gave us the first $10,000 to get started from the Witter Bynner Foundation sat on his desk for three months while he was sick. He was one of the first people I knew to die of AIDS. I think of him a lot. I owe him a lot. He lived on Hudson Street, right by the Holland Tunnel. I wrote a poem for him –
--for Danny O’Neil
How I love
In the driving rain
Blowing my horn
At the entrance
To the Holland Tunnel
J: What was the original concept?
B: The Poetry Spots were to be interstitials, non-commercial commercials on commercial television. Because shows didn’t always end on the hour or the half hour, so what are you gonna do with that extra three or four minutes? Obviously you’re going to watch a poem! A Poetry Spot is a single poem with a brief intro, and a little outro that said you could get the poem by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope. I wanted the text to be available as an adjunct to the performance on TV.
We went through six or seven seasons and won three local Emmys. It was a new way of seeing poetry and everybody’s included, from Allen Ginsberg to June Jordan to Helen Adam, one of the Beats’ den mothers of San Francisco who wrote the great opera, “San Francisco’s Burning.” Pedro Pietri, John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Paul Beatty, Eileen Myles blah blah blah. And then every year we would do a compilation and create a half-hour show.
J: One of the amazing things about Poetry Spots is the diversity of its contributors: old and young, black and white, indigenous. We’re often told that the avant garde, and especially the literary New York avant garde of the eighties, was white. Does Poetry Spots reflect who was really writing poetry at that time? or the fact that you were the one in a position to officially listen? Or did it not require a second thought because it's what you did and what you were into?
B: All of the above. I love poetry, I love its variety. I love people who say that's not a poem, because when that’s not a poem, you get to talk about what a poem is. And who dares define that? Before I did Poetry Spots I was doing the New York City Poetry Calendar—there’s still no place to find out where all the poetry readings are going on in town, you know? We did a free monthly print handout with all the poets on the same page, where I think we all belong. It was distributed by City Geese.
The more you can understand the different traditions of poetry, the more you realize that language is consciousness and that poetry is the essence of language–that's my calling as a poet. Poetry Spots was the first place where I matched that idea with media. Poetry was first performed, it’s the origin of the art form. Because of the utility of the book, we forget about that part, the musical part, and tend to focus on European ideas of “literacy.” But around the world “orality” continues, and when combined with film, well, you get other questions: What kind of music do you use? What sort of backing track? A poem has a different impact in a magazine, in a hardback or chapbook, pixilated text on screen – and the same is true with different versions on film. But it is always the Poem.
J: I love how the videos are all highly considered, but have the lightest touch. How did you arrive at all those decisions, were they the result of dialogues with the poets about how to best frame what they were up to?
B: It happened because I didn't know anything. I thought of it primarily as a kind of documentary approach, but that changed. Then the idea exploded, evolved into The United States of Poetry, the five-part PBS series. USOP was made around the same time MTV was starting, and an MTV director, Mark Pellington, now well-known in Hollywood, directed. Josh Blum, a film producer who discovered poetry at the Nuyorican, also collaborated on making it happen.
First, we’d contact the poets and ask how they imagined their videos. Now this was ten years after Poetry Spots, which was more like the birth, the baby steps, of an art form. Very few of the poets back then considered how their poem might appear on video. By the time we did The United States of Poetry, some poets would respond with, “I’ll fax you a treatment.”
I remember going to Czeslaw Milosz and asking what we should do here, and he said, “You make the movies, I write the poems,” although he did have a few words to say about it later on. But a poet like Ruth Foreman, I asked her about doing “Stoplight Politics” and she faxed me a treatment. She’d already thought it out and written it down. That interplay of poets and technology is something that has really evolved—now you have poets “writing” poems with a cellphone camera. A lot of poets are very involved in how their work is portrayed. They see poems on film as an extended series of edits and images, interacting with sound--I love how poetry films have taken hold.
J: How were poems and locations selected?
B: I would make suggestions but was open to anything. I think one that was really effective in its simplicity was the Allen Ginsberg poem, “In My Kitchen in New York.” Allen’s going through his tai chi gestures, movements, dance, and as he’s doing that the poem is a recording of his inner thoughts. You know, “Hold the world or the single whip . . Oh! My laundry! have to get that out.” Nancy Mercado in Central Park, and Helen Adam on the subway in Coney Island, Pedro Pietri on a nighttime sidewalk.
J: It's a real portrait of the city. Is it a New York project through and through?
B: Oh yeah, it really is a great little scrapbook of the New York moment. And then eventually poets all across the country would send in their poetry films. Kurt Heintz started a whole scene in Chicago–his film of Patricia Smith doing “Chinese Cucumbers” is a stand-out. And Dennis Downey wrote, performed, produced his own poetry films, which are quite magical. He lives on Cape Cod.
J: What other Spots stick out?
B: I really like The Great American Rollercoaster Poem, made by deaf and hearing high school students. You can’t put sign language into a book, so in a way, the poem that best exemplifies the oral tradition is made by those who cannot speak! It was a big collab, with poet Cathy Bowman, filmmaker Andy Biskin, and a brilliant ASL interpreter, Liz Wolter. One of the high school poets is Douglas Ridloff who is now the leader of the American Sign Language poetry slam, which is really a global movement. For Douglas, this experience was the start of his seeing how poetry and sign worked together. And film, too. Flying Words Project, Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, have continued to create brilliant deaf/hearing collaborations. I love them. I love their work. They have poems on Poetry Spots.
J: Logistical question here, but how were they recorded and where’s the physical archive?
B: All the Spots were shot on Beta tapes, what was then professional quality VHS. I guess it was 1”, as opposed to ¾ inch. All of that material is at the Fales Library at NYU. They have twenty years of my audio and video collection, which includes Poetry Spots original footage.
J: How about mailing the poems? Was it a postcard, stuffed into an envelope, or what?
B: It was stuffed into an envelope. Typed onto a letter sized piece of paper, folded into thirds, and placed into a small envelope, whatever size, 4x5, with a stamp and the person’s address written by hand. We didn’t have a mailing list or anything like that.
J: I’d like to ask you about a few poets in particular. I first heard June Jordan’s voice through Poetry Spots, and it really opened a room in my mind—such power, politics, and playfulness. Given just how compelling her work is, I’m surprised she’s not as well known as some of her contemporaries. What was it like working with her?
B: June Jordan. I think her visibility is improving these days. Her voice is full of power, isn’t it? A sensuous power, hard to explain. I went to her apartment and sat there, awestruck—here’s this multidimensional, revolutionary poet and we’re just sitting in her living room. Her apartment in Brooklyn overlooked a playground—we had to stop filming when the kids got too loud.
And that poem, “Song of the Law Abiding Citizen”! “So hot, so hot, so hot, so what.” I don't know any other poet who mixes revolution and humor like she could, she just made the whole thing sweet in a way, and yet never shirked from the suffering.
J: Did you know her before you went to visit that day?
B: Poets pretty much run into each other—it was the greatest of times. I had met her a couple times. This was before she moved to California for her professorial stint at Berkeley, where she really became a beacon for change, influencing generations—still!—through her revolutionary poetics curriculum.
You know, I think with the Covid closure and the Black Lives Matter opening of the chest, June is one of the spirits—I’m sure others are hearing her voice for the first time, too. Poetry is a tiny town, and very few poets manage to get out of it. June did, in a way, but if you look at her book sales…how do you measure this kind of stuff? Well, we measure it by the impact on the culture itself, and that's where June seriously did her work, with her students and in the generations that have continued.
J: What was she like as a person?
B: Funny! She was funny and down to earth, no pretense. Do people carry themselves as “poets”? I hope not, she sure didn’t. She was one of the gang, and you better be ready for analysis. There were two poems—didn’t she do two poems for Poetry Spots?
J: She did another great poem called “Financial Planning.”
B: Right, which was commissioned by Forbes Magazine. Both of those poems are on my floor here in New York.
J: Say what?
B: Ha! I live directly above the Bowery Poetry Club, on the third floor. When I moved in, there was plywood flooring, and it sort of called for rugs. But instead of buying rugs, I asked a painter pal of mine, Mark Turgeon, the official calligrapher of the Bowery Poetry Club, a sign painter as well as an artist—he does a lot of gilding and gold leaf painting on windows and stuff, like old New York, all freehand—and I said, “Why don't you just paint some rugs on my floor? Why buy them when you can just paint them?” And then I thought, “Well, instead of rugs, let's do quilts, let's do Gee’s Bend.” And Mark responded, “Bob, I can be painting poems, this is your house, what poems do you want?''
I made him a list, I gave him the poems, and “so hot,” “Song of the Law Abiding Citizen,” was painted on there. And I gave him “Financial Planning,” which should be updated due to inflation. Ten thousand dollars ain’t what it used to be. How do you write a poem about atomic waste being trucked through your neighborhood with a sense of humor? That's June. Same thing with the Forbes poem. So she’s commissioned by a this totally capitalist magazine, and she gets paid, what do you do with the money? And that grows into, well, maybe capitalism will reward me with even more moolah! and what would I do with that? At one point she gets an Airedale, a summer house, you know. Hilarious!
J: The way she pivots from the playful to the deadly serious as she looks away from the camera and back out the window…“I’d have to revise this poem…”
B: “I’d have to revise this poem / and I don't know how.” That's her brute response to the people with the money: not for me. That pivot you’re talking about is the surprise that poems have to have to be truly alive. June was also a master of the three-line English language version of the Japanese haiku, she was a master because she was so agile, so light on her words…she could take it one direction, then twist you around and open your eyes in a whole new way. That’s what the best poems do, and she is one of the best poets. So there you have it.
J: Do you remember anything else from that day that might be worth remembering—how you decided to shoot outside the window, if she had ideas to sit by the glass, this kind of stuff?
B: She ate at and wrote at that table, so it was really the perfect place for her to sit. She loved the energy of the children playing at the grade school across the street—I can still find the building now because the school is still there, and when I find myself on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn I can look up and see the school and where we sat. New York is a great city, it's nothing but a palimpsest, and seeing June up there…she died too young, a tragedy.
We had fruit with a little wine, it was early afternoon, the kids were getting let out for recess and we had to wait for all them to finish their double dutch so we could get to June's poetry. She was perfect, framed by the window, without too much backlight.
J: I also wanted to ask you about Diane Burns, a poet I wasn’t familiar with before Poetry Spots. Her performance is singular and chilling so I looked her up, imagining she must have had an illustrious post-Spots career, but found a very different, sad story of alcoholism and isolation. Can you could tell me a little bit about Diane?
B: It's great that you mention Diane, because she is having a moment right now. In her much-too-brief life, she published a single chapbook, Riding the One-Eyed Ford, and as far as I know, this is the only video of her reading. We were very close. She and Pedro Pietri and I were a little gang. The first fundraising I ever did for poetry was in the early eighties, when I campaigned to get funds for Diane and Pedro to go to Nicaragua for a poetry festival, “US Poets Invade Nicaragua!” We owed that to Roland Legiardi-Laura, a poet who was very important in helping reopen the Nuyorican Poets Café—it had been closed for the eighties, AIDS, crack, and gentrification, which is what Diane’s poem is about.
J: “Alphabet City Serenade.”
B: “Alphabet City Serenade,” there you go. Roland had made a beautiful poetry film in Nicaragua, Azul, about the relationship of the Sandinistas and poetry. Nicaragua has two national sports, baseball and poetry. And two national heroes, Augusto Sandino, the father of the revolution, and Ruben Dario, father of Nicaraguan poetry. Now what the Sandinistas became is a sad, sad story, but then, mid-80s, they created a truly revolutionary and poetry-driven culture. The prison guards had poetry workshops! This was because the Minister of Culture was Ernesto Cardenal, revolutionary poet-priest. The literacy rate went from 14% to 90% during these first Sandinista years. Anyhow, Roland got an invite for a US poetry festival in Nicaragua. Ginsberg was part of the entourage, Joy Harjo, Alurista, Sandy and Judy from Curbstone Press, Zoe Angelsey…
Diane was Anishinabe, and really part of the downtown scene. There were few Native Americans in the New York poetry world then. Her chapbook was just digitized in the Poets House Chapbook Series, an amazing achievement in and of itself, thanks to Paolo Javier.
She had, and was, a poetry spirit. She worked for years at A Gathering of the Tribes, an art gallery/performance space/magazine magazine started by Steve Cannon. Diane published a lot of her poems in Tribes. Steve! The only (admittedly) blind art gallery owner in New York City, and also a great poet and publisher. Tribes was the last crash pad on the Lower East Side. Steve died a year ago.
That Poetry Spots video was presented in an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York last year, Diane still knocking around the Lower East Side. The performance/exhibition was put together by Nicole Wallace, another Anishinabe in New York, who is a prime mover in the rediscovery of Diane’s work. And Diane’s daughter, Britta, performed there, reading Diane’s poetry. From thinking of video as the enemy, to what Danny O'Neil helped me see back in the day, it’s really paying off with Diane, and with June. Poetry plus film/video is the move to digital, to what I call 3rd Consciousness. That’s what it is. Making it real, compared to what.