The New York Poetry Festival


It’s impossible to discuss last weekend’s first ever “free celebration of the poetry world of New York City” without mentioning the fact that it wasn’t in New York City. Well, not really. Located on bucolic Governors Island—at least a seven-minute ferry ride away from home for everyone involved—the festival drew about 500 New Yorkers each day and plopped them into obscenely pleasant environs. I spotted a disproportionate amount of urbanites meandering barefoot, grinning, straw fedoras tilted on their heads in a suspiciously jaunty manner.

Over 100 poets—from emerging voices to Pulitzer Prize winners—read at three stages over two days. There was an open mic, too, held beneath a tree and delineated in the grass by a ring of yellow daisies. At a couple of booths, small presses hocked chapbooks and magazines; crafts like hand-sewn hankies and origami poems sold like hotcakes. There was a brothel, too. More on that later.

The leafy idyll made for a liberating atmosphere. One of the very first readings—“Clash & Hum/ The Typewriter Girls”—culminated in a serene jam session between poet, violinist, calligrapher and audience. A “spontaneous overflow of motion,” as curator Crystal Hoffman put it. Margaret Bashaar read a line that turned into the motto of the weekend: “We have doomed ourselves and it is wonderful.”

I spoke with one of the event’s organizers, Stephanie Berger, about why The Poetry Society of New York decided to start throwing an annual two-day party. Perching a Poetry Festival parasol—an inspired piece of merch—over her head, Stephanie told me about the poetry community in NYC. “There are a lot of different facets; it isn’t really united. So we thought it’d be fun to ask the curators of all our city’s top reading series, slams, and open mics to bring their different tastes together on a sunny day.”

Attendees were free to flit from stage to stage, though I personally most enjoyed settling in with a curated hour of readers. A favorite was “The Southern Writers Reading Series,” a dynamic group of poets with only their Southern-ness in common. Recent NYU grad Monica McClure had a lilting drawl that belied her ferocious elegies. Patricia Spears Jones was a delight from start to finish, regaling us with stories about perfect New York dates and the perils of public transit.

At one point, Patricia’s pages scattered in the island breeze and a flurry of poets—most of us perfect strangers, mind—rushed to gather them so we could get back to listening to her masterful work. She was followed by the always astonishing Yusef Komunyakaa, who shared all-new poems with his signature soulful intensity. Near the end of the reading, the wind buffeted his microphone. He faltered for a brief and charming moment—“I’m not sure. What to do. About this.”—and we cheered when someone took the initiative to turn up the volume.

Sure, the wind was annoying sometimes. I had to brush dirt off my legs a lot. Plus, a team of yellow jackets set up shop in my freshly opened can of lemon seltzer. But the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café brought me down to earth with a foot-stomping showstopper of a poem called “First World Problems.” With fresh perspective, I smiled at the day-trippers speeding past on tandem bicycles; I even sprawled out in the grass to enjoy “KGB Poetry,” curated by the folks at the literary landmark KGB Bar.

One stage over, the festival’s boisterous Grand Marshall Bob Holman disturbed my peace, urging his audience to shout, stamp, and applaud. Our own Matthea Harvey, ever-demure, admitted that projecting loudly wasn’t her strength. It’s obvious that poetry is, though—her bright, imaginative work was full of surprises and utterly captivating. I adored a batch about “badly behaved mermaids,” especially the homemade mermaid with visible stitches. Her top half was a pimply teenager. Her bottom? A tuna.

Continuing the under-the-sea theme, Gigantic’s founding editor James Yeh donned salmon- colored socks for his reading with the terrific magazine Supermachine. He shared a sweet story (“You can call it a poem if you want”) about an object of desire fighting a bedbug infestation. The audience itched with empathy. After, I chatted about the festival’s small press and magazine presence with Jane Ormerod, editor of Uphook Press. “I’m feeling optimistic,” she said. “We’re getting exposure to a whole new group of people who maybe wouldn’t come to a typical reading. We’re not trapped in a theater or limited to one person’s point of view.”

The convivial weekend had been all about flaunting constraints in the great, green outdoors. So it was strange, perhaps, that the most intimate poetic experience of the festival was found inside a building. Corseted women—The Poetry Whores—tempted us to join them in The Poetry Brothel, where for $5, “literary johns” could get a one-on-one poetry reading.

A few days before the festival, the brothel was just one more beautiful, abandoned house on Governors Island. The whores absolutely transformed it: There were chandeliers, velvet couches, antique handguns on tables next to rusting typewriters. Curious, I plunked down five clams for a few minutes with Cosette Chapiteau (née Rachel Boyadjis).

Cosette pulled back a brocade curtain and took me into a red-lit room. We both sat on the bed, mere inches from each other, as she shared two poems. The first, “Three-Acre Heart,” was lovely, though she transposed a few words, her gestures at times a bit shaky. Afterward, she told me the poem had gone through many revisions, so “the words had shadows of other words behind them.” It was during her second poem, a ballad for one of America’s first female tiger tamers, that Cosette broke free. She spoke of necklaces made of teeth; her voice filled the room; she locked eyes with me and I thought about how close this was to making love. A little awkward, definitely nerve-racking, honest in a way I wasn’t expecting.

This is the kind of provocative human connection that writing’s all about, isn’t it? I left the dark house knowing things I hadn’t known before. The sky was brighter than I remembered; bluer, too. I felt grateful that a place where things like this could happen was part of the city I call home.

Katie Wudel is a writer, educator, and arts advocate living in Manhattan. Her short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, Prairie Schooner, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and other magazines. Her writing has been listed among Wigleaf Magazine's Top [Very] Short Fictions of 2011, and she is an alumna of the Hedgebrook residency for visionary women writers. More from this author →