Reading Repertoires 2000-2004


With or without other Philly Free School constituents, or with PFS adjuncts like Jae Won Chung, Will Esposito, and Christian TeBordo, Philly-lit old guard stalwarts like Jim Cory, Alexandra Grilikhes, and Leonard Gontarek, and at venues which ranged from small-scale, intimate dens like Book Trader while it was still at 5th and South to the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus (especially during the years I was finishing my degree at Penn), I did readings galore during the first half of the Aughts in Philly. I had a standard repertoire to draw from; among the flagship poems employed were three I had written in State College in '98— Clean, Prince, and Disappear. Also, Icarus in New York, which was written in NYC, summer '99. Clean is the most serious, both formally and thematically— it can be taken as a queer poem par excellence (though the poem did not originate from queer experience per se), or an allegorical rendering of human frailty generally; and the meta-oratory level of the poem's construction and self-representation hinges it to the metaphysical conceits of Donne, Marvell, and Herbert. Plus, it was amusing enough that I could get a hearty laugh out of almost any crowd with it. Prince and Disappear were crowd-charmers, too— I had a more than decent show stopping and stealing ratio in those days.

The Ode On Jazz, written in the fall of '02, also fulfilled many valuable public functions— expansively musical enough to work as high-level, high-maintenance ear-candy, three minutes long when read properly, it introduced audiences both to an interpretation of jazz and to Keats-sized formal ambition. Ode On Psyche, completed in '01, a draft of which also appeared in American Writing in '02, fulfilled a similar imperative need I had. Certain nights stand out as extraordinary— one night in early '01, I read at Tritone with Matt Stevenson accompanying me on keyboards. Something clicked, and we achieved a kind of transcendental lift-off, and (I felt at the time) took our audience of 15-20 with us.

The Philly poetry reading circuit in the early-to-mid Aughts was limited, but had some points of interest. The PhillySound poets, ten years older than the wonted tag-team combo of myself and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum, had been combatants of Vlad Pogorelov and Siren's Silence in the Nineties (and of Jeremy's 'd"), and were very hyped on ruling their own roost, subjecting all comers to their protocols. They were queer, and well-connected— to institutions like Penn and Temple, the Philly avant-professor crowd (DuPlessis, Perelman, Osman), and to the Poetry Project crowd in New York. Conversely, they viewed themselves as extremely "street," and prided themselves on writing in a street-consonant way. Their downfall, for us, was a rote and rigid insistence on being treated as absolutely aristocratic characters everywhere they went in Philly. To them, Jeremy and I were parvenu. Their version of Philly was South Philly working class, and anti-academic— its just that (as was noticed), because they constantly sought out the patronage of the avant-prof bourgeoisie to justify themselves, they were also easily dismissed as hypocrites, liars, and cowards; and by 2005, they were openly aping our moves. Nonetheless, we were always running into them, and C.A. Conrad, their reigning figurehead, worked with me at B & N.

The American Poetry Review guys, Steve Berg and his cronies, were also around and, like PhillySound, were such repulsively aristocratic characters that almost everyone just ignored them; while many of Berg's other cronies became my profs when I began my MFA at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire in 2004, and met Christopher Goodrich and Mary Walker Graham. In anticipation of my University Fellowship and five years at Temple, I met Nick Moudry at around this time too.

The online journal Hinge, edited by Marilyn Bess, also established itself as a presence for me in the early Aughts. Hinge was uniquely multi-media; it had feelers out to the visual art and musical Philadelphia communities as well, and, as such, the site was tilted towards poetry but also featured music and visual art. Hinge put on a show in the spring of 2004 in Northern Liberties at which I read, and which became the template for the first Philly Free School show at the Highwire Gallery that July. Between readers, bands (one of which, Lucky Dragons, was especially fascinating to me for their ambient version of electronic, computer-based music), and a freewheeling, slightly debauched atmosphere, the Hinge Northern Liberties show fulfilled the multi-media dream I had of creating/re-creating the Swinging London of my imagination. As to what I have on the Hinge Online site, now that it has been resurrected: the first page (from, I believe, 2001) features Prince, Disappear, and Marriott Lane, all written in State College in '98; there is a 2003 page for the Keats inspired On Love, which was very much about my life with Mary at the time; and on the third Hinge page from 2004, Hamlet On Pine Street, which I debuted in a Perelman workshop at Penn, casts light on the excesses of Aughts Philly. Technician of Tough Love is my elegy for American Writing editor Alexandra Grilikhes, who died in 2003. American Writing itself was a port of call worth mentioning (as Columbia Poetry Review was for Jeremy), which I appeared in twice in the early Aughts; professionally, sturdily published, and reasonably put together from pieces which leaned towards the visionary side of the avant-garde.

This liminal period, between This Charming Lab and the major '04-'06 PFS shows, was an interesting one for me— it coincides with the first two years I spent with Mary Harju (2001-2003), and Abs was around us constantly. As all the burgeoning Philadelphia Renaissance/Neo-Romanticism stalwarts fumbled youthfully around for direction, most of us had a sense of upward progression; that we were working towards something unique and worthwhile. It was a time of creative gestation and warmly-lived life for us. To the extent that This Charming Lab was a failed version of Philly Free School, I was gaining competence skills, on different levels, as collateral benefit from the readings we were doing, and the pace of things for all of us was leisured and comfortable. If my writing then was comparatively directionless, I was still planting creative seeds to bear distinctive, representative fruit later. Final note: Abs took this picture of me at a Radio Eris gig somewhere on Chestnut Street in 2002.