For decades, New York City poetry lovers have celebrated New Year’s Day at one (or both) of two marathon poetry readings held in (or near) the East Village. Now poet Bruce Weber has been joined by Teresa Costa of “Word of Mouth” to create a free six-hour Hudson Valley performance marathon of 100 poets and poetic musicians. “Brain Storms” kicks off on January 1, 2020, at 2 p.m. at the Beverly Lounge, 224 Foxhall Avenue, Kingston.
Weber, known locally as an art historian, has been a democratizing force in downtown Manhattan poetry since he organized the first “Alternative New Year’s Day Spoken Word/Performance Extravaganza” 25 years ago, in response to a perception of elitism at the St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project marathon. Founded in 1966 as a successor to the coffeehouse readings of Greenwich Village and the East Village, the Poetry Project started its New Year’s fundraisers in 1974, booking a wide range of prominent poets to read for three minutes each and sometimes running from early afternoon to the wee hours of the morning.
When Weber noticed many talented downtowners were not getting a chance to read at the curated Poetry Project marathon, he created an open event that was first held in a loft space above the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. He and his organizers invited lots of poets, but anyone could read, whether invited or not.
“In 1995, I just thought it was needed,” said Weber. “There were a lot of writers the Poetry Project was not inviting. I thought it would be a wakeup call, and we’d just do it one time. The first one was such a charge. People wanted it so much. There was a spirit in that room — I couldn’t have predicted it. We had to do it again.” When Anselm Berrigan headed the Poetry Project, he invited Weber to read at their marathon, and Weber invited Berrigan to the Alt. Both of them would slip back and forth between the two readings, as did other readers and audience members.
Over the years, the Alt reading was forced to move around, spending a year or two or four at such venues as CBGB’s Gallery, next door to the famed punk nightclub; the Knitting Factory; Dixon Place; and the Nuyorican Poets Café. For 10 years, the Bowery Poetry Club provided a congenial space, with live streaming of the readers. More recently, the event has moved to the West Village and will take place this year, for the second time, at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street.
The Alt reading has lost some of its vigor. “The neighborhood changed,” said Weber. “Most of the people coming were from the East Village, and after a while, they died or moved out,” as the East Village became trendy, and poets were priced out of their apartments. Weber himself moved upstate, and no one has stepped up to take his place as organizer, so this year may be the last for the New York City Alt reading.
Weber settled full-time in the Saugerties area in July 2018, too late to put together an upstate marathon for New Year’s 2019, but he’s been steadily organizing for 2020. Costa stepped up to help out, having run the “Word of Mouth” reading series at the Art Bar in Kingston since 2002. Poet/musician Mikhail Horowitz, Phillip Levine (Woodstock Poetry Society), Bertha Rogers (Bright Hill Press), David Schell (Green Kill Gallery), Lissa Kiernan (Poetry Barn), and Sam Truitt (Station Hill Press) were among the poets and organizers deputized to each invite a handful of readers. They have assembled over 100 performers from an area that runs from Poughkeepsie to Saratoga and from Kingston to Delhi. For poets they missed, an open reading will follow. “Anyone can come and participate,” said Weber. “I didn’t want to close the door to anyone.”
When he attended an event at the Beverly Lounge earlier this year, Weber felt comfortable in the space and was pleased to learn that the owner, Trippy Thompson, had been an East Village resident. Joanne Pagano is building a set, with the help of other local artists. The Alt event in New York lasted 10 hours, but Weber decided that, given the upstate weather possibilities, six hours would be more prudent. About 20 percent of the performers are musicians, who will get five minutes each, while poets get three minutes, timed by the staff.
By bringing poets together from a variety of different reading series, Weber hopes to unite the local scene. In the city, he said, “The best thing about it was the sense of community. It’s the middle of winter, and people are still in the Christmas spirit.”
Added Costa, “I think Kingston needs something like this.”
“Brain Storms: The Hudson Valley New Year’s Day Spoken Word/Performance Extravaganza” will be held January 1, 2020, from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Beverly Lounge, 224 Foxhall Avenue, Kingston. Admission is free. Attendees are invited to bring charitable donations of books for Woodbourne Correctional Facility and/or non-perishable foods, which will go to Books Not Bombs.