The Sixth Annual New York City Poetry Festival

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ON THE LAST SATURDAY AND SUNDAY OF JULY, poets and poetry lovers braved the rain and boarded the ferry to Governor’s Island. They were headed to the sixth annual New York City Poetry Festival, founded by Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski of the Poetry Society of New York, two days of back-to-back reading and performance. This year’s festival featured headliners Camille Rankine, Jericho Brown, and Matthew Yeager, as well as 250 poets, representing over 75 lit mags or organizations, who read throughout the weekend.

The mission of the festival is, in their words, to “liberate poets and their work from the dark corners of bars, bookstore, and coffee shops and their halogen-lit college campuses, and to bring together as many NYC poets as possible, in the bright light of day, to meet, mingle, and collaborate.” Although the sun didn’t shine the whole time, there certainly was ample opportunity for cross-pollination between factions of the New York poetry community. Slam poetry was performed across the green from dense, experimental pieces; recently-founded queer and feminist lit mags like EOAGH and Luna Luna rubbed up against the New York Browning Society, founded in 1907.

Two notable presences in the festival were The Typewriter Project and The Poetry Brothel, both installations of a sort. The Typewriter Project is a collection of shack-like wooden booths “outfitted with a vintage typewriter, 100-foot long paper scroll, and a custom-built USB Typewriter™ kit, which allows every keystroke to be collected, stored, and posted online for users to read, share, and comment upon.” The work generated from the installation is posted online, so this entry from the July 31 was likely written at the festival:

from cocaine or genetics, probably both. she wore a childs size

yellow tshirt, and she told me she would never run out of time i loved
that, and her, and many, many.but i am not confused, and the hands

of my clock wait.
at an ihop

The Typewriter Project carries on the work of surrealist poets by trying to access “the poetic subconscious of the city” through opportunistic encounters with technology. It also creates a point of contact between the past and future of writing technologies — that is, the typewriter versus the internet.

The Poetry Brothel is a more low-tech affair, consisting of a band of merry poets who, for a fee, will give a private, one-on-one poetry reading. The abandoned barracks of Governor’s Island provided a perfect setting for intimate readings in rooms the poets had covered with scarves, candles, and pillows. Readings were on the house for the duration of the festival, since the “Madame” happens to be PSNY founder Stephanie Berger herself. The Brothel is both nostalgic for the “fin-de-siecle bordellos in New Orleans and Paris, many of which functioned as safe havens for fledgling, avant-garde artists” and forward-thinking in its challenge to the way poets interact with their audience.

The festival aims to reach a different crowd than, say, Association of Writers and Writing events, infamously cliquey and prohibitively expensive. By contrast, the NYC poetry festival is free — even the ferry ride over, before 11:30 am. However, the festival also shows that the “MFA vs NYC” dichotomy often breaks down at the ground level — both the organizers, and many, if not most, of the poets reading are MFA holders or students.

The landscape of poetry in New York City remains as racially segregated and gender-imbalanced as that of the country as a whole, which has been shaken with an onslaught of abuses. For example, The New Yorker recently published a poem by a white writer called “Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?” equating Chinese food to people one-to-one. Organizations like The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo and VIDA have emerged to advocate for minority writers and try to keep the community accountable. The NYC Poetry Festival, attended as it was by a diversity of poets, might be understood as a step, however modest, toward what a more inclusive community looks like on the ground.

Poetry has thrived in the five boroughs for centuries, from Whitman to June Jordan, Langston Hughes to Eileen Myles. The NYC poetry community is by no means a monolith, and couldn’t be represented in a single festival even if we tried. In fact, it may be ill-advised to even call it a community. Even so, the last weekend in July served as a reminder that poets of New York are many and varied, and that we all coexist in this space, our city.