In a downtown New York tradition, ringing in the New Year with poetry

On the morning of New Year’s Day, along the quiet streets of Manhattan’s East Village, scarf-wrapped crowds descended on St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery for a 12-hour poetry reading that has been a tradition of spiritual cleansing in the city center. since the 1970s. For its devotees, the gathering’s hypnotically long program of readings and avant-garde performances provides a radical and reliable initiation into the new year.

Hosted by the Poetry Project, the nonprofit that has operated at the historic church since the 1960s, the marathon serves as its largest annual fundraiser. Around 150 writers, artists and dancers take turns on stage until approximately midnight. Its performers include William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Yoko Ono, Amiri Baraka and Patti Smith. Years ago, poet John Giorno might have provided participants with a bowl of LSD-laced punch; Nowadays, young attendees head to church immediately after partying at all-night raves.

Sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows as guests prepared for the long journey ahead. Beneath the church’s paint-peeling roof, many sat cross-legged in nooks and crannies, unpacking the blankets and worn paperbacks they had brought with them. Some parents in hats sat in chairs with their babies in tow, and one woman walked her terrier down a crowded hallway.

Lee Ranaldo, co-founder of Sonic Youth, finally took the stage with a guitar to perform “Forty Songs,” a tune based on lyrics by beat poet Michael McClure. After finishing his six-minute presentation, Ranaldo spent time in the parish hall, where visitors soothed their hangovers with coffee and served pierogies at Veselka, a nearby Ukrainian restaurant, while reading chapter books for sale.

“When I first came to New York, this reading was one of the first things I wanted to see,” Ranaldo said. “Strange as it may seem, many New Yorkers still don’t know it. It has always had a marginal and marginal aspect. You’re bringing Allen Ginsberg here, not Robert Frost.”

“I remember Jonas Mekas once brought a box to a reading,” Ranaldo added. “It contained clippings of Ginsberg’s beard. Nowadays it still feels strange to be here like this.”

Greeting old friends and fellow poets was Eileen Myles, who has lived in a nearby rent-stabilized apartment since the 1970s and was once director of the Poetry Project.

“This is how I start my life in New York every year,” they said. “For me, everything ends and then comes the New Year’s reading at the Poetry Project. This is also the place where my education as a young poet began. You would bring a beer and go to a workshop taught by Ted Berrigan.”

They added: “I’m going to read a love poem I wrote called ‘Pon mi casa’. And I will give it to Palestine tonight.”

More than a thousand people passed through the church throughout the day. Some took only a few sets, while others went on for hours, pulling out balls of yarn and knitting needles to pass the time. The marathon gradually took on the appearance of an epic, avant-garde collective spectacle, and its programming blurred across categories of genre and experimentation.

Jaye Bartell, film director of Anthology Film Archives, played a mournful, folky guitar tune. Journey Streams, a young writer who was introduced as a “Brooklyn-based nightlife historian,” recited an untitled work on an iPhone. A choir, We Sing in Solidarity, marched to the tune of “Power to the Workers.” Power to the working class.” They wore red shirts, scarves and dresses and sang sheet music into red folders.

“We are the chorus of the Democratic Socialists of America, New York City Chapter,” announced Annie Levin, one of the singers. “Please come to our concert on January 13 at the People’s Forum, where you’ll hear some Appalachian labor songs.”

Luminaries of the poetry scene dominated the stage in the second half of the marathon.

Anne Waldman, who founded the event in 1974 during her directorship of the Poetry Project, read a poem accompanied by a jazz saxophonist. Cecilia Vicuña, the Chilean artist, recited a minimalist political poem, “Ga Za.” Pamela Sneed, wearing a necklace with a piece of quartz, presented a new work, “Barbie,” inspired by her dislike of Greta Gerwig’s summer movie.

“What if Barbie was taken to every slum and homeless shelter in America and she saw where they dump unwanted people?” said Mrs. Sneed. “What would happen if her family members were trapped and drowned by a buoy on the Texas border that was trying to keep immigrants away? What if she lost everything? To AIDS. COVID-19. What if she had her breasts removed and she had to start a GoFundMe to cover the medical costs?

Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence analyst who carried out the largest intelligence leak in American history, stood on stage in silence for several minutes. The church was now full and stiflingly hot, and people closed their eyes in meditation.

“I got very used to this experience that you just had, sitting there in silence,” Ms. Manning finally said, referring to her stay in solitary confinement. “Where I had nothing but me and my thoughts. Only stone silence.”

“I think there is a lot of power in silence,” he added. “I wanted to share a little piece of that.”

As midnight approached, the church emptied and about 60 people sat in the dark watching the final leg of the marathon. Critic Sarah Nicole Prickett did a reading, as did Ty Mitchell, writer and former gay porn star. Pianist Conrad Tao improvised on Art Tatum’s 1950s recording, “Over the Rainbow.”

David Velasco, who was fired in October as editor of Artforum after publishing an open letter calling for Palestinian liberation and a ceasefire, recited a personal essay about the events that led to his dismissal.

“That morning, I wake up and find a bird lying motionless on the floor of the apartment, after the cat had brought it inside,” Velasco said. “It’s been tense all day while different people decide what to do with me.” He continued: “A lawyer thinks he should write an email to buy time. A friend thinks he should prepare a statement. “I’m crouching in the fireplace trying to position my body between the bird and the cat when a voice inside me starts saying, ‘Don’t do anything.'”

The final reading of the night belonged to Kyle Dacuyan, the Poetry Project’s outgoing director, and his staff later surprised him offstage with champagne and a cinnamon-pecan pie. Outside in the cemetery of the old church, a group stood smoking cigarettes in the cold, singing poetry over the graves of the dead.

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