On Thursday I had the pleasure of reading at the KGB Bar in New York City for a third time and at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg the following night, two East Coast readings during the week New Jersey-based poet and Black Arts pioneer Amiri Baraka died.
I was thinking about both venues a lot this last week and the nature and point of giving poetry readings, in the context of Amiri Baraka’s passing. The KGB Bar, situated in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has been a staple of the East Coast poetry scene for years. Readings happen nearly every night. My reading was put on my Monique Lewis and her organization At The Inkwell, which gives voice to new and established writes. Monique makes no money for hosting these readings monthly and doing all of the PR, and yet, she does it, as a way to support other writers.
The reading at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore was put on by the Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel, which has been hosting readings for over 15 years. After my feature, I nearly sold out of books! The organizers don’t get paid for hosting a weekly reading series, but they do it again and again, like Monique and At the Inkwell, as a way to support other writes and maintain a community among artists. Beyond the weekly poetry readings, Midtown Scholar Bookstore is an intellectual hub in the middle of a state capital that has flirted with bankruptcy and has a skyrocketing crime rate. Yet, situated downtown is a place where intellectuals, young writers, activists, and even politician meet, a place with walls of books, matched only by The Strand in NYC. All of these people and organization provide community, and that should be what giving poetry readings and hosting readings is all about- community and giving a voice to others.
On my way to Harrisburg, among the news of the Chris Christie Bridgegate scandal, I learned of Amiri Baraka’s passing. Baraka, a political activist and New Jersey resident, never saw a division between poetry and politics, poetry and education, and poetry and community. A leader of the Black Arts Movement, he helped give rise to a new generation of writers. After getting home from back to back readings, I felt inspired, ready to keep writing, doing readings, and hosting other writers in my community. Let’s take this week to go back to Amiri Baraka’s poetry, to read his past interviews, and remember that people are the foundation of politics and poetry is about community.
I’ll end this post with a video of Baraka from Bill Moyers’ show. This was recorded in 1999. It features some live readings, too. Here’s a link.