Series on Series:

The 27th Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading
at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church

by Director, Ed Friedman

When the moment came for me to read and sing at the first Poetry Project New Year’s Day Marathon Reading in 1973, I looked out on a St. Mark’s Church that was completely packed upstairs and down. Behind me, in a gallery assembled near the altar were, among others, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and William Burroughs. The Counterculture, as well as the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, were still vivid in memory. The Sexual Revolution was in progress, and there was a growing national Women’s Liberation Movement. The avant garde was still pre-Punk, pre-Hiphop, pre-Grunge, and pre-AIDS, not to mention pre-Postmodernism, pre-Language Poetry, and pre-Slam.

The Downtown scene was smaller. There were fewer writers, artists, dancers, et. al. than today, but in the ‘70s there was truly an arts scene. Artists of all kinds knew or knew of each other and were inspired by each other’s work. The Poetry Project had been in existence since 1966, and for years, St. Mark’s Church had been the site of many benefit readings, including those for the Black Panthers, the Peace Movement, and presidential candidate George McGovern. On New Year’s Day,1974, however, the Poetry Project was giving a benefit for itself. Through the years, I have variously read, performed, sold refreshments, and run the sound at many of the New Year’s Day readings.

Since 1988, I have been organizing and hosting them. There were the years immediately after the fire in St. Mark’s when the marathon reading had to be held off-site at the Entermedia Theater (now the Second Avenue Cinema) or the Ukrainian National Home. One year the marathon was completed over three nights. There was the year that at the last minute, the Entermedia Theater reneged on housing the New Year’s reading and it had to be held in Town Hall (small audience, big disaster). Also, there was the year sometime in the mid-’80s when none of the "big names" could participate and the audience in the sanctuary at St. Mark’s looked curiously sparse.

The first New Year’s Day Marathon Reading was highly successful. The Poetry Project raised thousands of dollars that were absolutely essential to its continued operation. For this reason alone -- and because the Poetry Project is always struggling to meet its operating expenses -- it made sense to host the New Year’s Day event again ... and again.

Aside from its financial success, the first marathon reading provided necessary historical perspective that the arts, and poetry in particular, were integral to the cultural-political life of the East Village, New York City, and the world. At the Poetry Project, I always feel that the work we present year in and year out is worthy of the prime-time attention which is (at least occasionally) accorded the other arts, that what poets do could be experienced by a much broader section of the population than ever attends readings or buys small press books. On New Year’s, a good part of the audience is present for 6-10 hours. I look at them and sometimes wonder whether they could really be paying attention for all that time.

It’s easy to see that they are when some of the more famous and gregarious performers are on stage (Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Pedro Pietri, Anne Waldman, Dael Orlandersmith, etc.). But then, a relatively unknown, quiet reader, reading some intricate or abstract poem, will deliver a passage which evokes an immediate and intense audience response. Whether they laugh or lean forward collectively in their seats, there is some clear indication that hundreds of people are following intimately the poet’s mind; the thought behind and within the poem is being transmitted; and that for hours on end, large portions of the audience never stop listening.

The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church will host its 27th Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading on Monday, January 1, 2001 from 2 p.m. until after midnight. Admission is $12 for Poetry Project members, $15 for non-members. Proceeds from the event benefit the Poetry Project. Among the more than 120 readers and performers slated to appear are: Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, John Giorno, John Cale, Penny Arcade, Lenny Kaye, Dael Orlandersmith, Taylor Mead, Eileen Myles, Pedro Pietri, Maggie Estep, Douglas Dunn, and Edwin Torres.

[131 East 10th Street (Second Avenue) (212) 674-0910]