Series on Series

Exoterica: The Magic of Poetry

by Rick Pernod

Good news comes at the most unexpected times and from the most unexpected sources. After all, how can you be prepared for the kind of news that wakes you up to the meaningful in life rather than to the merely purposeful? I am referring to the news for want of which men die miserable deaths [W.C. Williams], the news Stanley Kunitz called "life-sustaining, life-enhancing and absolutely unpredictable."

A decade ago, at the beginning of the resurgence and democratization of poetry, I was on full fellowship as a graduate student in sociology at Columbia University [in New York]. When my daughter Nicole was born, I decided to take a leave of absence to spend time with her. During one of the down-times of being a stay-at-home dad, I came across an anthology of American poetry, edited by Nancy Sullivan.

To say I was surprised by what I found in those pages would be quite an understatement. I had written some doggerel in my schoolboy days and gotten good grades in my English classes, but I had never paid much attention on the rare occasions poetry was discussed. What I found in Sullivan's anthology was not the overly precious, alembicated stuff I recalled from long before, and even poems I'd read then suddenly seemed new and vital. They had a relevance I had otherwise found only in music and film. I began devouring all the poetry I could find, and in one month's time, resigned my fellowship to Columbia and began writing poetry of my own.

I traveled to open mike spots around Manhattan and, although quite timid at the outset, I soon discovered I loved reading my work and listening to others read theirs as well. However, I did not like the attitude I found at many of the venues: elitist and provincial poetry "camps" that wanted nothing to do with one another. On a typical Saturday afternoon, I would go down to a long-running West Village series and hear language poets galore, and later that evening, in the East Village hear exclusively performance poets. Never did the twain meet, nor did they seem much to care.

I was more catholic in my tastes, so when I would mention to my fellow poets that we needed something up in the Bronx that could mix all the styles up, I was barraged with clichés about "bridge and tunnel people," and the Bronx's lack of sophistication and culture. How could a worthwhile poetry series ever hope to succeed in the da Bronx?

In February of 1991, I called Brooks Haxton, a poet from Mississippi whose work I had read in The Best American Poetry Anthology, and asked him to read his poetry on the top floor of a sports bar called 'Sidekicks,' across the street from Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. I knew nothing about running a series, but Brooks agreed--reluctantly--to read for me. He said he liked my enthusiasm (i.e. naïveté), and agreed to do the reading for free.

I decided to call the series "Exoterica," which means 'accessible'--the opposite of esoteric. I didn't want an atmosphere that was exclusive, elitist or only admitted people dressed in black. I wanted to present a series much in the same way I imagined the old time jazz and rock 'n roll impresarios did, as a devotee spreading a passion. Since the majority of the audience might be people who had never been to a reading, I knew it was important to be eclectic. There would be no "ghettoization" of aesthetics or styles. I wanted the best from all camps, a kind of live anthology of what was going on in contemporary poetry.

That first night, 75 people turned out to listen to the poet from Mississippi. It was obvious that the "unsophisticated" denizens of the Bronx were eager for the word, so Exoterica proceeded to run a reading once a week with a feature followed by an open mike. Our early readers included such poets as Billy Collins [the new U.S. Poet Laureate], David Shapiro, Reg E. Gaines, Thomas Lux, Mark Doty, and Tracie Morris. We continued to attract large crowds in the early days and got quite a bit of local press coverage. In later years, we would receive coverage in The Daily News, The New York Times, The New Yorker, on ABC [television], and on NPR [radio]. The pieces always seemed to have the same theme: Imagine, a poetry series in the Bronx!

Unfortunately, our readings interfered with more important events such as The Stanley Cup [hockey], and we were forced to leave. Our next stop was the newly opened An Beal Bocht Café, an Irish spot, which we helped put on the cultural map. For the next six years, we featured many great events: the American debut of French poet Pierre Martory, who read with his close friend John Ashbery; the first public reading of L.S. Asekoff; the first poetry reading in many years by Nation editor Katha Pollitt; the premier of the newly translated poetry of the extinct Xam Bushmen of South Africa. We featured poets from over thirty different countries, as well as American poets who had won every conceivable literary prize, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. People would always ask me how I got such prestigious readers. My answer may have seemed flippant, but it was sincere, "Call them up."

One of my most memorable moments was a reading by [2000-2001] Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz who had never read in a bar before. He told me,"I had the sense of sharing my poems with a gathering of friends and neighbors in a wonderfully congenial setting. It was an experience that brought me back to the communal origins of poetry." Donald Hall read to an enthusiastic, packed house and said, "I have never read to so many lovers of poetry crowded together so happily." Other outstanding readings included those given by Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata, Nina Cassian, Sharon Olds, and the late William Matthews.

The open mike portion of our evenings became an integral part of our format. We always like to encourage new and shy writers to read, as we pride ourselves on providing writers of all levels with attentive listeners in a supportive setting. Many of our open-mike people have gone on to be published and/or win literary prizes for their work, including Greg McDonald, Dr. Jay Liveson, and Elizabeth Bassford, all people who read for the first time at an Exoterica open mike.

During these years, our volunteer base started to expand and we began to produce community writing workshops, as well as specialized reading series, such as the one we do in conjunction with "Aging in America." We were also involved with numerous school and community projects, and participated at the ground level in the planning and development stages of The National Writers Corp. and Share Our Strength. A project we are currently proud to administer is The National Arts Club/Con Edison Essay Writing Contest that provides scholarship money to high school students who are economically disadvantaged yet rich in writing potential.

Exoterica was thriving and spreading the word like never before, but after six years at An Beal Bocht, we were asked to move again. The owner had gotten a liquor license and changed the café atmosphere dramatically to the point where poets weren't needed for promotion and public relations any longer: The pint had proved mightier than the pen. Luckily, we were invited to the newly opened Guitar and Pen Used Bookstore and Coffeehouse by owner Colin Broderick, where we stayed for a year before it had to close.

Our most recent home, The Riverdale Society for Ethical Culture, has proved to be our best space ever. I was recently named poet-in-residence and have full run of the facilities. We have a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, classroom space, and a superb performance space that seats well over a hundred. We have also become incorporated, with a full board of directors. This season we will present poets as diverse as Pulitzer Prize winner C. K. Williams, the great "sound" and Fluxus movement poet Jackson MacLow, Belgian poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Scottish poet Don Paterson, Phillip Lopate and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Marie Ponsot.

We will also be co-producing the WORD festival in April of 2002 with The Fieldston School, which we hope will become the flagship festival of the Bronx. The daylong festival will explore the relationship between music and poetry by bringing the top names in music and poetry together for readings, performances and seminars.

It has been a remarkable journey for Exoterica, and our success has exceeded our wildest dreams, thanks to the folks of the Bronx and its surrounding communities. By the way, the poem that I opened to in that anthology ten years ago was by Donald Hall. It spoke to me, unexpectedly, as I needed to be spoken to on that day, on and to a level that only poetry can speak. Like all good poems, it is not paraphrasable:

White Apples

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
                           I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes

I believe this: those lucky enough to hear the news are best served when they in turn spread the news.

On September 20, Exoterica begins its eleventh season. The first feature is Elizabeth Bassford, winner of the 2001 BRIO Award, who recently expressed her appreciation:

Exoterica has been as fine and thorough an education in the craft and appreciation of poetry as any MFA program. I simply cannot say enough about the work Rick does on behalf of his audience.

The event will also be a fund-raiser for the series ($10), with Rick Pernod, Andy Bassford, Jeff Ganz, and Leroy Guy bringing their mix of funk, poetry, chaos, jazz, theater, and rock and roll. Marie Ponsot appears in October and Johanna Keller leads a workshop series.

Events take place at The Society for Ethical Culture, 4450 Fieldston Road. Ample, free parking is available or short walk from the last stop on the northbound #1 train. Info: (718) 549-5192.

(Rick Pernod is the founder and director of the exoterica series. His recent publications include Minding The Gap, Medicinal Purposes Literary Review, Paterson Literary Review, American Book Review, and Rattapallax. Awards: BRIO (1999-2000), Bronx Council on the Arts.)