Eve Packer is one of those people who comes off on-stage like an in-your-face diva with plenty of ‘tude, but when I got to know her, I discovered a down-to-earth, like-minded soul who shares my skepticism about the frenetic development going on all around town. Recently, we discussed her beginnings as a poet/performer; her book Playland: Poems 1994-2004 (Fly By Night Press, 2005), about the grittier aspects of Times Square; her jazz collaborations with musicians Noah Howard and others; what it was like to have her work displayed in a designer boutique; and, of course, gentrification. In her “spare time” Packer teaches and runs a loose collective of poets called What Happens Next.
Rail: How did your work get “discovered” by a hip clothing designer?
Eve Packer: One day before Thanksgiving I went to the laundromat. I noticed a lot of activity going on in front of the Marc Jacobs children’s store. I asked this man who was standing out front about some dolls that were on display. We got to talking and it turned out to be Robert Duffy, Marc Jacobs’s business partner. I asked him if they’d be interested in taking some of my stuff, and he said yes. Now my books and CDs are being distributed in their stores nationwide! It’s such a rush. They probably thought featuring a local artist was a way of giving back to the neighborhood, because there was a lot of community opposition to these kinds of stores going in there.
Rail: Does that strike you as ironic, given that in Playland you take the gentrification of Times Square as your subject?
Packer: Yes. I had read this tiny article that Disney was going to take over 42nd St. I thought, that’s it. This is all going to go. I wanted to capture it before it did. I also wanted to do something about “closed doors.” There are all kinds of closed doors there that we (as women) don’t go into—the Peep Worlds, the Playlands. It’s not technically dangerous—there are women working there. But women don’t go in and out, whereas men go in and out all the time. In some way the delicate balance of power between men and women might have been some kind of mirror into what I was going through—the breakup of a relationship. The men who own these places did have the power; they exploited the women. But for a minute the women have the power, as they take their clothes off and do whatever is asked, for money.
I was scared as hell and I had some time off from work, it was winter and very cold. I started with Show World, and they wouldn’t let me in, because I was a single woman and you had to have a male escort. So that was how the first poem, “show world,” started, I just wrote what I saw—from outside. Then I got a man to accompany me. I started going to Playpen solo, where they were more friendly. I met up with the guy who was the emcee. I would ask the girls in the booths these big questions—What is love, What makes you happy—stay about five minutes and then run out in the cold and write, and pay them for their time. I found it fascinating, and they liked answering the questions.
I went in once the day of New Year’s Eve and that was the most unsettling, because the things I saw … I’m sure there was a lot of money made that day because people had to go home later to be with who they were supposed to be with, but they were gonna have some fun in the afternoon, and I saw some stuff that really shook me up, physically. At the time Playpen had this carousel—a round platform enclosed by viewing windows where you could see everything.
So the dancers just talked and I paid them. I would stay a minute, because that’s how long it is for a dollar (I tipped more). This went on for about two years. It was great, and sure enough, almost all of those places are gone. Playpen’s still there, but it’s moved a couple doors down. The whole neighborhood’s changed.
Rail: I kind of feel two ways about it—I was happy to be working in a place that was safer than 15 years prior when my office first moved onto Times Square (1991). But on the other hand it’s just gotten so plastic. And there’s still no place to sit!
Packer: Well, I would sit if I could, because I love the fluorescent lights, the crazy signs, the crowds…but I miss the funk. I miss the particularity, the outrageous character, the localness, and the individuality, the uniqueness that is not in fashion at the moment. I don’t think it used to be a dangerous neighborhood. There were pickpockets, sure, and prostitution. But it was also heavily policed. I don’t think there were a lot of murders or violent crimes. I was never robbed in those days, or anything close.
There are probably still pockets of uniqueness, but not that concentration. Those worlds were very theatrical, and I’m from theatre. When I sit down to write a poem, that’s not really me, in a sense, coming from theatre. So I was part of it, (the action) because I was talking, interacting with people, on my feet. And it is very theatrical, they dress up, they’re in a frame—nothing was more theatrical than Sally’s, the transvestite bar.
The second place I went to, because I couldn’t get into the other places, was a “lingerie store,” and I bought something. That’s where the Westin Hotel is now. That whole strip—the Blarney Stone, where I took photos and talked to people, the lingerie shop, the rehearsal studio Nola that was used for auditions, musicals, very funky—all gone. When a building goes, or a mom-and-pop business that’s been there a long time, it feels like a part of my body is being ripped off. I often think of things that are disappearing, lost … almost all poetry is really about loss.
Rail: Tell me about your CDs [west frm 42nd, that look, and cruisin’ w/ moxie (on Altsax Records)].
Packer: Well, west frm 42nd was recorded all in one day, except for one overdubbed track. But it was all mastered together by the same person. The title track goes:
Large post-mod duane-reade
under port authority,
piles of debris/wood
of what was KFC Halal indo-pak curry to go:
stores boarded up in
red & blue steel shutters,
42nd STREET DEVELOPMENT PROJECT
stenciled on street banners & flags,
awning proclaiming in red/lavender
the NEW 42nd st colors.
LION King marquee flashing yellow light
in prep for
new victoria late 19th century
jewel box theatre,
now pristine pretty for kiddie/families,
on n.w. corner, where optimo smoke shop phone/safe-
haven for every junkie/score & cop/hustler
once was, now stands firm ferrara home of canolli
& other confections since 1898, across
on downtown side: showpiece
gooey rich all conquering,
mighty mouse who rules make-over gotham,
recently arrived & here to clean up:
M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E: DISNEY STORE
Rail: When did you start collaborating with musicians?
Packer: I started probably in 1991.
Rail: I moved to the city in 1985, and in retrospect it seemed like that was when a lot of interesting happenings and groups in the East Village were on the decline.
Packer: Right, that whole era covered by Brandon Stosuy’s Up Is Up book. I performed at all those places—8BC, Pyramid Club, Darinka, Club Chandelier. ReCherche, the experimental theatre group developed by Ruth Malaczech and Lee Breuer, was really the most sophisticated. Anna Devere Smith came out of there. A lot of people helped me out, and it was wonderful. I loved it. I would have been happy if it had gone on forever. I did a piece with Medicine Show, Barbara Vann was great, and it was while I was acting in that that Bernadette Mayer said, “Come to my poetry workshop.” So I did. And then I tried to read somewhere, and they said No, so I said “Fuck it, I’ll form my own thing.”
Carol Wierzbickiis the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The Worst Book I Ever Read.