GIORNO & THE POETRY PROJECTby Stacy Szymaszek
“Let’s make an amazing space of openness for a living event whose name is John Giorno, and he tells us, crazy genius that he is, that he is 80 fucking years old.”
—Eileen Myles introducing John Giorno at The Poetry Project’s 2017 New Year’s Day Marathon
I’ve spent hours over the past years gazing at a black-and-white photograph of John reading, taken by Sarah Wells, in the Parish Hall of St. Mark’s Church.
A quick look at the Poetry Project database leads me to believe it’s the 1981 New Year’s Marathon reading. People have their winter coats in their laps. The podium is in front of a wooden platform upon which he stands. His knees are bent, maybe one foot is slightly turned in. He’s one of my favorite poets to watch perform, all mind and muscle projecting. He happens to be holding a piece of paper (he recently said his memory is only getting better with time), but his eyes are closed and his head is angled upward on the same visual plain as Della Robbia’s relief sculpture of the angel in The Annunciation (c. 1475) (if you’re wondering what the Della Robbia is doing in the shot, what serves as the “back of the room” changes). His body looks like he could take off if it weren’t for his heavy black work boots anchoring him. The room is full of people gathered around him sitting on the floor, some with their eyes closed too, most smiling.
John has performed at the Project at least forty-eight times over the Project’s fifty years, including his infamous multimedia bacchanalia in 1969, as well
as broadcast “Radio Free Poetry” from the bell tower of St. Mark’s. These events took place during Anne Waldman’s tenure as Artistic Director. Her foundational ethos of poetry as “a living event” included many such multidisciplinary events that challenged people’s notions of a poetry reading as a formal and sedate occasion,
and established the Project as a prime venue for “breaking the rules.” John, sharing in this ethos, staged a bacchanalia that made use of music, lights, fog, a communal bowl of acid punch, and lots of pot.
He has participated in most of the New Year’s Day Marathons, making him one of a handful of performers/experimenters who have come to define the event and, in the words of Marcus Boon, he “tears the house down” every year. At the 2017 Marathon John was on at his usual time, 8:30, after the Buddhist ceremony he holds annually in his loft on the Bowery. He performed, from memory, “Everyone Gets Lighter,” which ends with the repetition of that line followed by “everyone is light.” In a space where thousands of poets living and dead have shared their work, their minds, he is a constant and phenomenal portal of connection to all of this poetic knowledge, as well as a sense of renewal.
STACY SZYMASZEK is a poet and the current Director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church.