That Night at St. Mark’s
by Sharon Niederman
I was never a Patti Smith fan; however, she changed my life. Until I read her new memoir, Just Kids, I never realized how much.
How did I find out about those poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church? Perhaps I read about the Poetry Project in the Village Voice, perhaps someone mentioned them to me in passing, perhaps I noticed a random poster stapled to a lamp post. However it happened, that little piece of the zeitgeist stuck to me, until, after work one gloomy Tuesday evening, I removed my pantyhose, pulled on my jeans, and walked alone from my apartment at 11 Waverley Place to the East Village.
Shyly, I entered and took a seat near the back. A golden light and heart-thumping excitement filled the space. Lovely Anne Waldman emceed the event, while Gregory Corso emitted wisecracks that resounded, well . . . like farts. Allen Ginsberg was there, and he said warm things, and Sam Shepard, professionally ironic . . and how many others? People who could write! People who told the truth so loud and clear that others listened. People whose thoughts, whose souls the world had decided were worth paying attention to.
The bony, dark-haired girl took the stage. When she opened her mouth, she sent an irresistible shock through the crowd, a burst of energy that rapped my heart with the unheard of. In a style like Dylan (only the closest, not the most accurate comparison) with a voice deeper and less gruff, she let loose, moving her body and singing the language as it had not been sung before or since.
She was performing something primal yet ancient beyond comprehension. She wasn’t male, she wasn’t female, she wasn’t writer and she wasn’t musician, she wasn’t a child and she wasn’t a grown-up. She was her, and what we were hearing was a voice like none other, a voice that ultimately defined an age. This was it. Completely un-imitatable, though many have tried.
Someone released a clutch of helium balloons, a surprise of colors, and there was applause, but no gesture could have provided sufficient response. I don’t remember a thing she said, but it didn’t matter.
I continued attending readings at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project until I left New York almost two years later, but it wasn’t until I landed in Boulder that I began to get the courage to try and write and not until many years later, did I begin to stand up in front of the crowd and read.
In Boulder, we hung out at Tom’s Tavern and had spaghetti and poker at Kathy and Charlie George’s, and Sunday morning readings with Jack Collum, Jayne Anne Phillips, Marc Campbell, and so many others. Sometimes we hiked instead.
Soon came the others. . . Anne and Allen and Gregory and Gerard, and our warm homegrown scene became the Kerouac School of Disembodied Verse.
But Patti stayed in New York.
You can read more of Sharon Niederman at “Embracing the North” http://embracingthenorth.wordpress.com/