Tuesday, October 5, 2010

South Street Seaport Museum

On the top floor:

I'm finding it difficult to write a thoughtful entry while listening to thrash music. But we're talking MUNICIPAL WASTE here! The Art of Partying! Okay...let me let this finish up before I put on something more appropriate, or nothing at all which might be even more appropriater.

So what was I doing on the top floor of the South Street Seaport Museum, a place that isn't generally open to the public (I'd like to think, but maybe not)? Well, let me tell you...

It all started four years ago...no, maybe it started before then. It started without me even knowing that something had started. Maybe six years ago, or even seven...

One day sometime in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, a five years which I usually refer to as my "downward slide" (I'll have to come up with something catchier), I decided to try to bulk up my festering brain with some poetry. A quick trip to Barnes and Nobles (Yes, I know it's Noble, but just let me have that one. I also have a theory about people who say, "Barnes and Nobles" but I'll save it for another post. Or did I already write an entry about that?) yielded me a compendium of Allan Ginsberg (who I once borrowed a pen from), and Walt Whitman. It was the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of his first and last (aka "Death Bed") of his Leaves of Grass. I glanced through both books, took a stab at reading a few poems, then put them on my shelf as my brain further atrophied as I allowed myself to be sucked ever downward into a meaningless existence (god, did I actually just write that sentence? I'm a fucking hack).

During my first semester at Columbia (Spring 06), I heard about this great summer class. It was all about Walt Whitman and New York City, and according to my fairy godmother/guardian angel (I'll write about him another time), it was definitely worth taking. Since it would be the only way I'd actually sit down and read Whitman (combined with my love of NYC and its history), I enrolled. The class was taught by a woman named Karen Karbiener. As she detailed to us our required books, one of them was the very edition of Leaves Of Grass I had picked up a few years earlier. It also turned out that she was the editor of that very edition, and one of the foremost Whitman scholars in America (though I wonder, are there any foremost Whitman scholars not in America?).

The class was wonderful, dare I say, special. Being a summer class it was pretty immersive. Twice a week, three hours a day of all Whitman (though there were field trips too). I loved it. I loved reading his poetry and venturing forth my opinions in class (which sometimes didn't always find like minds, but that's okay). The assignments were fun, though maybe that was because I managed good grades (my lowest assignment grade was an A-). On the last day of class (a marathon reading of Howl at the joint where he and Kerouac and those other dharma bums used to hang out, also there were free wings, I think), Karen said to me something along the lines of, "You said things in class that if I had said them, I'd get fired." I took it as a compliment, as I believe it was the spirit in which it was given.

So what does this have to do with me being on the top floor of the South Street Seaport Museum last week?

Every fall, Karen is involved with putting on a marathon reading of Song of Myself the first poem in Leaves of Grass. Usually it's held on the deck of the Peking (I think that's the name of the boat) moored by the South Street Seaport. I went to one of the readings back in 2006. It was good, but I think it was somewhat overshadowed by the Tango demonstration going on on the pier below. I hadn't been to a reading since, and hadn't seen Karen probably since 2008 when we happened to get on the same subway car.

So this year they had it on the top floor of the Museum, but the room in the picture wasn't the one where the reading was going on (I got some shots but they're not developed yet). The reading was already taking place as I got there. Maybe thirty people were present in the small room, the exposed roof beams peaking above us. It was not unlike a church, with everyone silent as people came to the podium to read passages Whitman's epic statement of humanity, and his singlehandedly changing the world of poetry forever.

The group listened and read along in their own books. I just listened to the words. Even though I've read Song of Myself, it's a different thing to hear it spoken by another. In that little room as the words echoed off parallel walls not intended for public speaking I closed my eyes and could better envision what Whitman was evoking. His use of words to evoke sounds, feelings...everything from orgasm to sheer terror, attempting to encapsulate the entirety of human existence into a single poem (which reminds me of the Dalai Lama's book called The Universe in a Single Atom. The commonalities between Buddhist thought and Whitman are uncanny, but that's for another day).

While enthralled, I did have to step out for a bit to grab some lunch. I'm sure if McDonald's existed in Whitman's time, he'd have eaten there too. He was a man of the people, and what people don't eat at McDonald's?

I did return after "lunch," and stayed to the end. Speaking of ends, I'm not sure how to wrap all this up. I'm not even sure what exactly I wrote here. I just know I wrote things, hopefully they made some kind of sense. Hopefully the picture isn't too ruined by that little triangle thing on the very right hand side (it seems to be a coattail, I'm imagining, and I think I know whose).

Yes, I took a picture, and here it is (well, here being up there...).

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