On Friday I got to chase the trails of ghosts for homework. I lost myself in time listening to Jim Jarmusch in the East Village Poetry Walk before I was abruptly brought back to the present (about 5 times). Technical difficulties in 2016. Tip: download the walk onto your computer and transfer it onto your phone before wandering the streets instead of trying to stream it.
It’s a long walk, the length of a movie. Jim walks you through the history of the East Village. You hear stories of literary icons and visit their old dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You travel time to visit spaces. You use your imagination to dream up what the streets looked like, what the people on the streets looked like. In addition to being educational, a form of entertainment and some could argue even of exercise; it was an unexpected nostalgic trip. I could see great potential for this walk to be matched with AR (augmented reality). To see postcards, letters and photos on the facades of the buildings that are being shown would be a wonderful addition.
I went to NYU for my undergrad and moved to New York’s East Village when I was 17. I quickly fell into the college stereotype (especially the NY college stereotype) of falling in love with the beat poets. I definitely romanticized them. My first semester I read On the Road and the majority of Jack Kerouac’s work in the following two years. Allen Ginsberg was my idol and I used to joke that my type of guy was a gay dead poet. My best friend and I road tripped across California one year and went backpacking in India the next. We’d write poems together emulating the mystic rhythmic quality of Ginsberg’s poems and see ourselves as the second coming.
Reading Howl for the first time inspired me to start writing poetry when I was in college. Our other homework for the week, The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, actually ties in quite nicely to this. “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master… Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced.”
The first poem I was proud of writing was my own personal version of Howl. I used similar wording and borrowed phrases but I substituted it with stories of my first year of college, all of the messes and adventures we’d gotten ourselves into. I think that copying a piece of art is an amazing jumping off point. It can help you with one of the hardest parts of creating art, just starting. Now I don’t count my own work in this… yet, but another valid point made in the Criticism is that “second comers might do a better job than the originator with the original idea”. It can also build upon and reinterpret it.
Like most everything in life the answer lies in the balance: how much you use, how you much you add to it.
The poetry walk started off in St. Mark’s and the next stop was one Allen Ginsberg’s apartments. I couldn’t believe how much Beat history I’d been so oblivious about in my immediate surroundings. My time in the East Village was at the peak of my interest in poetry and Allen and Jack.
I had my own memories to add at many of the stops along the walk that really added to the immersion of the piece for me. My boyfriend back in college lived on Ave C and 9th. He gifted me an 1969 printed version of Howl on my 20th birthday there. If I had only known that Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac wrote some of my favorite pieces right above and by this Japanese Sake place where I read them. I’m finding it hard to extricate my own experiences from this walk and offer an unbiased view of the content. I don’t really think I can. Maybe it’s my millennial nature but the first thing I thought of when hearing about Trotsky at La Palapa was that I had written a poem there too. I found that very exciting.
This was the first long form audio piece I’ve listened to that matched up with my surroundings. I’ve only recently started listening to podcasts and looking up and seeing visual references was surprisingly comforting. You are right where you are supposed to be. It also brought to light how quickly things change and how worlds overlap and morph into/from one another. At one point the narrator talks about how the crime levels in the Lower East Side at the time and how rival gangs coexisted on a block and watched cars burn for entertainment. Fire trucks would only leisurely come to put them out. The Lower East Side now is so painted and safe. I wonder when the walk was updated. The church across from Ginsberg’s first house is turning into a condo, but the basketball court next to it was still there. Will there be a point when so much has changed that it will be irrelevant? What is the lifespan of a walking tour?