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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Bob Holman

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

The mood is moody. Usually there is no time to be moody, only the slap and the dash and the drill and the dig, you dig? But in a Pandemic (deflected by the government) and Revolution (or is it), this City goes meditative, then wails like a siren. “Ask not for whom the siren wails / That’s you in there.”


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Seeing John Lennon’s face on the Post.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

In Rome, Paris, London—the past is present in, around, under the layers of history. In NYC, the past exists as memory only.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Dorothy Parker, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Jane Bowles, E. B. White, Run-DMC, Edna St. Vincent-Millay, James Baldwin, Miky Piñero, JD Salinger, Jayne Cortez—where to stop?


Is there a place here you return to often?

The little red lighthouse under the great gray bridge.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The four living poetry shrines within walking distance on the Lower East Side: St. Marks Poetry Project, Nuyorican Poets Café, Bowery Poetry Club. And across town—Poets House.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I don’t go above Fourteenth Street.


Where does passion live here?

On the street. In the library. In the theater. At 4 a.m.


What is the title of one of your works about New York and what inspired it exactly?

My poem “Grandly and Centrally” was written for the Centennial of Grand Central Station.

Grandly! and Centrally!
Universally locally!
Typically cryptically

You come here to go there
Literally everywhere
Hip trippin! Flip floating!
No me-and-ering

Grandly! and Centrally!
Methodically centrifugally
Take ya where ya wanna be
Simultaneous multidirectionality

Zipping Higgs boson. Reality's gluon
The station sits formidably. Maddeningly. Meddlesomely.
The ratchety manifest. The voluminous steamer chest.
The rivets and pivots and divots of rush.

A trip to the seashore —  Picnic inna box!
Pickles, gefilte fish, a schmear and some lox
Fried chicken, varenykys, collards and grits
Hot dogs and frogs legs make quite the dish

Tamales, pasteles, spaghetti and gravy
Call in the Navy! More hot sauce and quick

And the goat's still unroasted 
And the bagel's untoasted
And the toddler is gurgling glee
At the constellation ceiling
The gods still are stealing
Glances at humans as they
Bump dodge careen

You cross time with space, cross space with time
Just so you can rhyme "sublime" with "sublime"
And the blizzardin' tickets keep fallin' from outer outer space
And Sun Ra is smiling through the Conductor's face
And this glorious moment can't keep up with the human race

Cause yr waltzing in Grand Central with the Love of yr Life
A single accordion is playing yr life
The moment is stuck — recycles again
Just because it stops doesn't mean that it ends

So keep lining up Chumps,
Facebook the rumps
Lined up before you
In sweltering clumps

Maybe this is your stop
Maybe this is where it ends
Someone else passes you getting on
For them it begins

For you're going Somewhere
Somehow. Sometime.
And the place you will land
You don't know with whom you will dine

But some Strega, Picayunes,
And a ghost on the dunes
Your family's tunes, they toast randomly

For it's Grandly So Grandly
And everso Centrally
Let's call it a Century! 

                                                Grand Central Station!


Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

New York City is the place I dreamed of growing up in Kentucky and Ohio—once I got here, I never left. For those outside now who dream of being here—this is your City. It is in you, outside.


Bob Holman is the founder of the Bowery Poetry Club and the author of seventeen poetry collections (print/audio/video), most recently The Unspoken (YBK/Bowery), Life Poem (YBK/Bowery), The Cutouts (Matisse) (PeKaBoo Press), and Sing This One Back To Me (Coffee House Press). Bob Holman has taught at Princeton, Columbia, NYU, Bard, and The New School. As the original Slam Master and a director at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, creator of the world's first spoken-word-poetry record label, MouthAlmighty/Mercury, and the artistic director of the Bowery Poetry Club, Holman has played a central role in the spoken word, slam, and digital poetry movements of the last several decades. All told, he has performed well over 1,000 times, around the globe, from Madison Square Garden and rock stadiums to church basements and Ethiopian Tej Bets (honey wine bars). Cofounder of the Endangered Language Alliance, Holman's study of hip-hop and West African oral traditions led to his current work with endangered languages. He is the producer/director/host of various films, including The United States of Poetry (International Public Television Award) and On the Road with Bob Holman. His film about language loss and revitalization, Language Matters with Bob Holman, winner of the Berkeley Film Festival's Documentary of the Year award, was produced by David Grubin and aired nationally on PBS. Holman traveled for the film and led workshops at language revitalization centers across Alaska and Hawaii, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. His short film, Khonsay: Poem of Many Tongues, has lines of poetry in fifty languages, and premiered at the Margaret Mead Film Festival. In 2018, Holman was awarded the Chambra d'Oc Premio Ostana Award for his work in language revitalization.


Related Reading:

From Five Continents to Five Boroughs: A Language Map for New York City

"An Immigrant Like an Automobile": An Excerpt of Malgorzata Szejnert's Ellis Island: A People's History

The City and the Writer: In New York City with Willa Carroll

Published Aug 20, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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