Bob Holman

2004 EP. NO. 5
BOB HOLMAN, dubbed “the ringmaster of the spoken word” by the New York Daily News, is a performance poet-activist-writer who has, for the past 25 years, injected poetry into various media: album recordings, radio, television, film, plays and productions. He founded a record label, produced pieces for PBS, written several books, and has edited and contributed to numerous others. A central figure in the movement to infuse poetry with sound and motion, Holman is the forerunner of poetry media projects. As the proprietor and “guiding light” of BOWERY POETRY CLUB, a cafe/bar/performance space, he has created a unique place “where poetry and art meet entertainment, technology and commerce, serving the world poetry”; and the nonprofit organization, BOWERY ARTS & SCIENCES, LTD. The Club sponsors poetry events, workshops and readings, that are performed by emerging as well as established poets, while Bowery Arts teaches people about poetry. For Holman, the Club is the first step towards his dream of bringing poetry back into people’s daily lives, a dream that seems attainable than ever before.

“Langston Hughes told us, ‘America never was America to me.’ If anybody could redefine this country, it’s the poets.’

A man of such vast accomplishments comes from humble beginnings. Born in Tennessee and raised in Ohio, Holman came to New York in the late 1960s and studied at Columbia University with Kenneth Koch. He went on to curate and direct readings at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1977 to 1984, and was the founding editor of the NYC Poetry Calendarin 1977. He also curated programming at the Whitney Museum, the Public Theater and other locales. From 1989 to 1996, Holman helped to reopen the Lower East Side’s NUYORICAN POETS CAFÉ – a center for spoken-word performers who portray themselves as the “multi-ethnic successors to the Beats,” and served as co-director and host of the now infamous Friday night Poetry Slams at the NUYORICAN.

Holman produced for the five-part PBS series, THE UNITED STATES OF POETRY (USOP), which featured over sixty poets including Derek Walcott, Rita Dove, Czeslaw Milosz, Lou Reed and former President Jimmy Carter, as well as rappers, cowboy poets, American Sign Language poets, and Slammers. USOP lives on as an anthology, DVD and soundtrack CD. In addition to producing “Words In Your Face” a production of the PBS series ALIVE TV, which won an International Public Television Award in 1992, Holman produced more than fifty “Poetry Spots” for WNYC-TV and won three Emmys and a Bessie for Performance Excellence. In 1993, Holman co-founded with Bill Adler the “Rap Meets Poetry” series at the Fez which brought rappers such as Monie Love and KRS-l together with spoken-word poets–resulting in the FIGHTING WORDZ spots on MTV.

In 1995, Holman, along with Adler and Sekou Sundiata created “the world’s first” poetry record label, Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records. Releases include: Sekou Sundiata, “Flippin the Script: Rap Meets Poetry,”; Allen Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” with music by Paul McCartney and Philip Glass; young poets Wammo, Michele Serros and Beau Sia; major voices Maggie Estep, The Last Poets and Hal Willner’s Edgar Allan Poe feast, with stories and poems read by Iggy Pop, Dr. John, Christopher Walken and others; and the definitive 4-CD William Burroughs box, nominated for a Grammy. In 1998, Holman released his own CD, “In With The Out Crowd,” produced by Hal Willnerm, before Mouth Almighty was discontinued. Backed by Chris Spedding, Wayne Kramer, and Bobby Neuwirth, the album moves from rock to country to ballad, shot through with urgent humor and what can only be called, “poetry.”

He has toured many times through Europe: he performed at the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague and in the famous Vera Club in Groningen (both in 1998), as well at the London LIPS Festival in 2001. Holman coached the 1997 championship Mouth Almighty team), and has appeared with the Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and the American Sign Language Literary Conference in Rochester, New York. He has appeared widely on TV: “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” “ABC News Magazine,” MTV’s “Spoken Word Unplugged,” and “The Charlie Rose Show,” among others.

As chief curator for the biennial PEOPLE’S POETRY GATHERING in NYC, Holman helped bring together oral poetry traditions from Africa (griot), Brazil (cordel), NYC (Braggin Rites), Mexico (decima) with hobo poets (U. Utah Phillips), cowboys (Wally McRae), blues poets (Sterling Plumpp) and rockers (Ani DiFranco) and the proverbial others in an annual 3-day event that attracts up to 10,000 people. The NEA provided support for his poetry media project, THE WORLD OF POETRY, the world’s first digital poetry anthology. In 2000, he hosted the International Poets Cabaret at the Frankfurt Book Fair where he also premiered his “SemiCento,” a polyglot poem gathered line-by-line from poets around the world, and performs regularly with David “Pere Ubu” Thomas in the punk opera, “Mirror Man.” He presented his paper, “The Reemergence of the Oral Tradition in the Digital Age” at the Pan-African Literature and Languages Conference in Asmara, Eritrea.

In 2001, NYU’s Fales Library acquired Holman’s Poetry Media Library, calling it “the finest of its kind,” and has recently received NEA funding to catalogue and digitize the collection. In summer 2002, Holman was the Featured Artist at the First International Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, screening USOP, judging the competition, and performing his multimedia poem “@the Café” with a live DJ. In 2003 he was awarded the Barnes and Noble “Writers for Writers Award” by Poets & Writers, and represented the USA in Poetry Africa in Durban. In 2004, he performed in Warsaw, teaching a workshop in performance poetry, and in Denmark, at the huge Roskilde Rock Festival. That same year, he was a “Def Poet,” appearing on HBO’s DEF POETRY JAM. In 2004-5, Holman was Poet-in-Residence at WNYC Radio, New York’s NPR station, reading poems that were contemporary and related to the day’s events, on Morning Edition. He is also that station’s guide to spoken word recordings, appearing monthly on SoundCheck. Work has begun on a radio series, “Live from the Bowery Poetry Club!”

In fall 2002, Holman’s dream, BOWERY POETRY CLUB “at the foot of First” in downtown Manhattan was finally realized. This seven day a week poetry place is “a beacon on the Bowery,” according to The New York Times. Holman has spent a life in poetry, and the Club, with a coffee shop, bookstore, bar and performance space, is its physicalization. Founded in 1995 (as Washington Square Arts) and renamed in 2004 the BOWERY ARTS & SCIENCES, LTD., is dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the oral tradition of poetry via live readings, media documentation and creation, and to elevating the status of poetry to that of its sister arts. Holman serves as Artistic Director along with visiting writer and Director Anne Waldman. Last year BOWERY ARTS & SCIENCE and The Open Center launched STUDY ABROAD ON THE BOWERY, a certificate course in applied poetics founded by Kristin Prevallet. Recent faculty include: Amiri Baraka, Jonathan Lethem, Jessica Hagedorn, Paul Auster, Samuel Delany and Sapphire. BOWERY ARTS & BOWERY, LTD. works arm-in-arm with the BOWERY POETRY CLUB for educational, outreach, and technological pursuits. In short, the Bowery Poetry experience is poised to be the nexus of the new poetry for the new century.

Holman has published two poetry collections: Panic DJ: performance text, poems, raps, songs (VRI Theater Library, 1987); and The Collect Call of the Wild (Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1995), which has been praised as “a coming-out party for a particular poetic generation” which seeks to “drop-kick poetry” into the new millennium. He also co-edited Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Café (Owlet, 1994), with Miguel Algarín, which went on to win the 1994 American Book Award; and he also translated Carved Water (Tinfish Pr., 2003) a collection of poetry by Chinese poet, Zhang Er. He recently provided lyrical praise poems for A Couple of Ways of Doing Something by Chuck Close (Aperture, 2006), featuring Close’s extraordinary daguerreotype portraits.

Holman has edited numerous anthologies and is co-editor of United States of Poetry (Harry N. Abrams, 1996), with Joshua Blum and Mark Pellington; Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry (Vehicule Pr., 1998), with Regie Cabico and Todd Swift; Will Work For Peace: New Political Poems (Zeropanik Pr., 1999), with Brett Axel; and Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and About the Police (Soft Skull Pr., 2003) by Jackie Sheeler. Holman recently edited Bowery Women: Poems, with Marjorie Tesser (YBK Publishers, 2006), which features 76 women poet who have all read at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. This collection, which simply presents one poet and one photo, is part of the “Bowery Books Poetry Series.” His work has been published in numerous anthologies and publications throughout the world.

Holman has been awarded three NY Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in Poetry, was funded by the NEA, New York State Council on the Arts and the Lannan Foundation, and is the recipient of Curbstone Press’s “Honored Poet” award. From 1998-2002, he was Visiting Professor of Writing and Integrated Arts at Bard College, where he adapted and directed John Ashbery’s book-length poem, Girls on the Run and SUDDEN EKPHRASIS!: The Poetry of Robert Kelly. Since 2003, he has taught “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance” at Columbia University, as a graduate course in the School of the Arts. He is also a poetry guide at, consistently a banner site with 7,000 Museletter subscribers and 35,000 hits per week.

artistic statement
A mongrel child of a mongrel nation, about as American as you can get, I was born in Tennessee. Each American is a quintessential American, unique stories all. This is the strength of America and American poetry: The Handmade Tradition of the New, A Tradition That Makes itself Up as It Goes Along. . . . Because America is where we have a Poetic License guaranteed in the Bill of Writes. And at the millennial moment poetry is back from abroad, in our lives, driven by the acknowledgement that there are as many genres of poetry as music (rap is poetry!) and via the democratizing dynamic of slams and open mics, we can realize that it never left. There are poems in subway cars and moveable type on our refrigerators. At a reading I gave earlier this year with Lucie Brock-Broido, host Tom Lux noted that not only have the number of poetry readings increased dramatically in the last ten years, but while 90% of readings used to be in academic settings, that percentage has reversed in the same period of time. Readings abound, poetry is flowing, an art once endangered is moving into the center of culture.

I first heard Mayakovsky rage on the page through Frank O’Hara, tracking “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” on a tip from Kenneth Koch. Professor Koch was my first poetry teacher at Columbia. Koch was a Jew from Cincinnati, as was I – I grew up in New Richmond, about twenty miles upriver from the Queen City, or Porkopolis, as we learned in eighth grade Ohio History. But, like most people (“Americans!”), I didn’t become a Jew till I moved to New York.

My poetic education before Columbia had been fairly conventional. Dr. Seuss was there at the beginning, especially his On Beyond Zebrawhich reshaped the alphabet as language tried to keep up with imagination. What Seuss did aloud, ee cummings did on the page for me. But even here, the opposite reared – loved to read the impossible “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” aloud. As a freshman at New Richmond High, my teacher, a Christian Fundamentalist, stood in the back of the room and demanded we not turn to look as he read Poe’s “The Bells,” his voice ecstatic, transporting. In 11th grade, we studied Amy Lowell’s “Patterns.” “Christ! What are patterns for?” she asked, and I wondered too, amazed that someone had got away with saying “Christ” as an expletive in a poem in our conservative textbook. The anti-pattern: revolution as motif in US poetry.

In the late ’70s, I was working for the CETA Artists Project, the largest federally-funded artists’ project since the WPA. Receiving governmental support for arts projects was critical in my making my way as a poet – the St. Mark’s Poetry Project grew up with the NEA. This interaction with government mitigated the mistrust developed during Viet Nam. When Sara Miles and Susie Timmons and I founded the NYC Poetry Calendar in 1977, June Fortress of the New York State Council on the Arts tracked us down, gave us money. A patriotism that included a subversive element seemed cool, and very American.

I had come to New York from rural Ohio with a copy of Howl in my back pocket. The outlaw status of the Beats had created a new literature, a new world I felt at home in. The Beats! The first time I heard Ginsberg, his voice scoring direct hits on the nervous system – not speaking the words, becoming them, embodying them, I was hooked. Language is real. Amiri Baraka, voice as instrument, jazz riffs of verbal, smartened and toughened me up while making my brain mush sweet and revolutionary. I just came back from touring with Sekou Sundiata, the Last Poets, Maggie Estep – life in a blender! Yes, these are US traditions! The street corner Jibaro, Jorge Brandon, with his poems all in memory, hundreds of them, where are they now that he has passed? Some have been passed on, I can find them in Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. I watch Susan Robeson’s videos of the Hmong bringing their homeland here, ritual poems in Minneapolis, American poetry. Joe Gould, whose “Oral History of the Universe” multi-volume poem, has never been found, if it was even written: single voice tradition. John Trudell and Umar Ben Hassan (of the Last Poets) both live at no fixed address, shamans in a tech-mad world.

Hearing Joy Harjo is to hear the ancient Anasazi poetry totally contemporaneously. Cecilia Vicuña, exiled here from Chile, weaves together an audience, literally, with yarn and languages: Spanish, English, Quechua, all languages of America. Anne Waldman keeps alive the Beat and other traditions at Nairopa, a fast speaking woman whose poems come to life via voice. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky records the people’s poems’ Millenial moment in his Famous Poem project; Andrew Carroll crosses the land in a rental van passing out free poetry books hand-to-hand as the legacy of Brodsky; Victor Cruz has moved back to Agua Buenas, P.R. and his English dives into Spanish which is America, too. Hearing Jayne Cortéz live, that powerful, modulating voice while she stood absolutely still. Going to my first Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, where Marc Smith insistently demands the audience rule. Sapphire, who moved poetry to prose, as did Jessica Hagedorn – American move? Among the poets Sekou Sundiata has taught at The New School are Ani DiFranco and M. Doughty. Ani’s Righteous Babe label just released first non-DiFranco title – an amazing spoken word album by 70 year-old folkie, U Utah Phillips.

US poetics trips along, but flip the telescope around and this overview unity splinters into turf wars: for example, if you’re acknowledged as a poet by the academy, it seems to cut off from the populace at large, while populist poets still contend with a “That’s not a poem” mentality from the academy. To me, this is a win-win debate. The minute you question if some writing is a poem, you’re asserting you know what is. Turf wars seem part of the landscape of poetry world, not necessarily confined to US. Alas. Poets of the World, Rewrite!

Langston Hughes told us, “America never was America to me.” If anybody could redefine this country, it’s the poets. . . . English has become the big bully language, thanks to horrendous Triumph of capitalism and the pervasive English-driven Internet. USA poets have benefited from this, including me. Slams are big deals in Germany and Scandinavia, and many poets are writing in English. The recent moves to officialize English are part of this trend.

But languages are living things. We must treasure and nurture them as we do endangered species of flora and fauna. Here’s what I see for US poetries of the future. Increasing use of a variety of media to record and transmit the poem. I hate the theme parkification of the US – but I do think the variety of languages that intermingle will eventually make this country a showplace for languages, with pride in maintaining one’s roots linguistically. And no better place to see this than in our poetry.

Last updated 2009.

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