Column: Celebrating National Poetry Month With Jack, Karen and the Heckler

By Susan Parker
Tuesday April 11, 2006

April is National Poetry Month and I unintentionally celebrated it last week with a visit to Manhattan.  

I go to New York often because I have many generous friends and relatives there. I always make a point of catching up with my childhood companion Jack and my former writing partner Karen while in town.  

Jack has lived and worked in and around Manhattan for the past 35 years. Karen moved there from San Francisco more than 20 years ago. I introduced Jack and Karen to each other because they both love writing, reading and listening to poetry. Now they see each other regularly. They share meals, ideas and gossip; they go to literary events together.  

During my visit, Jack and Karen were reading at A Gathering of Tribes Gallery on Third Street, between avenues C and D. I met them for dinner on the Lower East Side and we walked from Spring Street up to 3rd. The neighborhood grew grittier as we approached the gallery, and by the time we reached the stoop of the tenement where the event was taking place, I knew I could be in trouble. 

Poetry readings are not really my thing. I attend in support of my friends who have made this difficult art form central to their lives, therefore guaranteeing themselves an existence full of angst, disappointment, and very small apartments. 

Jack has been writing poetry since he was in junior high. He spends his daylight hours working for a pest control company located in Hells Kitchen. He pursues mice, rats, and creepy crawly things between the hours of 9 and 5. After work and late into the night he writes sharp, extraordinary poetry about ordinary, humdrum things.  

Karen is an editor and writer for Dance Magazine, and she pens beautifully crisp, stinging poems while juggling a hectic work week. Jack and Karen would prefer to spend their time writing verse, but life gets in the way. For Jack it’s fleas, ants, moths, and cockroaches. For Karen it’s ballerinas, rhythm tappers, tangoistas, and urban hiphop dancers.  

On the stone steps of 285 East Third St. we came upon two transients sharing a small bottle of booze hidden inside a paper bag. They apologized for being in our way, parted to let us walk between them, wished us a successful reading. 

Up to the second floor we trudged, to the home of Steve Cannon, a blind black poet famous for, among other things, his Friday night heckling activities at the nearby Nuyorican Poets Cafe. We entered the front room, found a seat among the folding chairs, and waited.  

Waiting at poetry readings is a big part of the action. You wait for the venue to be unlocked. You wait for someone to get you a chair. You wait for the MC to test the mike, and if it doesn’t work you wait for him or her to find the essential parts to get the damn thing working. Sometimes there isn’t a mike and so you wait for everyone to shut up so you can hear what the MC has to say.  

At this reading there was an audience of four who willingly paid the admission price of five dollars each. There were five readers and none of them went more than twenty minutes over the ten-minute time allotment. No one was obviously drunk or under the influence of illegal drugs. Steve stayed quiet in the adjacent room, smoking cigarettes and drinking herbal tea. There were no fights and no one left prematurely.  

Karen read from her chapbook One Foot Out the Door, and Jack read from his soon-to-be-published collection, Fun Being Me. I was glad to be there, delighted and humbled to hear my friends recite their hard-earned, remarkable words, happy to be celebrating National Poetry Month in the apartment of a strange blind heckler, and grateful that he did not heckle. 


Karen Hildebrands’ One Foot Out the Door can be ordered through Three Room Press at Jack Wiler’s second book of poetry, Fun Being Me, will be available from Cavankerry Press this fall. He can be contacted at›