Bob Holman

Photo by Tony Powell

More than simply a poet, New York-based Bob Holman is a living force for poetry in the world. He’s taught poetry and writing at Bard, Columbia, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, but it is his deep involvement in the communal and performative aspects of poetry since the earliest days of his career that really speaks of a profound and loving attachment to the craft. He administered the legendary Saint Mark’s Poetry Project for seven years, and helped re-open the Nuyorican Café in 1989, where he hosted the slam series until 1996. In the 1990s his prodigal energy also oversaw the launch of a PBS documentary series, The United States of Poetry, and the poetry recording label Mouth Almighty. Both projects brought unparalleled public attention to a wide range of American poets.

In 2002 he founded the Bowery Poetry Club in lower Manhattan. A performance venue, bookstore, café and bar, it serves as a friendly platform for all manner of visiting and local poets and spoken word artists. Soon after that he launched the People’s Poetry Gathering, drawing together oral poetry traditions from Africa (griot), Brazil (cordel), NYC (Braggin Rites), Mexico (decima) and other countries with hobo poets (Utah Phillips), cowboys (Wally McRae), dub (Linton Kwesi Johnson), blues poets (Sterling Plumpp) and folk-rockers (Ani DiFranco).

The philosophy behind the gathering intersects with a longstanding concern with endangered languages. “I think that there’s an ecology of consciousness just as there is an ecology of landscape, of land use, and they’re very interrelated,” Holman explained. “Language comes out of the land and is connected to a specific place, and how to make the best use of the place where you are is inside the language. A kind of wisdom that can’t be translated, that goes into such detail for the plants and animals, but also contains a cultural way of life that is in balance with the place. We’re losing a language every two weeks now. We’ll lose half the languages on earth in the next sixty years. It is not natural to be losing languages at this rate – it is because of the incredible rapidity of globalization through the internet and other digital means.”

Holman’s work with endangered languages has led to several new projects. “The Bowery Arts and Science, the non-profit which does the programming at the Bowery Poetry Club, has received its largest grant ever from the Rockefeller Foundation for a project called ‘A White Wing Brushing the Building’, which is a line from a poem by Martine Espada.” The two-year project will purchase a truck, a ‘Poe-mobile’, to visit various poetry communities in New York, particularly those communities writing in languages other than English. Their poems and translations will be projected onto the sides of buildings in their area, culminating in a live event with the poetic projections. “It’s like transient graffiti as a blend of the graphic and the performative, the text and the spoken word.” 

Another project in the works is the Endangered Cento, a poem that has been stitched together from many other sources. “Each line comes from a different place, so you are stacking the poem instead of writing it. The Cento will be of a hundred lines, each of the lines will be from a different endangered language. We’ll have those translated into English, Spanish, other languages, but also appearing in their native alphabets and writing systems. It’s a beautiful looking piece of writing with its own global identity.”

A third project, a proposed PBS television show with the working title Listen Up: Endangered Languages with Bob Holman, will discuss the state of language death, and revival, through the lense of the languages of three places: Australia, Hawaii and Wales. “Of the 6500 languages, only 700 have been written down, and only a little over a hundred have really developed their own literature. So a lot of the world’s consciousness is held in the oral frame.”

Despite a workhorse schedule, Holman continues his own writing practice. “I’m working with two bands at this point. Timbila is an African group with strong roots in Zimbabwe. I’m also working with a group called Ukraine Rain, mainly a collaboration with a great bandura player, which is a Ukrainian folk instrument, sort of a zither that can have between 21 and 61 strings.” Holman’s recent poetry is slated to appear in three forthcoming volumes from Coffee House Press. He recently completed a 28-day tour, performing his work in 25 East European cities. Holman said of the tour, “It would never have happened without Facebook and the internet. There’s plenty of work out there if you can get to it. But the poety circuit is not like the music circuit. A lot of times, you don’t know who’s over the next hill.”