By Andrew LaVallee
Marjorie Tesser had always wanted to be a writer. But raising a family and 10 years of practicing law got in the way.
“Life intervened,” said Tesser, 51.
Now she’s getting another chance. Twice a week since January, Tesser has been making the trip from West Nyack, an hour north of New York City, to the Bowery Poetry Club in downtown Manhattan to hear poets discuss their writing and critique hers in small workshops. She’s enrolled in “Study Abroad on the Bowery,” a program that will award her a certificate in Applied Poetics on May 11.
Bowery Arts and Science, a nonprofit organization, runs the program as part of its mission to keep the tradition of poetry alive through readings and education. Residents study there for 10 weeks, taking classes with artists like Karen Finley, whose provocative performance work was stripped of funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, and Amiri Baraka, a leader in the Black Nationalist movement who wrote “Blues People” under his original name, LeRoi Jones.
Kristin Prevallet, the Lab Poet-in-Residence who conducts the student workshop, said the idea for the program came up among some of the teachers at Naropa University. Better known as The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, the Boulder, Colo., school was founded in 1974 by the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman.
Although Naropa has offered study abroad programs in Prague and Bali, many students were hesitant to study overseas after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Prevallet said. When someone joked that Bob Holman, owner of the Bowery Poetry Club, should start a study abroad program in the East Village, he took them up on it.
Though many of the instructors were part of the Beat tradition in some way, they welcomed the other cultural references that students brought to their writing.
“Our goal is infection,” said Ammiel Alcalay, a recent guest lecturer who teaches Jewish studies and English at Queens College. “To get them invigorated and doing things for themselves.”
He spoke to the class about his work, which includes “After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture” and “For/Za Sarajevo: A Tribute to Bosnia.” Students quietly took notes while he discussed the importance of defiant poets in American culture. At the bar, bottles of liquor share space with “The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry,” “The Beat Reader” and “Final Girl” by Daphne Gottlieb.
Tamar Haviv, 27, a singer-songwriter from Ithaca, N.Y., was glad to study with poets from Naropa without relocating to Colorado. Handing out pink roses that she said fell off the back of a truck, she said the program had been a great help in her writing.
“It’s so much more than I expected, if I had any expectations,” she said.
For Haviv, hearing from and interacting with poets like “Push” author Sapphire solidifies the bond between literary legacies.
“We’re being treated like we’re actually the next generation,” Haviv said. “Like our voice is very primal and important and imperative to be heard.”
Prevallet also teaches at the New School University and the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking, and several of the faculty maintain teaching positions at established academic institutions. While the program staff hope to offer a graduate degree through the Study Abroad program, they feel no pressure to make it more mainstream. “We don’t need academia to teach,” Prevallet said. “We can create it.”
Her goal is to get students involved in language, she said, and thinking of poetry writing as more than just transcribing song lyrics.
She uses guest faculty as case studies. After Finley read, Prevallet asked her students to consider Finley's “absolute connection with the audience, testing free speech, working in the gray areas of what’s expected, breaking taboos.”
“A poem is something that happens on the page and in performance, so it’s spoken, and it’s the page, and trying to figure out its relationship,” Prevallet said.
The Bowery, known as Skid Row in decades past and legendary for its flophouses, is one of many New York neighborhoods undergoing great change. Across from Bowery Poetry Club is CBGBs, the venerable rock ‘n roll club, currently fighting to stay afloat amid rising rents. New condominium developments can be seen down the avenue. It’s not lost on the students, who see themselves as part of the neighborhood’s counter-cultural history.
“It’s the campus, it’s the jumping-off point,” Tesser said.
Students cited the tightly knit community of fellow writers as one of the best aspects of the program.
“For me, writing was always very private and personal, and I would never even show my family my poems, let alone read them to a room full of people,” said Tesser. “Now, it’s kind of freeing.”
And if her poetry never manages to pay the bills, she can rely on the lingerie store she owns in Westwood, N.J.
Its name? “Tender Is the Night,” after the F. Scott Fitzgerald book.