This is my first gesture toward setting down an account of Poetry on the Loose which has presented hundreds of programs since its first show in 1993. Those who recall other information that ought to be included are welcome to contact me.
A week after I moved from Brooklyn to Orange County, New York, in December of 1991, I was pleased to see a notice for a reading featuring Mikhail Horowitz and Edward Sanders at the local community college. The English Department there was also at the time advertising for an English professor. Temporarily convinced of the wisdom of residing in the exurbs, I later found that poetry events were few and far between (and I didn’t get the job). Having spent my life in big cities and university towns, I missed the density of cultural life that is sustainable in America only in those environments.
Patricia was working in a psychiatric inpatient unit and came home one day with a leaflet for a new gallery a psychotic artist had given her. Before the universality of personal computers, this document was typed and pasted up and looked tossed together, full of messiness, misspellings, and extravagant artistic claims. The place seemed, in short, ideal for a poetry series. I contacted the gallery operator, Steve Clair, to propose doing poetry and found him receptive. Clair was an active, imaginative fellow with energetic eyes who worked in some dismal factory during the day and devoted himself to art the rest of the time.
During this era, Middletown, New York had been convinced that they could rejuvenate the city by attracting artists. The city offered to subsidize the rental of the many abandoned factories in town for tenants who wanted to establish studios or galleries, even advertising in The Village Voice. Clair had secured a huge old furniture factory for a few hundred dollars a month and named it Zukabee. The place was vast, a grand wandering brick Leviathan where hall led on to hall with surprising bits of debris around every corner and great quantities of unused furniture – more upholstered chairs and sofas than we could use. A magnificent spot, it had a clandestine ambiance and the industrial chic was undeniably authentic.
I posted notices of the first show which featured me (in fact, the only talent of which I was then aware) in December of 1993 on telephone poles and trees. Fifty-four people attended, virtually none of whom I had known before. I booked the next three or four shows that evening. Poetry on the Loose was under way.
Though oddly magnificent, one drawback of the space was its lack of a working heating system. I believe some sort of furnace existed somewhere on the premises, but it functioned only marginally. When there was no heat at all, the tenants were obliged to do without water as well to avoid freezing the pipes. As it happened, Clair had rented some of his space – he had plenty – to an acquaintance of irregular habits. I believe his tenant had turned on the water with the modest hope of flushing a toilet, but then had never turned it off, and the pipes, never slow in administering retributive justice, burst. There was now no running water at all.
Those who attended the poetry were discomfited, perhaps, by the lack of an operating bathroom, but Clair and his roommate had to actually live there. During this frozen period of the series, while male art-lovers had to piss in the parking lot snow and the females did I know not what, we decided to try to warm the atmosphere by lighting a pot-belly stove in a room next door to the performance space. It seemed to be more or less intact and was visibly vented to the wall. We had been collecting firewood for some time, not always simple in the middle of town, but had a sufficient stockpile, we thought, to provide significant warmth. When the audience was assembled, we set it alight only to discover that the stovepipe must have been blocked as black smoke billowed into the room. We hung a curtain to try to contain the noxious gases and, throughout the entire evening, now and then a draft or wayward gust would move the curtain aside and send a fresh effusion into the crowd. It was like the special effects of a grandstand heavy metal show.
Clair eventually suspended industrial space heaters resembling jet engines that sent forth great tongues of flame and made everything toasty. How he obtained them I cannot imagine. His art was on the very edge of the American scene, itself marginalized. Finding his gallery on the other end of the block of a Salvation Army drop-box that was invariably overflowing with largely valueless donations, he did a good deal of work with found materials.
For his Disgust-o-tronic show, in May of that year, the gallery was filled with works constructed from found materials, each cleverly outfitted with little motors and pumps so that every work of art could be set in motion by the viewer. It would have been every child’s favorite exhibition. One piece, titled “Skinny Boy” represented a typical American living room with a television in place of honor, snacks stacked about a figure resting in an easy chair, a figure made by wiring together the bones of a deer skeleton the artist had found. When the button was pushed, the television would crackle with threat and the skinny boy would, rattling, lift his soda can to his lips.
For the gala opening, Clair eschewed the customary white wine, cheese, and crackers of countless openings, offering instead chitterlings, chicken gizzards, and pigs' feet. I believe very little was consumed.
Clair later moved his gallery to a downtown storefront. Here we were visible from the street and enjoyed good and unpredictable crowds. The gallery, of course, was not self-sustaining and eventually Clair moved on to other scenes. After one event in Middletown’s skyscraper (is it 26 North Street?) and series of four in the Art Center building, we made an agreement with the Unitarian Universalist Church and, between 1995 and 2008, this was the Poetry on the Loose venue. What had once been the Universalist Church is a fine old building from the turn of the twentieth century, including Tiffany windows and a very staid layout, remarkably High Church for a Unitarian hall, though the wall did bear colored felt symbols of the religions of the world. In February of 2008, the series moved to Warwick, in Steve Calitri’s old brick building by the Wawayanda where, a year or so later, Calitri led the establishment of the College of Poetry which was incorporated as the Northeast Poetry Center.
I chose the name Poetry on the Loose because my idea was to stress performance. I was thinking of Dada as well as the happenings, Cloud House events, and other manifestations in galleries and public spaces with which I had been involved. We have featured slam performers , numerous bands , aleatory and collective compositions , and such performance events as a mock funeral complete with coffin and prayer cards and a site-specific reading in a tepee. We have arranged social galas such as the Beaux Arts Ball and the Skull Beneath the Skin Ball. Themed events have included readings for the Dog Days and Valentine’s Day. Several programs of “spirit voices” featured recordings of poets of the past. Readers have included the broadest spectrum of the population from high school age to a Holocaust survivor in his nineties, drop-outs to university professors, blacks, Asians and Hispanics, gay and straight. Many readers have been local, but some have come from Texas, Hawaii, California, Colorado, Nepal, and the United Kingdom. 
A few readers have gone on too long; one dropped his pants on stage; one saw her jealous ex-boyfriend invade the space from the rear and begin challenging the view of their history the reader was presenting. Dozens have enacted their visions and neuroses. The slogan was always, “The door is open wide.”
1. The national slam winners from Austin, Texas and the second-place team from NYC both performed the same evening.
78. August 12, 1995, open reading featuring August 17, 1996 reading in a tepee
2. These include Rick Pernod’s House of Pernod and James Antonie’s Utopian Direction Band. Among the artists who used music have been the July Church (with Manuel Ayala’s guitar), Oliver Grech, Word of Mouth Burning Art Theatre (Liz Gottlieb and Joe Karpienia), Ramesh Laihiri and his ensemble, Clint Partridge, Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, and violinist T. G. Vanini.
3. Experiments like the Pomomat Collective Composition event and the pas de deux flyting.
4. Long-time attenders will remember Tim Wells and Salena Saliva from London. More recently, Yuyutsu Ram Dass Sharma from Kathmandu read.