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Some thoughts about Marty Watt (among other things)

Marty Watt was the first performance poet I ever saw. And I will be forever indebted. It was in Philadelphia where I had come to live again after several years of travel. I had returned to the States Easter 1974 and lived in a trailer on my parents’ property in the South Mountain. I was full of inspiration and wanted to do nothing but write. My parents wanted me to get a job, but I stayed in the trailer typing. A friend sent me a copy of Philadelphia Magazine that had a story about how there was a poetry renaissance happening and I decided to return to Philly.

Marty Watt circa 1972

Things were really hopping; the bicentennial was approaching and it was the heartbeat of disco, The Philly Sound. There was money, new night spots and all along the waterfront was being fixed up for the tourists. In all this exuberance there were also a lot of poets and I noticed a new kind of poet, a performance poet, who didn’t read but performed his work. Lots tried their hand at it, but the best was Marty Watt who used props, taped voices, lights and theater to get his story across and frame his bursts of epiphany that were, like his mentor Keats, beautiful with sound. People expect poetry to be boring, but Marty was changing all that.

I could see the thing to do was perform and showed some of my poems to Jet Wimp, who organized readings at The Painted Bride. Jet told me he’d let me read with Maralyn Polak on an upcoming Sunday night. Maralyn was known for her Philadelphia Inquirer interviews and earlier in the seventies I had seen her read at a gathering of poets. To read with Maralyn made me feel connected.

As I memorized the poems to perform, I noticed I was dropping words and images that really didn’t matter; words are like anything else you have to carry; they get heavy and you always get rid of the excess baggage. As Sunday night approached, I got real nervous till Sunday I was afraid I’d forget everything or start to stutter. When I got to the Painted Bride and saw the place—nobody had arrived yet—I peed my pants a little bit (they say it happens on your way to execution) and walked up and down South Street fanning my crotch to hurry make it dry. I wanted to run; I thought I’d have to get up in front of everybody with this still wet stain.

When I was introduced, I could hardly walk through the applause, but as soon as I started to talk it all changed; I was in control; the words came; it’s an indescribable feeling when you talk to an audience and they’re listening. I was ecstatic from the stage, in awe of whatever it was that had taken control to let me perform as well as I had. I didn’t feel it was so much me as someone else and didn’t realize for awhile that it was myself and I could rely on it if I practiced; it was hard work, not magic. I performed wherever I could. The best I did was at Etage. Sigmund Kaye ran the place; you had to audition, rehearse, decide where the lights would be, think about publicity, so that by the night of your performance you were ready for it, it was for real, and you put your heart in it. I did Fucking there in December 1977 and April 1978 and sang with Steve Swartz’s band, The Sea of Hands that had Dylan Taylor on bass and Lauren Kaiser on violin.

Marty was doing his show at Etage the first time I saw him. He did a rendition of John Keats’ This Living Hand that was riveting and I will never forget. We didn’t get to know each other until I was getting ready to leave Philadelphia (so was Marty). Perhaps one of my regrets is that the only time Marty saw me perform, at the Mask and Wig Club, I was so drunk that I metaphorically fell off the stage. Maralyn Polak, told me afterward that it was the “most real thing” she had ever seen. Anyway, one comes to learn your worst is often followed by your best. For me it’s never been so much confidence as persistence.

At Middle Earth Bookstore, I saw and bought Marty Watt’s Slices. It was an adhesive book that folded out. You could cut it apart with a scissors and stick the poems wherever you wanted, perhaps on your backpack or on the refrigerator. I kept it intact. It stayed under a bed at my parents’ where I’d left it in a box with other books when I moved to New York in the late seventies. When I remembered the box and looked, mice had eaten through some books of Andy Warhol that I could probably pay a year’s rent with now. I panicked when I thought of Slices and Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesars. For some reason the mice had stayed away from Marty and Dennis. I’m grateful and know this is a good sign that Marty and Dennis will continue to create as long as the spirit is in them.

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