Steak and Poetry from the Rooftops


Arts & Culture

The Academy of American Poets promised youth. “All very hip, young, cool poets,” said the invite for a recent Thursday-night reading on the rooftop of the Arsenal Building in Central Park. And it wasn’t just that night’s reading. “The entire reading series,” the e-mail emphasized, “features hip, cool poets.”

On the evening of the hip, cool reading on the rooftop, the clouds hung low and threatened precipitation. The workers of Manhattan, newly released from their cubicles, surged up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, breathing in the cultivated scents of high-end retail that punctuated the doorway of each storefront.

“I’m sick of hearing about Barack Obama,” said someone walking behind me on Fifth Avenue, as I, newly released from my cubicle, inhaled the spicy, luxurious air that poured out the doorway of Henri Bendel. “You know?” she said to her companion. “I’m sick of the jokes.”

The skyscrapers all had trees growing from their atria or complex terraces of ferns sprouting beneath their glass panes. They looked like magazine ads for oil companies. Mr. Softee trucks lined 59th Street, which was also seething with joggers. Around the stoplights the young joggers clustered, running in place. They all wore T-shirts that read “The J. P. Morgan Corporate Challenge.” They jogged to and fro on some sort of athletic scavenger hunt; hip, young, cool corporate types on what appeared to be a fitness mission that promised team building but also possibly resulted in charitable contributions. (I looked it up later: “Forty companies celebrated fitness and camaraderie in one of the world’s greatest urban parks, while raising funds for the Central Park Conservancy.”)

Then there was the green biota of the park, breathing under the low clouds. I entered the Arsenal Building, with its cool interior and WPA murals of prancing horses, carriages, and cannons. In the lobby stood a man in a sea-green shirt, lawn-green tie, shorts, and Birkenstocks. He carried a tote bag from the Strand. Perhaps he was a hip poet. He turned out to be another member of the audience. “There’s a poetry reading here, isn’t there?” he asked the security guard. The guard waved us into the elevator. We ascended to the fourth floor, then emerged into a park functionary’s office, its filing cabinets decorated with smiling pictures of the Obama family. Past the watercooler and the cubicle, and then out onto the rooftop, where a full house awaited the young, hip poets under a white tent.

I went to the beverage table, which, by this point, only had a metal washbasin with a block of melting ice in it. Empty bottles of white wine were lined up beneath the table.

The Paris Review sent me,” I said, looking longingly at the melting ice block and the empty wine glasses. I asked to speak to Dimitri. The young person behind the table looked baffled.

“Dimitri?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, nodding. “I’m to speak to Dimitri. I was forwarded an e-mail from Dimitri.”

“You mean Alex Dimitrov?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I was very tired. He pointed out a young man by the podium holding photocopied notes.

But the reading was about to begin, so I sat in a folding chair instead. The first reader was Jennifer Grotz. “Pronounced Grotes,” she said, by way of introduction. She read a poem about walking in the city. It had an old man in a brown fedora. “Everything converting back into the city,” she read.

Then there was a poem called “Late Summer.”

“I sometimes think all of my poems could be called ‘Late Summer,’” she said. She described “a large gray rose of pigeons.”

“I wrote this poem in Krakow,” she said of her next poem, “but it’s about West Texas.”

Of another poem: “I wish it were called ‘Steaks’ because I can smell the steaks cooking nearby, but it’s called ‘Cherries.’”

“It’s the time of year when everybody stops what they’re doing to eat them,” was the only line of “Cherries” I managed to write down.

Alex “not Dimitri” Dimitrov, pale and bearded, becardiganed despite the summer warmth, introduced Lisa Jarnot, the next poet. The city was infringing slightly on the reading. The steaks were cooking, although I couldn’t smell them, and a jazz trumpet was playing somewhere in the zoo below us.

Lisa Jarnot introduced herself and said that she was hoping her daughter could be there. I thought her daughter was maybe an adult, who was coming after work (I was sitting in the back row and therefore mistook Jarnot’s grave demeanor for that of an older, hip poet), but it turned out her daughter was the small toddler who had been carried away in the early stages of the reading.

“She’s never made it through the first one of my poems,” said Jarnot sadly.

Sirens wailed beneath us, mingling with the sounds of the jazz from the zoo and the smell of steaks. The mosquitoes, unfortunately, were among us.

“I’ll make use of the sirens to read a New York City poem,” said Jarnot. As she read, a clock somewhere in the park struck seven.

“What can I hear?” said Jarnot, after she finished her New York City poem, which I had trouble hearing. “I can hear sirens, bells, and an airplane. It’s kind of like reading in a bar.”

“Jennifer mentioned steak,” Jarnot said. Then she read a poem called “Moo is Oom Backwards” that involved an interaction between cows and daisies in a field. “But the daisies sing but not the cows,” she read. “Mooing, singing daisies.”

The invisible clock tower began playing an extended version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Then Jarnot read a poem called “For the Nation” that had the line “carcasses of chickens torn to bits by poets / carcasses of poets torn to bits by war.”

I thought of the ice melting in the washbasin and the empty white-wine bottles under the folding table, and the J. P. Morgan Corporate Challenge underway in the park.

The final poet, Chris Martin, stepped up to be introduced by Alex Dimitrov.

“I’m going to start with a rap,” said Chris Martin. “I’ll actually do it twice.”

“Real as a hamburger body in a blur,” he rapped. “Radiating energy the trees get dressed.”

After a minute or two it was over. “It helps loosen the tongue,” he explained. Thus prepared, he read a poem about “the afternoon I spent listening to the Dirty Three album Horse Stories.” He read a poem about “trying to engage with the Aboriginal Australian concept of song lines,” like Bruce Chatwin. Then he read a series of poems about “things that hang or rise or hover.”

“Since we’re on a roof,” he explained.

“The Moon.” “The Bubble.” Suddenly the smell of the steaks, which I’d nodded about but hadn’t actually smelled, hit me full on. “The Stars.” A breeze kicked up and it seemed it might really rain. “The Balloon.”

He finished with a rap duet, with his wife, the poet Mary Austin Speaker, who wore her hair in a braid. In the middle of their rap, Lisa Jarnot’s toddler toddled back out, wearing a yellow sundress.

“Mama,” she pronounced loudly. Then she was silenced.

Emily Witt is a writer at The New York Observer. For information about more rooftop readings, click here.