Slam Poetry in the Zoom EraCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A Lower East Side cultural icon reimagines live performance while fighting to survive. Published: October 13, 2020
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When it comes to New York City’s literary scene, there are few places as legendary as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Once called "the most integrated place on the planet" by Allen Ginsberg, the 47-year-old non-profit is a safe space for up-and-coming artists of all backgrounds to hone their voices in front of always-packed audiences. Since being shut down in March, the venue has risen to the fore of local arts and culture advocacy, forming coalitions with other indie organizations and campaigning for more government funding and infrastructural support. Below, my conversation with Executive Director Daniel Gallant on how the Cafe is managing to survive with virtually no help from the powers that be.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the pandemic impact your operations in March?
Along with all other performing arts organizations in New York City, we were forced to cease onsite operations on March 16th. It took us a little while to figure out how to reframe, refocus, and relaunch, but within a couple of weeks, we began hosting bi-weekly online open mics hosted by Erik Maldonado and Caridad de la Luz. We do an average of four events per week and sometimes as many as seven, and we've been awed by the national and international participation in those events. We've had spectators from Spain, Mozambique, London… People set their alarms for the middle of the night to wake up in time to participate in our programs. At the same time that the pandemic made it impossible for us to welcome audiences, artists, and students on site, it allowed us to reach people who in some cases had never visited the venue because of geographic distance or accessibility issues. The events are also free: in every way that we can, we are removing barriers to participation and engagement.
Do people donate?
They do. Donations are never required. Every now and then we have a benefit to raise funds for fellow arts organizations with ticket sales, but for the most part, we encourage people to participate for free. We exist right now very much at the whim and generosity of funders and individual donors who are motivated to help keep our programs going. It's a very unfortunate truth that the arts are the last to get funded and the first to be cut. We do free events for students and when a school comes to us and wants to do an event, we'll do it even if there isn't money because it's important to do. But it shouldn't be that way. It shouldn't be that students only get arts programming because organizations are willing to do it for no money, because artists are willing to work for free. When there's money we pay the artists, but there are artists who, bless their souls, are willing to do the work even when there's nothing to pay. That's not the bedrock of a healthy education system, that’s not the bedrock of a healthy society.
It's a very unfortunate truth that the arts are the last to get funded and the first to be cut.
How's your staff doing?
Man, it's a tough time. A number of members of our staff had COVID. Fortunately, health-wise, we bounced back, but it remains a challenge for everyone. We're doing what we can. We are fortunate enough to have a very resilient team that's been through a lot of challenges and believes in the mission of the work. Also, many members of our team have seen the fortunes of the city and the arts industry rise and fall. We're trying to play the long game by encouraging the city, state, and federal powers that be... I know you're not writing a political column, but…
It frequently gets political. Go on!
Okay. Well, a big part of our recent message to our representatives at local, state, and federal levels has been the importance of supporting arts organizations, particularly those that serve Latinx and Black communities, that have been supremely hard hit at this time but that were struggling and missing out on funding opportunities long before COVID came along. Even if other industries manage to bounce back after this pandemic, if local arts communities are not offered the tools that they need to withstand and rebuild, there will not be the impetus for people to move back in or to remain in city centers. Poetry, literature, Latin Jazz, hip hop — the art forms that we and our colleague organizations have worked in for decades — keep people's spirits up. They provide lots of jobs: the nonprofit art sector in New York contributes billions to the city every year, so there's an economic argument. There's also a real estate argument: rents and sale prices for homes stay higher the more vibrant the arts ecology is. We don't assume anymore, at least not at a critical juncture like this, that funders will fund art simply for art’s sake. So we're asking them to keep in mind the economic, social, civil, and public value that small arts organizations bring to a city and a state. [Editorial note: For more details on the Cafe’s arguments, read Gallant’s open letter to de Blasio here.]
Has your messaging prompted any encouraging responses?
Some of the campaigns seem to be getting traction. Save Our Stages seems to be doing pretty well. The literary coalition that we are part of has been making strides and getting some attention. At the same time, we recognize that there are many hands out to funders and many interests that are all competing for a seat at the table and access to funds. We get that it’s a challenge all around, but we are asking government officials to think about the fact that there will not be desirable cities for people to pay money to live in if there aren't small businesses in general and small arts and nightlife organizations in particular to come back to.
For your organization specifically, what do you need that you're not getting from de Blasio, Cuomo, and the federal government?
The vast majority of support that we have gotten has come from individual donors who have given out of the generosity of their hearts, many of whom do not have a lot of money to begin with. It's a shame that an organization like ours has to depend so much on individuals. We get messages of support from electeds, but the resources aren’t flowing. Now, there are some private foundations that are doing what they can with the resources available — New York Community Trust has done really well by a lot of nonprofits and arts organizations, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation has given out some money — but the federal, state, and city governments have the ability to do a lot more. We understand that they're prioritizing humanitarian and infrastructure needs, but there's a lot of money going into law enforcement that could be going to other causes that nonetheless contribute to a civil, respectful, thoughtful, and diverse society.
Are you on the hook for rent?
This is one case in which we are immensely lucky: our organization has owned the building since 1981. If we had to pay rent every month, we would not exist at this point. We still have plenty of operating expenses and insurance, but we are relatively fortunate compared to other venues, except for the ones with very understanding landlords.
Artists have had to relearn what the relationship between their performances and the audience looks like in the Zoom era.
Can you speak more about how your online programming came about and what it looks like?
It was a shot in the dark. We weren’t expecting much from it, we just knew that our hosts, Caridad and Erik Maldonado, are fantastic. We practice a number of different art forms online — poetry showcases, literacy workshops, monologue performances, Latin Jazz, and masterclasses — but spoken word is the one that has translated most naturally. There's nothing more resourceful and inventive than a spoken word artist. If you're a spoken word artist, you're used to being all of the things: the writer, performer, PR team, publicist, fundraiser. Spoken word tends to be very timely, confrontational, and politically motivated. A lot of our poets have been on the front lines of the black lives matter protest; we've had artists present their poems and monologues while in the middle of a protest. There wasn't a way to do that when we were operating as a brick-and-mortar venue.
But I don't want to overly romanticize Zoom, Facebook, and Instagram, because they remain stop-gaps, and they all have limitations when it comes to recreating an in-person event. It is challenging for artists who are used to the give and take with an audience that you have in a live venue. You can see people snapping or clapping along online, but [our hosts] mute the audience while the performer is going because even though the vast majority of spectators are very supportive, you sometimes get Zoom bombers and people who are not so nice. Artists have had to relearn what the relationship between their performances and the audience looks like in the Zoom era. The artists we work with are nothing if not resilient and resourceful, and they have found ways to infuse their work online with an energy that derives from their live performances but that is unique to this new medium.
What new stylistic or production devices are you seeing crop up on Zoom?
With a lot of the brick-and-mortar events we did, time constraint was always a huge part of the performance environment. There is something about the expandability of time on Zoom that allows artists to take a more flexible approach to running time, and to do a little bit more in that time. The nature of collaboration has also changed. It's now possible to have any number of artists collaborate on a work across geographic distance, as long as they choreograph the performance ahead of time. It also allows for creative experimentation that you wouldn't be able to do on stage, whether it's changing camera angles or backgrounds or composing musical accompaniments. Someone can set up a phone, computer, tablet, multiple things, and call into Zoom with each of them, and as long as it's practiced during a tech rehearsal, our technician can switch among the different camera angles while the person is performing. Even if it's just one artist in their apartment, it can end up looking pretty sophisticated because you see them from the side view and then you see them from the front when the beat changes.
Long-term, how do you foresee this crisis impacting your business, community, and how you define your role in the culture of New York City?
Unless a tidal wave or earthquake destroys New York City, we will always be based on East Third Street between [Avenues] B and C. We are not going anywhere. That will be true whether the city fully rebounds back to the humming, lively, vibrant metropolis that it was before COVID, or if no one who has left the city returns and no one else moves to the city. When we are allowed to reopen, we will.
At the same time, we have discovered the manifest potential to do great good for free speech and performance online, and that will continue to remain our focus. Spoken word is entertainment, but it is not intended to be polished, perfect, comfortable, or convenient. It is an art form that is all about withstanding harsh conditions, thriving despite opposition and the whims of fate. And we know how important it is for an organization like ours to continue to have a living footprint in the neighborhood we're in, as well as to be able to offer programming online. We also know that there are a lot of organizations that may not continue to be able to do those things, and we want to do what we can to support the many artists and rising artists who have not yet found their voice but are looking for an outlet. That's who we are and that's what we do.
How to help:
- Watch an online event
- Donate directly or buy a gift certificate for a future live event
- Follow on Instagram and Twitter
Until next time,