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Into the Fire: A Poet's Journey through Hell's Kitchen Part 1

Into the Fire: A Poet's Journey through Hell's Kitchen Part 1

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Published by Mary A Clark
A poetry program in a midtown Manhattan church in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an array of New York poets and actors, and an unruly neighborhood set the stage for this story. Mary Clark, the author, came to St. Clement's Church on West 46th Street looking for a job in the theater, and is soon helping to run the Poetry Festival. Among the people who pass through the church and arts programs in Part 1 are: poets Allen Ginsberg, Rochelle Ratner, Bob Holman, Ted Berrigan, Kaye McDonough, Enid Dame, William Packard and Cornelius Eady, actor/director Estelle Parsons, and Al Pacino. See more flyers and photographs in the Poetry Festival Collection on this Scribd site.
A poetry program in a midtown Manhattan church in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an array of New York poets and actors, and an unruly neighborhood set the stage for this story. Mary Clark, the author, came to St. Clement's Church on West 46th Street looking for a job in the theater, and is soon helping to run the Poetry Festival. Among the people who pass through the church and arts programs in Part 1 are: poets Allen Ginsberg, Rochelle Ratner, Bob Holman, Ted Berrigan, Kaye McDonough, Enid Dame, William Packard and Cornelius Eady, actor/director Estelle Parsons, and Al Pacino. See more flyers and photographs in the Poetry Festival Collection on this Scribd site.

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Published by: Mary A Clark on Apr 21, 2014
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04/23/2014

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Into The Fire
A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen
 Mary Clark
Dedicated to Richard Spiegel, founder of the New York Poetry Festival in appreciation for his clarity of vision and inspiration Thanks to Poets & Writers for fair and generous support of the Poetry Festival
at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church,
423 West 46th Street, New York City Photographs by Mary Clark Copyright 2014 by Mary Clark All rights reserved. For permission to use any portion or all of this document or  photographs, please contact me at my Facebook Author page: https://www.facebook.com/maryclarkbooks
 
Mary Clark is the author of
Tally: An Intuitive Life
, All Things That Matter Press 2013, whose main character is PJ (Paul Johnston) who also appears in
 Into The Fire
. Her other publications include:
Children of Light 
, a poetry novel online, Ten Penny Players 2014, editors and publishers Richard Spiegel and Barbara Fisher, both of whom also appear in
 Into The Fire
, and
Covenant 
, a Kindle novelette.
1 Poetic License
1978
Talk about miles to go, miles of snow, a transfigured night and all in sight covered in a winding sheet of white.
Stopping by a snowy Ninth Avenue, face and hands wrapped against the wind, I contemplated the divide before me. Ice-crystals glittered in streetlights and snow fenced sidewalks. The city streets were deserted, and I was alone in the canyoned silence. On the
avenue’s arctic slope, deep within the haunting sound of a muted city I could hear gypsy cabs
snorting dragon-breath in the dark, and I would have stayed to watch fringes of icicles on fire escapes glow in the dying light. Crossing Ninth Avenue, I heard the wolf howl in the wind. Into a cumbersome gap hacked in frozen snow I pioneered, and westward to find a narrow trail past four and five-story  buildings. Bare choirs of trees fell silent, only ticking now and then in frozen despair, until a faint glow, just the slightest cinematic glimmer, fell on the crooked path. I leaned back, one hand on a rack of ice, to see a living painting: a red brick building with tall arched windows of earth and sky-colored glass. Indigo peaked gables and copper crosses with a patina of green sprang like a frieze from a breathing, luminous city-lights gray sky. Double wooden plank doors painted in vertical stripes of chipped and tattered red, white and  blue were shuttered against the cold and any vagrants or visitors who might venture in. Hiking up the steps, kicking footholds in rime-encrusted snow, I peered through wire netting at an empty stairway to heaven. Tracking again through Technicolor traces from the lighted windows, I discovered a second set of steps and a brightly lit hallway. A royal blue and white plaque with a strident red cross sparked through a crust of frost:
Welcome to St. Clement’s.
 A bare bulb in a metal cage hung above the steps. Up and down the street of tenements and  brownstones, and on windowsills and steps festooned with snow, there was no other light. On the far side of a railing, steps led to a single recessed arch, and winding down and up again, I began knock-knocking-
knocking on heaven’s door.
A small round bell bolted to the brick caught my eye. I heard the buzz resound and die.
Richard Spiegel, the director of the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, opened the door. “Mary?” In his early thirties, Richard’s long
, wavy chestnut hair and trimmed beard shone with a soft gleam of mahogany and substrata strands of red. I had borders to cross and my poetic license in the back pocket of my blue jeans. I stepped
inside. “I promised I’d come one day.” My eyes pulsated wit
h red and white light as I thawed from the glacial trek. I was one of only three. We read wine-
 poetry and drank red wine in cups from St. Clement’s
kitchen.
 
In the news the next day I read a man had been murdered while we were breeding poetry, in one of the buildings behind the church, hacked to pieces and carried in bags to the corner trash can. A trail of blood in the snow marked the way to Ninth Avenue.
~
When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen.
It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to forge my own life.
Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his
office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room, like a scene in
Alice in Wonderland.
 
“I came to a poetry reading h
ere. I know Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran
in Midtown several years ago. I’ve been thinking about working in a theater, behind the scenes.
Is there anything part-
time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?” “There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “But it’s a  place to start, and you might find something you can do.”
 I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. I needed a job. This would be on-the- job training. Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, no,
I want to do something different, to work with a group of peo
 ple and get away from writing.”
 Writing, I meant to say, was not enough.
Do you know anything about
stage managing?”
 
“I like lighting,” I said. “I would like to learn how to do that.”
 
“Would you be interested in helping build the set? I perked up. “That sounds like fun.”
 Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the Technical Director.
He asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with poetry?”
  No, I nodded,
I want to try this.
 Every theater is like a cave, a shadow-box. Down a flight of stairs beyond the offices in the
front hallway, the “downstairs space” was a glorified basement, except that it was lined with
 large windows on the outside red brick wall that let in the light, opening on a brick wall, a
neighbor’s backyard garden and view of rooflines. Beside the windows, tall plywood boards
 painted black leaned against the wall. These could be placed in the windows, blocking off any light. All the other walls were painted light-absorbing matte black.
A tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, the Technical Director, or “TD,” was a young Abe Lincoln
look-alike, from Illinois or Indiana, and in time I learned that he was just as judicious and fair. Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.
“How do you lift these all by yourself?”
 
Moving one end, he placed it on the top edge of another. “Don’t lift
 when you can
leverage.” Some platforms had rows of red seats bolted onto them. “Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”
 We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop  backstage. He
showed me how to repair holes and tears in the set’s walls with fabric and glue.
We tested the doors and windows.

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