Brushes with fame

And the value that endures

Gary Snyder, photography by Michael Poorman
Robert Bly photography by Michael Poorman
Alice Neel, photography by Michael Poorman
Allen Ginsberg, photography by Michael Poorman
Grace Hartigan, photography by Michael Poorman

It’s so cool when famous writers and artists come to town.

We could envy the people who were able to dance while Gary Snyder and Robert Bly read their poems, the people who played the music while Allen Ginsberg read his poems, the people who shared their poems with the visiting writers and discussed painting with the visiting artists.

The temptation to envy arises now that photographer Michael Poorman has gathered all the photos he made during a series of visits to Fort Wayne by 14 eminent American writers and visual artists from 1979 into the 1980s and shares them with Fort Wayne Monthly. The images originally created on film are now digital files, easy to make available today and into the future once Poorman decides how else he wants to use them. They are treasures of a time when Fort Wayne was enriched by precious opportunities to interact with the best writers and artists then active in the nation and, arguably, the world. Fort Wayne Monthly is honored by the opportunity to step back in time and share these images in this issue.

Why envy?

So it seems a little tawdry to speak first of envy to introduce the photographs. Is the allure of glamour really important here? Glamour and envy, after all, run in the same circles. These visitors were famous, certainly not like the rock stars or professional athletes of then or now, but celebrities whose work you learn about in school and whose names are in encyclopedias. Glamour and celebrity are barriers between people, though, and poetry and art are connectors. So to envy people who interacted with these visitors for those moments of nearness to whatever glamour and celebrity the visitors had achieved is to miss the true value of what they brought to town and who they are and were as people.

In actual fact, what was wonderful about those visits is enduring, and it can be discovered here today with a little effort. The people who interacted with the visitors came away with experiences of value, experiences that Poorman’s photographs document.

Meeting the visitors

“I wanted to learn from the writers who most inspired me at the time,” said Gloria Still, one of the organizers of the visits. “I had no other way to gain access to them. And I wanted to share the access with as many people as possible.” Still has been living and teaching English and creative writing on the university level in Ohio in recent years.

She and Skip Berry had organized Poetry 1 in 1977, and it received Indiana Arts Commission grants (which included National Endowment for the Arts funding) to bring the writers to town. She does not remember any other organizations also bringing the writers to towns on any kinds of tours for similar readings and workshops, so Poetry 1 worked either worked with the poets’ agents (for Ginsberg and Snyder) or directly with the poets, as was the case for Robert Bly.

Poetry 1 and the visiting writers were generous with time to interact, and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, whose then-director James Bell brought New York painters Alice Neel and Grace Hartigan to town for exhibits in 1979 and 1981, was equally magnanimous. Fort Wayne got to meet these visitors, experience their work up close and hear the artists and writers themselves talk and answer questions about the poems and paintings.

We must admit that this interaction was relatively easy to arrange. Despite the fact that these artists and writers were of paradigm-shifting, era-defining importance, it wasn’t as if the Doobie Brothers, Elton John or Donna Summer (top musical acts of the time) had come to town to mingle with the city’s musicians or baseball’s George Brett or football’s Walter Payton was here to spend time with our athletes. It was a quieter visit than those would have been. But the visits were times when Fort Wayne Dance Collective dancers worked with poets Gary Snyder (who was thrilled by the opportunity, Still remembers) and Robert Bly (who was more difficult to work with, dancer Liz Monnier remembers), and Randy Tudor’s band backed up Ginsberg during his reading at Neff Hall on Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne’s campus Oct. 2, 1980.

“Ginsberg had just been crowned King of the May in Czechoslovakia. I remember him talking about it,” Still said, “and he wanted music for his reading.”

The Ginsberg reading was the first Poetry 1-IPFW collaboration because it was a bigger event than the others, which were held at and fit nicely in the smaller Artlink Gallery space at 1126 Broadway (now the Phoenix restaurant). Still said that collaboration grew into IPFW supporting Poetry 1 with space and printing of flyers. Poetry 1 was active for about 14 years, she said. Since 1992, IPFW’s Visiting Writers Series has brought important writers to town for readings and interaction with students and the interested public.

Enduring value

Among Poorman’s images are pictures of me, during my time as The News-Sentinel’s arts editor, interviewing Allen Ginsberg on the Neff Hall stage and taking notes and photos during Robert Bly’s rehearsal with the Dance Collective dancers. I remember interviewing Gary Snyder. I remember talking with Alice Neel and Grace Hartigan, too. And I’m certain my questions and whatever I wrote back then really aren’t worth retrieving and remembering now, though I hope the articles encouraged people to attend the readings and go and see the art exhibits.

That’s my hope because the enduring value I enjoy from my experience with the visiting writers and artists is what everyone received: A firsthand experience of the art and with the artist.

Poetry isn’t necessarily easy to understand. But hearing Ginsberg’s voice in my memory while I read his poetry now opens those words to my understanding. Having met Alice Neel gives me a sliver of insight into how she approaches people and therefore what was going on when she so deeply approached the people she painted. I have connections. Everyone who came out to experience those visiting poets and artists got the chance to connect. That’s what’s so cool.

Make new connections

One of the most exciting places in town to make connections with writers and the written word is a place where speaking it is deeply respected and well presented: TRIAAC’s Acoustic SpokenWord Cafe. Learn more at triaac.org/spokenword-cafe.

First appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.

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