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Bob Holman on his acceptance of the Elizabeth Kray Award
Remarks given by Bob Holman, 2006 Recipient of the Elizabeth Kray Award for Service to Poetry
I never knew Betty Kray—too young, I guess!
I've always yo-yo'ed between making fun of institutions and trying to get so far inside that I could get them turned around and going in the right direction. Poetry seems a logical enough choice for this kind of perversity: When I was coming up, the notion of "being a poet" was not in the Kuder Preference Tests. Or was it the "Kooser"?
So look at me now—as a professor at my alma mater, Columbia, I am experiencing what it means to become the very person I used to laugh at. This is a particularly stop-and-smell-the-roses moment, in my case more like smell the teargas. In 1968 I was arrested at Columbia, along with 775 of my classmates, which meant that over 25% of the student body was incarcerated over the demonstration or revolution or trespassing on our own campus, which is what we were charged with. Nothing like making spaghetti in the Philosophy Building. Our public defender argued that our cases be postponed until the fall—we were Columbia students after all, and had many important things to do on our summer vacation. The judge concurred. I hightailed it to join Danny the Red in Paris, and was busted there as well. It was a great education. And as Columbia moves into "Manhattan Valley" also known as Harlem, I’m engaged in the same struggles as '68: how to be a good neighbor
I mention my past because the more I hear about Betty Kray the more I love her continuous, evolutionary PUSH for poetry. She turned around the Academy by creating organs of relevancy—Poets in the School foremost among them. With the Academy spinning, she would start a new organization, Poets House, to add a new alternative. She would dig into the NEA, investigate Whitman (becoming the first scholar to forefront his gayness); she would be a source of strength in action for Kathleen Norris's spiritual quest. . . She is all over the map, forever rushing to plug the holes in the sieve, the kind of constant crisis that would crush you if you looked around and saw what you were facing. But bit by bit and piece by piece, Betty Kray maneuvered poetry through the locks into safe havens.
I wish I’d known her, and in Margo and Lee I feel like I do—direct descendants, they carry on the good works in a manner totally inspiring. When the pettiness of poetry's Tiny Town Turf Wars caused me to move on from the Nuyorican, Lee took me in and let me work my "ass" off for Poets House. It was, as they say, healing.
Now I’m at the Bowery Poetry Club, where our motto is "Serving the World Poetry." Now I know we all want some of that Serving the World Poetry Cake over there—but hey, hear me out first!
Yes indeed as Poets House and our other sister organizations (most of which seem to have been initiated by Elizabeth Kray) do, I too serve this life-enriching, life-saving, holy Cloud Cuckooland of the Poem, where words build beauty and where we imagine we know what someone means when the ambiguity slides into truth without a ka-ching. And yes, we serve the world poetry like cake—come in and have a slice. We serve you the Hiphop Poetry, the West African jeliya stuff, a heavy dose of Language and Experimental, Postmodern, Deconstructed, Deep Image, Sound and of course, we must not forget Slam and the fact that poets are now on TV.
Because as very, very dangerous a time as this is, when we see our rights abridged and a war fought in our name that is the essence of evil, we still can take some measure of pleasure in the small successes we see—and the place of poetry in our culture today is so much deeper, so much broader and varied and more pronounced than the pre-Kray era. I can only say Thanks, Betty, for the Betty. I’m writing those poems as fast as I can. The jury is still out over at the Bowery Poetry Club as to whether the poets will drink enough to pay for their poetry habits. We're the only bar in New York to say, "Shut up and listen to the poem" instead of "Would you care for another?" I feel that the physical and symbolic move of Poets House to a real Home, of the emergence of youth using poems as a means for communicating the unheard horrors of the teens, the acknowledgement that Hiphop MCs are poets and that the poetry world is ready to take back the muscle that Whitman used as Voice, as the continued lineage of the Betty—I accept with awe at her work and a redoubled push of my own to the work of it all. Thanks all. That was my speech, and here is my encore, my poem "Love Poems":
I love poems