Sketches of Tribes
recollections by Steve Cannon To begin at the beginning: The idea of starting A Gathering of The Tribes was inspired by the Nuyorican Poets Café opening its doors on East 3rd Street in 1989. A young writer from the Village Voice wrote a long-winded article about all the wonderful things that were in store for the new Nuyorican Poets Café. Aside from having slam poetry contests every Friday night, AN IDEA BROUGHT TO New York from Chicago by the one and only Bob Holman, the café, under the direction of Miguel Algarin, decided they would have open mic readings on Wednesday nights as well on Friday nights after the poetry slam. And since the building consists of four floors, they also decided they would have poetry workshops, publish a literary journal, and furthermore, have space for out of town writers to stay overnight. The only things that came into being were the open mic reading and the slams. Every now and then, they invited a guest poet to read. These activities inspired me to open A Gathering of The Tribes.
The jist of the matter is, I thought it would be wise to get two young writers to edit the magazine and I would work as their consultant, based on my experience of having worked for small literary magazines in the Lower East Side in the sixties and seventies. My choices were Buddy (Barnard Masler) and Norman Douglas. They were in position to do such a thing, since both of them were moonlighting down on Wall Street as I.T. nerds, and making oodles of money. In other words, they were making more than enough to pay for the cost of the magazine, and since they are half my age and palled around with the younger writers, I trusted their judgment in choosing good writers for the magazine; poets, essayists and fiction writers. However, this never panned out for, among other reasons, they took off and went to Europe. By the time they got back to the states, I’d already published the first issue of Tribes with Gail Shilke as the co-editor. She was half my age and was curatring readings at the Knitting Factory and at the Nuyorican Poets Café. She showed an interest in older writers by featuring them at her readings. Since the Lower East side has always been known, to be multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-everything else, we had to make sure that the magazine reflected all disciplines of art; dance, music, poetry, visual art, etc. from the perspective of diversity and inclusivity; that was our aim then as it is now. It was Elizabeth Murray who gave Tribes its first check. And it was David Hammons who had an exhibition in Seattle Washington. Part of the deal was, he had to give a certain amount of money from that art piece to a nonprofit, and he gave it to Tribes. We had also put one of his images, a self-portrait, on the cover of the first issue of Tribes magazine. This issue included a round-table discussion with David and the editors of Tribes on his art making process. Our first Issue of Tribes appeared in the fall of 1991. The release party, obviously, was held at the Nuyorican Poets Café. By this time, we’d put together an assembly of writers, poets and editors whose job it was to solicit material that they would like to see in the magazine. That is: music, poetry, interviews, visual art and essays; the whole shebang. The idea at the time was to cover the Lower East Side and the myriad forms of art being produced here in documentary format, i.e. the magazine. All decisions regarding the final product before publication were madder by consensus. The magazine was never and never will be dedicated to a theme. What we wanted was to publish works of excellence with a focus on diversity. Who decided on the excellence were, and still are, the editors.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. And this made it interesting. Since I’m blind, we had to find someone to run the office and manage the gallery. Since I was writing plays at the time, I also had to find someone to produce and direct the plays. This is where I would like to tell you about some of the characters coming in and out of here and the ups and downs of Tribes over the years. It was Norman Douglas who got into a skirmish with Gail Schilke, causing her to jump ship from the magazine. Norman was renting the space on the top floor at 285 East 3rd Street (Tribes), and because he lacked a phone, he would descend and use my phone on the second floor on a daily basis. Gail had come over for an editorial meeting with me and Norman interrupted our meeting by using the phone, which lasted about an hour. He refused to get off. Gail got pissed and she threw an envelope of unread manuscripts at Norman’s head and shot out of here, forever. With Gail out of the picture, I found three other young editors to replace her: Jenny Seymore, Melanie Best and Christian Hey. They put together the next three issues of Tribes, choosing the text as well as the visual art. By this time we had a wonderful young lady running the office whose father founded J Crew: Martha Cinador. Martha was a natural born story teller and proved herself to be very demanding. But she did a wonderful job of running the organization, planning conferences, meetings and communicating well with the other editors. Each issue was planned the same way. After the final version was approved and the magazine was printed, we held a release party at different varying locations. We never used the same venue twice. Dora Espinoza, who was the founder of Tribes gallery worked explicitly with her own team which included Norman Öhler, Julio Gonzalez and Renee McManus. Tribes consists of various entities that all primarily function in the same way. Whether it be the gallery or the magazine all sorts of people contribute but unfortunately one group did not bother to make relations with the other. Dora had her own crew running the gallery, and the editors of the magazine did what they did. Unfortunately, the art that was printed in the magazine had nothing to do with the art that was shown in the gallery and visa versa. They lived in two separate worlds. By this time, a young lady by the name of Angela Lucasin, who could type a hundred words a minute, chew gum and have a conversation with you at the same time, was running the office at Tribes. She was a singer songwriter from Canada who also acted in my plays. Angela was working full time at a coke-headed law firm in midtown and could only come to work at Tribes in the evenings. A young lady named Renee also worked here in her spare time as she was betwixed and between jobs. Angela would show up at five or six in the evening. She would ask what was done in the day. I would tell her what Renee had done and where she would take over. Angela being Angela, she decided things would run smoother if Renee would start leaving her a note, outlining, “I did A, B, and C,” so that we could cut out me and my memory as the middle man. Angela started the ball rolling by writing a note to Renee that very evening, telling her to start leaving her notes, outlining what she had done. When Renee arrived the next afternoon, I told her Angela had left her a note. She read it in silence, then picked up a ball point pen and wrote over it in bold letters, “UP YOURS!” When Angela arrived that night, I told her Renee had left her a note. Not only was she fuming, she was beyond fury. She ripped up the note and stormed out of here saying, “It’s either me or Renee. Make your choice.” Since Angela had a full-time job, I chose Renee since she was available during the day and had proven herself to be reliable. At this time, Dora had returned home to Peru for an emergency in the family so Renee had taken over roles at both the magazine and gallery. Renee was convinced that Dora was taking advantage of the blind guy, yours truly. She 86ed her from the gallery and brought in her friend to curate shows here. However, since I am blind, I didn’t perceive Dora’s actions to be the same as Renee’s accusations. After all, it was Dora who had founded the gallery and I perceived her actions to be positive as she expanded the role of Tribes by supplying visibility for the art world. Some time later, I would have Dora return to run the gallery again after Renee departed the shores and to replace Renee, Liz Reese would run the office… I didn’t realize at the time, that Tribes would continue to function as the product of this type of dysfunction for years to come. I didn’t know if it’s just the way of artists or my own inclination to think that the universe is nothing but chaos held together by creative passion that makes Tribes constantly go “Bumbity bump bump bump,” yet somehow sustaining and fulfilling its mission, to showcase art of excellence and diversity, from the edges of it all.