Tribes alive and well by Bob Holman

It’s a Sunday afternoon and Steve Cannon is restless. The person who reads him The Times showed up (“Nothing in there except that Claudia Rankin piece in the Magazine on Serena. Did you read that? You better. I didn’t even send you an email about it cause I know you know”) but the afternoon reader was a no-show (“Clarice Lospector. You gotta read her. Interiors, not monologues. It’s the story of the character inside out. The narrative is driven from inside, and cracks open into surrealism. I just ordered Jonathan Franzen’s next book, pretty good review in the Times.”). I’ve dropped by to take Steve on a field trip, accompanied by Adam Falkner, the brand-new director of Urban Word, the after-school writing program that sponsors the City’s Youth Poet Laureate and has young poets (used to be a young poet was someone who qualified for the Yale Younger Poets Prize – under 40; now, it’s a 12-year old) reading during halftime at Knicks games. Adam’s never had the chance to meet this living icon before, and he’s loving Steve’s instant karma critiques. Who wouldn’t? Already Adam is talking about getting some Urban Word youths to read to Steve in the fall. He says to Steve and me, It’s amazing how you guys move from scene to scene, from Lincoln Center to a downtown bar. From Tribes to PEN to the American Academy. Steve says, “That’s nothin, that’s a book.” Adam gets it.

Unfortunately, the City didn’t. Steve was evicted last spring from the 25 year-long gallery/performance space he ran on 3rd and C. A Gathering of the Tribes was a one-stop culture chop shop – fresh art on the walls, constant stream of visitors, live music and poetry performances, publisher of a great magazine and a series of poetry books. Steve would hold court on Steve’s Couch, an archetype that was the centerpiece of an art installation created by his old friend David Hammons, which Steve unfortunately had to sell to keep Tribes afloat. Oh, did I mention that Steve Cannon is blind? (“The only admittedly blind gallery-owner in NYC”).

We’re headed up to Harlem for Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Elliot’s apartment, legendary populist event held every Sunday for the past 23 years. It’s one of City Lore’s Places that Matter, whose Program Director, our friend Molly Garfinkel, is making her acting debut here. On our way up, Steve is a nonstop rant about the local scene. Ishmael Reed – old friend of Steve’s, they founded a small press together, Reed Cannon Books – is in town. “I know he’s going to show up and bang on the damn piano and go on complaining about Hamilton,” Steve mutters. Then he starts in on another old pal, “avid Henderson is moaning about the Dark Room Collective, how they’re erasing Umbra. In response I tell Steve about the new Baraka-tribute album that Thomas Sayers Ellis of Dark Room Collective put together, how we got to get Steve and David to hear Heroes Are Gang Leaders/The Amiri Baraka Sessions. “Then we’ll get Ellis to resurrect Umbra!” says Steve, hearkening up the memory of the collective of Black artists who stayed downtown after LeRoi Jones moved Uptown, became Amiri Baraka, and started the Black Arts Movement.

How’s David doing, I ask. “I don’t know,” Steve says, “I just talked with him on the phone.” It’s all about the Orality with Steve. If you’re not in the room, it’s hard to for him to hear you, even with a phone between. “Guess who else is bitching,” Steve continues without pause, “Patricia Jones.” I thought she has a new book coming out, I say, getting in a few words, what’s the problem? “The problem, Bob,” Steve says, pointedly, “Is the marketing. And she complains so loudly that even when I offer to help her get a book party, she can’t hear me.”

Now it’s Steve’s turn to rag for himself. He saw the Pearl Buck multimedia dance at Lincoln Center last night. Of course, seeing is a bit of an exaggeration, his having been blind 30 years, result of glaucoma. Making jokes about Steve’s blindness is a major part of the routine. “I could do that with my eyes closed,” he’ll often comment. “The damn music was trite,” he says, “I wasted my damn money. When did the Japanese invade China, anyway?” he asks. “Wikipedia that. I didn’t get it. Did she leave China because of the invasion, or the divorce? That’s a helluva difference. Dance gotta inform!”

Steve, I interrupt, just one question. Has Ish seen Hamilton yet? “Of course not!” “I’m gonna wait till spring to see it, Bob. Then it won’t cost us a million dollars.”

“I’ve got some projects coming up,” Steve says, bringing me up to speed. “There’s the new collaborative poetry/art anthology, 50 poets, 50 artists. Ishmael, Yusef, Quincy, you’re in there Bob. Cover by David Hammons. And three books of poetry – Chavisa Woods, Melody Goodreaux, Elizabeth Watson – all good poets, all hard workers for Tribes. Can’t do readings at the new place, but when somebody calls me up and wants to have a Tribes reading someplace, I know who the poets are, I know how to get them, and I know how to get the funding. Why don’t more poets do that? Just apply at Poets & Writers. Other than that, Tribes exists as a virtual space now. Website, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook. I know how to do that. We had a big Indigogo campaign, and now I’ve got this tablet that I can talk to and it reads it back. It’s the same system we use with the Stoop back in the day, except now it’s digital.”

“I’m 80 years old now, Bob,” Steve continues, “and I’ve done it. It’s time for somebody else to do it.” This is a whole different Steve from where we were just a year ago, when we walked from 3rd and C to 6th and D, a whole building full of poetry and memory, the Charlie Parker Festival in the backyard, the David Hammons installation AKA Steve’s living room, the office with 3 computers, fax machine, and piles and piles of papers. Steve had fallen down the stairs a couple of times right before the move, and finally stopped drinking, in case there wasn’t enough transition going on. But the biggest change was losing the open door policy, where anybody who wanted to could swing by Tribes and lobby Steve for whatever, a gallery show, a reading, a book, a concert, you name it. Sarah Ferguson, the journalist and friend, had done the impossible and found an affordable place in the neigh, an accessible apartment in a Habitat for Humanity building. Steve had actually met Jimmy Carter while he was rehabbing another building nearby. The new place has a nice sized living room and, a new couch, remarkably like the old couch. The piano fits, there’s not an inch of wall space without artwork. Steve’s bedroom functions as the office as well.

A piece of David Hammon’s wall hangs just across from the couch. After Steve sold the installation to a rich Greek collector, David returned and painted a very similar wall again. When Steve was evicted, art critic Judd Tully, who is making a documentary on David, helped move out and stored the new Hammon’s work – yes, the whole wall, put into storage. It remains to be seen if Steve will be able to sell the second iteration. There’s a crew of artists and poets who drop by often, including Chavisa Woods, Travis and Galinsky and Jeff Wright, among others, but Steve is always on the lookout for people to read -- I’m talking to you.

“Tribes did it, we’re in the history books, and I’m content. What we did for Black poets and Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Asians, Indians, I sure do miss Diane Burns, that’s part of it. That’s why Tribes got started, let’s be up front about that. But it’s never been about the Blacks, whites, anybody. It’s been about Everybody. That’s it.

“I’ve got it figured out so that the books should all come out by June of next year. And then I know what my job is. After 25 years it’s second nature, I can do it with my eyes closed. Don’t forget, Bob, that I started Tribes the year after I retired from being a professor,” his Medgar Evers (CUNY) College Professor Emeritus diploma still hanging on the wall. “Yes, Gil Scott-Heron was my student. But when I felt that energy around the Nuyorican when it reopened, a block away, location location location! Then there was the time that Zoe burned down my house. But that’s another story.

“The deal is gentrification. Speaking in generalities here, but Vipin took me for a walk the other day, and Avenue B was filled with drunks. Drunks at brunch, what could be worse. They weren’t talking about poetry and music, it was sad. They were talking about bullshit gossip, uninventive and bor-ring. I’ve seen the neighborhood change, and change again, and change after that. But it was wave after wave of artists that came into Tribes. Leaving that place, well, I just left the hassles. Artists were being more demanding, and not giving back like they used to. Ok, I’ll say it. It’s a change for the worse. I mean I still hear the young artists -- I just got out of school, I want to be a poet, where do I go? And what’s happened here on the Lower East Side—look at Williamsburg, it happened there, and Bushwick I hear is now just as bad. You know and I know that artists will always find a way. But for Tribes, that job is done.

“My advice for young artists is the same as always, it’s DIY, Do It Yourself. Publish it yourself, put your art up on the sidewalks in Thompson Square Park, use the subway. Let the City be your Gallery, your book, your stage. You got some friends around you? Throw a reading, throw a party, just do it. Gather your own tribe. If you’ve got the numbers go ahead, start an organization. Get a place and show your films. If it’s large enough, invite the dancers in. When I stopped teaching, I dedicated myself to the community to encourage the young people. Encourage, that’s it. Someone says no to you, don’t accept it. Prove ‘em wrong. I want people to know that I’m still here. 212 777 2038 or just drop by 745 E 6th, push the buzzer 1A, and come in and introduce yourself. Be part of the new Gathering of the Tribes. Email? Sure. Tell them the Blind Guy sent you.”