“Find an event on the ground to respond to”: Wayne Koestenbaum Leads Frank O’Hara-Inspired Walk in NYC

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of Wayne Koestenbaum’s sharp and effervescent essays on poets of the New York School and so many other topics, so I was intrigued by this piece by Jennifer Krasinski in ArtForum about an unusual walking tour Koestenbaum recently led in the East Village in homage to Frank O’Hara’s poem “Second Avenue.”

The 1953 poem is one of O’Hara’s most experimental, challenging, and even polarizing poems, but clearly Koestenbaum counts himself among its fans.  Krasinski writes:

“I revere Frank O’Hara,” Koestenbaum explained, “and this might be my favorite of his poems.” Koestenbaum himself is revered as a vigilante on behalf of the glittering intellect. If John Ashbery once described “Second Avenue” as “such a difficult pleasure,” that evening, Koestenbaum praised it as “a poem big enough to contain [O’Hara’s] consciousness and the city’s consciousness as well.”

The outing, which Koestenbaum called “Making Marks,” asked the dozen or so participants to spend an evening as notebook-wielding flâneurs, responding creatively to the city around them with heightened attention, à la O’Hara himself.

We were handed sketch pads, water-soluble markers, and pencils, and Koestenbaum explained that this evening’s walk would be punctuated by his prompts. “We will be on the lookout for events,” he said, “responding with linguistic marks or nonlinguistic marks”—meaning that our observations or ideas would be expressed within or without their sanctioned symbolic order. “Quantity, not quality,” Koestenbaum insisted. “We are working in the spirit of Frank O’Hara, who was always inspired.” Glancing at the graying sky, he added, “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,” but thus far only the air conditioners seemed to be spitting on us.

… More prompts followed from Koestenbaum every few minutes:

“Find an event on the ground to respond to.”

“Bring to mind a shattered romance and make marks toward it.”

“Write something impermissible. Erase it, then reconstruct something from its erasure.”

The walk concluded with the group forming a circle under a lamp in Tompkins Square Park (just steps from the E. 9th St. apartment O’Hara lived in) and reading lines and fragments culled from “Second Avenue” itself:

We bowed our heads over our papers, angling them toward the glowing lamplight. In this, an unintended gratitude pose to O’Hara’s excitement, we performed a “Second Avenue” cut-up, pasting together a poem of our own.

Thinking about this interesting venture — part creative writing exercise, part experiment in psychogeography and the “dérive” in the Situationist vein, part tribute to O’Hara’s work and his example — I opened “Second Avenue” and came upon the ever-more-prophetic last line of the poem’s first section: “But now I have a larger following.”  Indeed, he truly does.



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