Talisman, Issue #51
Don't take anything seriously. It won't last. Especially you.
The Martha and Elinor Show
Martha! Back in biz! Let me start by asking: Do you have any idea how we decided to host a reading series together? I have NO IDEA. I knew you when I was writing for the MS Society magazine that you edited. We were friendly but I wouldn’t say we were friends. Somehow we got together for coffee, probably at Café Orlin on St Marks, and had the brainstorm. The real germ was the name. Once we had “Prose Pros,” we knew we had to do the series.
Do you have a better recall about the origins of Prose Pros?
The name was your idea. I thought it was snappy and something I never would have invented. And that was part of why our series came to work.
I'm pretty sure that early on we agreed that our town was and is full of poetry readings, hundreds a month, but prose readings were rare. Maybe the 92nd Street Y would feature a major novelist. But there were no regular series for all the many forms that can shelter under the name PROSE.
We went over to Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction, Phil Hartman’s performance space on Avenue A. They welcomed us, and we were thrilled to kick off there. A month later, Mo’s was gone. We had a reading scheduled and saw the demise of Mo's in a tabloid! Panic.
The Telephone Bar was our next home. The food was good but the space was small and noisy and some of the staff were hostile. We lasted two seasons there, and then moved on to our final home, the late great SideWalk Café, on 6th Street and Avenue A.
The SideWalk! Their back room was the home for antifolk, as well as comedians, game shows, and all sorts of casual performance. They passed the hat to pay the artists, and people were expected to buy a drink or snack. We already had the same format. Elinor never forgot to ask people to tip their waiter.
They had wonderful sound people and waitstaff, and the food was excellent.
Altogether Prose Pros lasted for 12 years, with funny, timely, profound fiction, nonfiction, memoir, plays, reportage, letters, word-games, and experiment by dozens of wonderful writers. We invited lots of poets but insisted they read prose. Which was fun for them, I think—they got to read work that they might not have read somewhere else. I’m not really a prose writer but one time when a reader’s plane got delayed, Martha and I filled in for her. I read some short essays and discovered I liked them. I think we pushed other poets in a similar way.
Our artistic principle was to ask people whose work we liked. Martha and my tastes and allegiances were very different, but if one of us felt strongly, the other usually went along with it. At the beginning, we asked Martha’s friends and people who had gone to college with my husband, Johnny Stanton, who I think agreed to perform because they wanted to see what he looked like decades later.
As you said, we have and had very different tastes, and our circles of friends and favorites intersected only somewhat. Often a person one of us proposed was someone the other had no knowledge of. These exchanges spurred me to a lot of quick reads and internet/library/Abe books searches.
How about you, Elinor? Most of the time we did a bit more than acquiesce to each other's suggestions. I do think our differences helped make a good cocktail. How did you get to yes?
That’s a great question. (Don’t tell Martha I said this, but I just gave in to whatever she wanted. Who could buck Martha King? That said, my reluctance often turned to enthusiasm.) If we both liked the person—and I did a lot of quick reads like she did—then it was easy to say yes. If one of us felt strongly, the other almost always did go along with it. Although our tastes might diverge, we trusted each other. Quality was what mattered even if we didn’t always love the work. But we mostly did!
I have another question for you, Martha: What do you think the importance or lasting effect of Prose Pros was?
Oh god, that question makes me feel extremely sentimental. We were holding on... but that's what we do, isn't it? The Lower East Side and the “downtown” world were changing rapidly over those years and our series had a definite “this is how it used to be” feel. It was never predictable even though the SideWalk provided an ambiance that a lot of our audience could relate to—an older LES world of small theaters and cabarets and bars where the regulars did a lot of talking. But it wasn't grungy. And I sure didn't miss THAT. When they renovated (just a few years before it closed) I was terrified that it would end up with mirrors and chrome but they just installed some better lighting and made a very few other changes.
In retrospect I suspect the “renovations” were to improve a final sale. The owner was a grand old hippie, very familiar, and he was probably ready to cash in his chips and leave all his business worries behind. Baz and I had drinks with him one afternoon before the program.
But for our “lasting effect,” I for one am hoping that now, after the trauma of the pandemic that closed off so much, a reading/performance/poetry scene will benefit from the shakeup by becoming new again. What that will be I don’t predict. I do hope our “lasting effect” will contribute to it. Prose Pros was a demonstration of developing an event out of personal enthusiasm and an openmindedness about forms and content. That worked for us over 12 years. Take what you can from that, future event-makers!
I want to emphasize two things: first, the community aspect, as Martha said, not just of the neighborhood but specifically of Prose Pros. I loved that it became a scene for many people. The first Thursday of every month they would show up, whether or not they knew the readers. And part of that community was that people would sidle over and say, you know who you should invite to read …? That was great. We had a big cohort of scouts.
The second thing is just how much fun Martha and I had getting together for lunch or a Vietnamese sandwich, coming up with names, pairing people we thought would be interesting together.
It was like editing a magazine. The editorial process of putting people next to each other and how their work each changed as a result. People from different genres we would put together because their work was similar or because they were so strikingly different.
I loved our insistence: We start and end on time! It was as big as the readers’ names on our announcements. In contrast, at some other readings you'd never know long they were going to wait for latecomers or whatever. It was also an expectation of the SideWalk, as a music act was almost always scheduled to start at 8. So we were 6:30 to 7:45. PERIOD. We were very strict about it.
I only missed one reading in all those years, and that was because Johnny was in the hospital. I think you missed only one, too, Martha.
I remember missing two. More to the point are the ones that still stand out for me. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl read a wonderful riff on ways and means of using concrete to make art objects, and then confessed none of his regular outlets would publish it. It ran ultimately in a house organ for the cement industry.
One of my favorite evenings was Burt Kimmelman and Philip Lopate (one of the people who agreed to read because he’d gone to college with Johnny). Did they arrange in advance that they would both read memoir about growing up in Brooklyn, around the same time? It had that magic of each piece being terrific on its own but also enhancing and reflecting the other. Similarly, ex-wrestler Francis Levy read with Australian boxer Mischa Merz, and threw jabs at each other in a lively Q&A at the end.
So many favorites! The silence after Siri Hustvedt read her piece about being a “shaking woman” was so thick that she thought no one liked her piece, but we were all stunned, speechless, almost applause-less. Wooing David Berrigan, who at last came up from D.C. to read his short autobiography-in-science postcards. So many combos that we planned, or didn’t, that amazed us.
We asked a natural combo—my husband Basil King and Hettie Jones, one of our oldest friends. It was a splendid evening but here's the thing. I know Hettie read something very moving. But what? She and I were on the phone last night trying to jog each other's memories. Best we could come up with was a piece she wrote about her long drive from Gloucester down to the city carrying boxes of letters and papers that Helene Dorn had left her when she passed. Hettie's car broke down midway; she had to call for tow. When it finally came, the driver not only gave her a seat in the truck but he took her all the way home while she, sitting by his tight young body and beautiful arms, spun a fantasy of coffee and a quickie at home on Cooper Square. Two years later, she published Love, H, matching up the to-from letters between Helene and herself.
Any last words?
Last words? Oh, dear. I hate the thought that it ended, but of course it did, and had to. I was 80 and wanted to spend more time doing my own work.
A week after Martha retired, the SideWalk closed.
MARTHA and ELINOR
And that was that!
I started going to Prose Pros during its first season, when it was at Telephone Bar. I was back in New York after a decade away, and the series became my reentry point to a downtown community of writers. My first reading there was the following year, on a frigid night in February. After that they moved to SideWalk, and according to their list, I read there five or six times in their next 10 seasons, though I’d have guessed it was even more because I felt like a regular. That was Elinor and Martha’s secret: they made everyone feel like a regular. They created a scene that was welcoming, diverse, unpretentious, and for-real: a scene where anyone who could write was a somebody, and everyone else was too.
Prose Pros was fun, that was the main thing. People went no matter who was reading. It was like a publisher or record label that automatically confers interest on what it produces. So it had everything to do with Elinor and Martha’s curation, their seat-of-the-pants hosting, and the friendly scene they nurtured. It was a home for prose writers. And I think a lot of us feel a little homeless without it, I know I do.---Mike DeCapite
In Praise of Prose Pros
Sometimes people introduce me as a poet.
a general assumption in these parts,
All Poems All The Time!
So I defer,
exception to the rule,
face the person,
poet, or not poet,
But I write prose,
or they write me,
and turn me ‘round to stringing sentences that go from one margin to another across the page…
When Prose Pros met my margins,
once a month, sentences spoke from one edge to the other,
Martha on the left, Elinor on the right,
or could be Elinor on the left, Martha on the right,
and a microphone,
repartée, trading stories, local history, updates, irony, praise.
The vibe was heady, even Hetty,
and Maggie, Basil, Burt, Murat.
All Prose All The Time!
Oh joy! Even poets reading prose.
The backroom of Sidewalk,
seeing this one or that--
smiles of recognition—glad to see you,
rarely—once maybe—averted eyes,
drinking, waiting. listening,
a little bit clubhouse,
a little bit barflies,
laughing, talking, coughing.
I’m writing a praise poem,
maybe a prose poem,
a not very fine poem,
it’s not my thing,
yet I’m writing a poem
in praise of prose,
of Prose Pros—That was a time.
Prose Pros Lives!
I have to tell you how professional the two “major domos” who “managed” the reading series Prose Pros at the now sadly defunct SideWalk Café in the East Village were, and probably still are, though the stage they regally occupied has vanished into the duststorm of forgetting that now envelopes the Lower East Side. Prose Pros was pre-pandemic, though had it continued I'm sure the virus would have been dealt a death blow once and for all by the paroxysms of memorable words that emanated from their featured readers! Back to the two major domos, Martha King and Elinor Nauen, who announced the names and credentials of the wordsmiths as they were invited to take the stage. Both had marvelous senses of humor, and both possessed perfect timing, and they played off each other to the hilt. One would start an introduction, and then the other would interrupt with elan! They set an example that the writers who had been invited to present their work could, and usually did, mimic. In fact, their patter was so spot on it could have been the result of hours of practice before the show. Bravo, Martha and Elinor!-----Ron Kolm
Prose Pros complete lineup, 2007-2019
Readers in 2007-08: Jocelyn Lieu, Mort Zachter, Hettie Jones, Stan Alpert, Peter Trachtenberg, Stephanie Dickinson, Sharon Mesmer, Andrei Codrescu, Eileen Myles, Susan Sherman, Maggie Dubris, Geoffrey O’Brien, Martha King, Elinor Nauen.
2008-09: Terence Winch, Michael Lally, Chuck Wachtel, Tom Carey, Carmen Firan, Barbara Henning, Mike DeCapite, Lee Lowenfish, Joan Silber, Wreckage of Reason launch, Dani Leone, Nahid Rachlin, Diane Simmons, Martha King.
2009-10: Joyce Johnson, Tony Towle, Monica de la Torré, Peter Schjeldahl, Sarah Schulman, Lenore Skenazy, Bob Holman, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, Pierre Joris, Sanjay Agnihotri, JP Borum, Michael Heller.
2010-11: Phillip Lopate, Burt Kimmelman, Andrei Codrescu, CA Conrad, Eileen Myles, Basil King, Siri Hustvedt, Philip Dray, Donald Breckenridge, Sparrow and Foamola.
2011-12: Francis Levy, Mischa Merz, Mitch Levenberg, Diane Simmons, David Henderson, David Wilentz, Andrei Codrescu, Elinor Nauen, Mike DeCapite, Stephanie Dickinson, Ann Rower, Litia Perta, Drew Hubner, Tsipi Keller, Lewis Warsh.
2012-13: Martine Bellen, Mark Mirsky, Andrej Blatnick, Andrew Levy, Ammon Shea, Bob Rosenthal, Sarah Falkner, Carl Watson, Martha King, David Berrigan, Ed Friedman, Edmund Berrigan, Vincent Katz, Mike DeCapite, plus a one-off exquisite corpse constructed of bits from 5 years worth of readings, performed by Elinor, Francis (Levy), Mike (DeCapite) and Martha, which led off Boog City’s summer festival.
2013–14: Ray Halliday, Ted Pelton, Ruth Danon, Bradley Spinelli, Charlotte Carter, Geoffrey O'Brien, Jenny Allen, Nancy Giles, Lynne Tillman, Lynn Crawford, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Bonny Finberg, Ron Padgett, Louise Steinman.
2014–15: Mike DeCapite, Jaime Joyce, Bill German, Greg Masters, Hettie Jones, Basil King, Lorraine Schein, Ron Kolm, Jill Rapaport, Bruce Benderson, Lori Lynn Turner, Mike Topp and Sparrow, Drew Ciccolo, Michael Fournier, Yuko Otomo, Janice Eidus, Cliff Fyman.
2015–16: Mike DeCapite, Amy Rigby, Martha King (with Mitch Highfill, Vincent Katz, Burt Kimmelman, and Kimberly Lyons), Michael Ruby, Jennifer Bartlett, Jacob Appel, Robert Sullivan, Ada Calhoun, Alisa Solomon, Carl Watson, Karla Greenleaf-MacEwan, Burt Kimmelman, Debbie Nathan, Tiphanie Yanique, Susie Mee, Zack Berger, Bob Rosenthal.
2016–17: Martha King, Elinor Nauen, Maggie Dubris, Adrian Sangeorzan, Mike DeCapite, Chavisa Woods, Thad Rutkowski, Alice Gordon, Emily Rubin, Carley Moore, Quincy Troupe, Hettie Jones, Carter Ratcliff, Siri Hustvedt, Martin Kleinman, Bradley Spinelli, Barry Schwabsky, Jen Knox.
2017-18: Nava Renek, Jennifer Sears; Andrei Codrescu, Don Yorty; Maggie Dubris (with Sara Wendt), Eddie Berrigan, Annabel Lee (with Elinor Nauen, the Double Yews) in a night of music and prose, a benefit for New Sanctuary Coalition; Eileen Myles, Kim Lyons, Andrew Levy, Ammiel Alcalay, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Elinor Nauen.
2018-19: Roberta Allen, Robert Anthony Siegel, Carley Moore, Mimi Lipson, Bill Considine, Dennis Moritz, Bob Rosenthal.