“Before there was the Internet, there was Frank O’Hara. We’re just as a culture finally catching up to his manic speed and endlessly divisible attention span”

Since his death in 1966, the poet Frank O’Hara has taken on an iconic stature among admirers of poetry. To honor the work of the beloved poet, The Fire Island Pines Fine Arts Project is presenting the Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival, on Saturday, July 12th, at 4 PM. The event will include such noted writers as Eileen Myles, Edmund White, Ariana Reines, Dorothea Lasky, and Saeed Jones.

The program, moderated by the New York poet Adam Fitzgerald, will feature a diverse group of local and international poets and writers. This event will memorialize the man and the community where he enjoyed himself immensely, wrote, and tragically died. He immortalized his time there in one of his most famous poems, ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.’ Presenters will read a selected poem of O’Hara’s as well as one of their own to mark the occasion.

Lambda Literary spoke with poet and event moderator Adam Fitzgerald about the inspiration behind event and the continuing legacy of Frank O’Hara.

What was the motivation behind the creation of the Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival?

When my editor Bob Weil at W. W. Norton told me he wanted to put on a poetry festival at Fire Island I thought it only made sense for it to be a gathering to honor one of our greatest poets, Frank O’Hara. Together with him and Mark Ricigliano, the first ever Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival was born. We’ve had tremendous support—from people donating money to rent out the reading space to those offering rooms so each of the poets has a place to stay for the weekend. At the center of it all is our lineup. When I asked poets to read a poem of Frank’s and one of their own in tribute, everyone said yes! Immediately. O’Hara still inspires that level of devotion.

Why do you think O’Hara still resonates with so many readers of poetry?

O’Hara resonates with readers today for many reasons. One, I suspect, is because he kind of invented our social media age, albeit in his poems forty years earlier. Think about what we do any given day: read a barrage of e-mails from friends and strangers; tweet about where we’re walking or Instagram what our food looks like; read up on what movie or new exhibit or summer concert at the Met is happening, maybe opera, some ballet. Or maybe another clickbait article you surrender to for the shits and giggles of it all. On Facebook another controversy has hundreds of people needing to cry out in rage! You take some impromptu quiz telling you what country or cut of beef you are. It all flows and merges and swims together and there’s not much reason other than that’s what you want to do at that given moment—your whims fed as they’re created in the same extinguishable, replaceable moment. Our whole deplorable and irrepressible culture of ephemerality is what O’Hara is so good at curating, at celebrating. Basically, it’s what many of his poems are even about, insofar as they’re about anything. Frank checks in at a malted shop. Tags an old queen drunk at a party channeling Bette Davis. He posts, he tweets, he texts—his technology just happens to be poetry. Before there was the Internet, there was Frank O’Hara. We’re just as a culture finally catching up to his manic speed and endlessly divisible attention span.

What is your personal connection to O’Hara’s work?

O’Hara’s work means a great deal to me. It’s been chasing after me persistently this year. In putting together this festival, I’ve had the pleasure to chat with someone at the BBC about his life and legacy, to write a collaged essay of sorts for the poet and scholar Olivier Brossard’s forthcoming volume in homage. I’ve been teaching his poems, as I always do, but more in-depth than ever, to students at Rutgers and NYU. I’ve also had the chance to read at the Poetry Project’s wonderful Lunch Poems Marathon Reading a few weeks ago which was coordinated in celebration of that book being reissued by City Lights, complete a new pithy introduction by John Ashbery. Also, at the back of the book now is what survives of the correspondence between Lawrence Ferlinghetti and O’Hara. What a treat! Many of these events or occasions happily forced me to go back to the source, roaming wildly through the famed big black book with pink lettering and his hawk-nose portrait on the cover, to read (for the first time!) Joe Leseur’s gorgeous memory-work on living and knowing Frank, Some Digressions on the Poems of Frank O’Hara: A Memoir. Quite illuminating scene-painting of a period stuff akin to Eileen’s Inferno but also oddly enough Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. All these grubby brilliant bodies existed in a very different New York, cross-pollinating and helping to make the world we live in and have inherited artistically.

Do you have a favorite O’Hara’s poem? If so, what is it and why?

One doesn’t really have a favorite O’Hara poem, just a series of rotational moods that pick at any given moment this or that re-readable piece. I always go back to Morning for its unabashed sentimentality, If there is a place further from me I beg you do not go, to Memorial Day 1950, for its velocity and ambitious aesthetic credo, Picasso made me tough and quick, and the world—I love how he says “and the world,” it’s like the greatest hiccup in a first line I know, a poem which John Ashbery salvaged for the world because the only known copy after O’Hara died was from a letter Frank wrote to him. Among these and dozens of others, I have still I guess a sweetness for Having a Coke With You, its bristle of whimsy and moxie. Pure O’Hara:

_____partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
_____partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
_____partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
_____partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary

Those lines say it all! I don’t even know what “all,” but it’s there. His range, his sassy inflection and wiseass vulnerability, his image-swapping, his high/low acrobatics.

There seems to be a real diverse lineup in terms of the festival’s participants, but I was wondering if you saw an aesthetic through-line in regards to the curated list of readers?

Yes, I do think there’s an aesthetic through-line—all of them love O’Hara’s work, for starters. But by that rubric one could have literally invited dozens or hundreds of equally deserving poets. Many of them are close friends or fond acquaintances (Simone Kearney, Ali Power, Zachary Pace) or friends of friends and I definitely wanted to channel some of O’Hara’s sense of coterie for the festival, but also a sense of history in community, queer, brash, young-minded. Kirby Congdon, who is a longtime resident of Fire Island, interviewed and knew some of Hart Crane’s surviving friends such as Samuel Loveman. CAConrad in my mind has taken on the mantle of Allen Ginsberg, unafraid to be outspoken and communicate with readers from inside and outside the poetry community. He’s also one of the most generous and supportive writers I know. Of course, Ginsberg and O’Hara were very close. CA calls Frank “Queer Daddy,” and his most famous book, Book of Frank, owes something to O’Hara for sure. I wanted a diverse group of readers, in terms of identity, too, sexuality, ethnicity, aesthetic preferences. Eileen Myles, a legend (I know she loathes that word), couldn’t be more different as a poet from Paul Muldoon, right? But both of them return to O’Hara, from very different Irish backgrounds, one Boston, one Ireland, one gay, one straight, one female, one male. That says something about Frank’s appeal.

Edmund White, who is not a poet, but has written about O’Hara and the New York School in his essays, also writes about the Fire Island scene in his great novel Forgetting Elena. In my mind White is as important a chronicler of gay life in our moment as Frank was in his. O’Hara introduced that element of uncensored anecdote into American poetry, to make larger-than-life celebrities out of one’s immediate circle. White continues on in this vein, along with a keen appreciation of the visual arts, again like Frank. It’s very important to me also to have Rickey Laurentiis and Saeed Jones in

Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara

this line up as well—two extremely talented gay black poets who I’ve known for years and have watched closely. First, anyone who’s paying attention to poetry today knows that some of the most exciting work is being written by African American poets—Tracy K. Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Harryette Mullen, Terrance Haynes to name a few. Second, I think many people think of the New York School as a largely white-male phenomenon, like so much of what’s traditionally canonized then taught. When I helped put together a New York School marathon reading at Tibor de Nagy gallery last year with Emily Skillings and Eric Brown, the great Patricia Spears Jones read for us but afterwards remarked, “You really need to involve more poets of color!” While we had invited many others, she was the only black poet reading that day. One should always be involving more poets of color but I think she also meant O’Hara’s influence and appeal is most certainly not limited to white guys.

I’m reminded of the very close friendship that existed between Frank and the late Amiri Baraka, who may have been lovers but were certainly enthusiastic readers of each other’s work, cosmopolitan polymaths both. O’Hara’s famous Personism: A Manifesto pays tribute to that friendship when Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). Africanism is a large theme throughout O’Hara’s work, in fact. Samuel Delany says in his classic study Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:

The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.

As an artist, I feel like Delany’s thesis is the real democracy we’re all panting after. Interclass, intersex, interracial, intergenerational. To live in New York is to be in the midst of all these intersections, just as to be a queer then or now, but especially then, is to go cruising for intimacy where those barriers and divisions momentarily erode and blur. For Delany, that was happening in the Times Square porno theaters before they closed down to make way for Disney-fied gentrification and what have you. In O’Hara’s poetry and his social milieu, I think those same transgressions happened constantly, he lived and created and wrote from that same space which is especially why I also wanted to have readers who weren’t just gay bachelors, like Timothy Donnelly and Paul Muldoon. This all may sound ridiculous in retrospect, like I was a census bureau checking off boxes, but the truth is I just naturally gravitate toward a mismatch assembly because in the back of my head someone like O’Hara defined for me what real community looks like.

Just like the conception of the New York School’s whiteness, many people might believe it was largely an affair of men, when they hear the bandied-about names: Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Schuyler. But that “first generation” group also included Barbara Guest as well as widening out to Anne Waldman, Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer, among many others. Before Maggie Nelson’s tremendous monograph Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions, I think readers might have had a one-sided appreciation of the diversity of gender in this group of artists and poets. Eileen is a crucial example but now poets of my generation like Dorothea Lasky and Ariana Reines have also amplified and enhanced O’Hara’s legacy. Ariana has a poem of hers in Mercury called Truth or Consequences and it’s one of the very best poems written in the 21st century I know of. It cribs from and channels O’Hara’s A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island. I remember first hearing it and approaching her and just gushing about how Homeric and Whitmanic it was in its utterance. O’Hara’s poem steals from Mayakovsky, so it seems only right to pass the torch on. Lasky, who’s one of my dearest friends on the planet, is a poet already famous for the fierceness of her voice on and off the page. But aside from being so brutal and direct in her poems, she’s also one of the funniest people and poets I know, and I think her unique deadpan couldn’t have been possible without O’Hara and Ted Berrigan’s immortal schtick.

In an email sent to me detailing the specifics of the event, you stated that “[..] this will not be safe or tame poetry reading. Think punk, think mosh pit, think flying dildos and ass thongs.” Is this just hyperbole? Should viewers really expect some anarchic hi-jinks at this reading?

Well, it is after all a reading on Fire Island. The mecca of gay partying, casual sex and fun in the sun. I might have overstated things when I said “flying dildos and ass thongs,” but who knows! I’m sure there’ll be plenty of one-sided “half thongs” or c-strings to traumatize the tasteful and innocent. One can hope, right?


This interview has been condensed and edited

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