Poet Dean Kostos has been hosting the Greek-American Writers Association gathering downstairs at the Cornelia Street Cafe for the past 13 years. He rarely performs in this series, but on Saturday he made an exception. It was his birthday. Mr. Kostos's book "Last Supper of the Senses" (Spuyten Duyvil Press) comes out next month, and a reception for Mr. Kostos's book is set for June 3 at Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
The evening at the Cornelia Street Cafe is part of a vibrant (in this case, literally underground) urban literary scene where writing and national heritage mix. Another hyphenated group, Italian-American Writers, also meet there monthly. The Italian-American group will next gather June 11; the Greek-Americans June 18. Other venues in the city, such as the Asian American Writers' Workshop, have readings as well.
Event coordinator Angelo Verga said the Cornelia Street Cafe hosts around 650 to 700 cultural events each year. "Why? You ask?" he said. "I think we have ADD, and it's fun."
Mr. Kostos introduced Holly Scalera, who teaches poetry in New Jersey to people ages 3 to 92. She offered whoever bought the 10th book of her poetry that night a free pair of pink overalls, which she held up. The evening performance included Ms. Scalera actually stepping into a poem (she called it "poetry-wear") shaped like an orange paper corkscrew or mink stole, which she wrapped around herself.
Ms. Scalera's father, Sidney Frank, emerged from the audience wearing a shirt that read "Born in Bayonne." He read, "Everyone Ends up in New Jersey," the opening poem of his daughter's current book, "Jello Dogs" (Lunartics Press). The poem describes the variety of people who end up in the Garden State: bird-watchers, clam diggers, tollbooth collectors, champion bowlers, Eddie Murphy, and the heir to the Snapple fortune. Others mentioned were "really bad plumbers and courageous Polish roofers."
The family is artistic: Mr. Frank is a playwright who wrote "Who the Hell Is Abner Bell?" His wife Helen, also in the audience, is an etcher at work on a large commissioned artwork about the Brooklyn Bridge.
Mr. Kostos read poems from "Jello Dogs," including one about Halloween: "The sparkly costumes / Funny friends in neon pink Afros / And chandelier earrings, drinking red wine on the front porch. "There are "Gold-hooded gypsies, silver knights, Rite-Aid Hulk masks" on an autumn eve with the earth laden with "scents of disintegrating beauty."
Ms. Scalera read "Advice to Ruby and Jackson (Part II)," which opens:
Never buy cheap scotch tape
Don't listen in on others' telephone conversations
(Unless your sister is talking to a boy or your brother is talking to a girl)
Other advice imparted includes "Take vitamins with chocolate milk" and:
Tell your dogs your secrets
Never stop hoping for snow days
(And putting snowballs in the freezer for summer)
Observe your neighbors recycling
(you'll learn the most about them that way)
She said one of her daughter's teachers told her class, "Don't wrinkle and crinkle your paper." She said this was "odd" and that teachers should be more concerned about what is written on the paper than whether it's wrinkled. She proceeded to wrinkle two poems and throw them deep into the audience, asking the persons hit with the balls of paper to come up and read them. Her childhood friend Paul Dubin came up and read "June 19" about a muggy day.
Performing music during some of the poems was photographer Ray Block, who sat onstage with a flute and an African drum he had bought at a street fair. He then read some of his own poetry, including a poem about an old bebop guy who announces, "Cowboys may die with their boots on, but hipsters die with their shades on, baby."
Author Penelope Karageorge read from Mr. Kostos's poem "Eating God," which begins with a quotation by John Berryman. Ms. Karageorge's parents come from the Greek island of Lemnos, where she still goes to write in a stone house.
Sharon Olinka has a book of poems coming out called "The Good City" (Marsh Hawk Press) about the destruction of Smyrna in 1922. She read Mr. Kostos's poem "Love," which pays homage to poet James Merrill. In the poem, Maria Callas's ghost is sleepless; there is also reference to her learning to sing by supposedly pressing the throats of her canaries.
Ms. Olinka said the poem was her favorite of Mr. Kostos's because it "explores a yearning for the infinite and the limitations we have to live with every day." In the poem, Callas laments in bel canto "the saddest thing - understanding my motives does not change them, whether I speak or sing."
Later, Mr. Kostos and Ms. Olinka took turns reading a poem about the lives of Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson, which could be read either horizontally or vertically. This poetic form, Mr. Kostos said, was used by May Sarton and John Ashbery. He read a haunting narrative poem about Marie Antoinette's son, the Dauphin, as well as a ghazal, a poem in an ancient form composed of couplets.
Mr. Kostos played a tape of his collaboration with composer James Bassi, an anti-war dialogue. The piece, consisting of a conversation between the Angel of Peace and the Angel of War, was commissioned as part of the 15th-anniversary celebration of Voices of Ascension, a chorus at Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village.
The Angel of War opens with, "Arms, arms, arms / arms to destroy" and the Angel of Peace replying, "Arms, arms, arms / arms to embrace." After the Angel of War describes unfurling "poisonous banners of smoke," it says, "Empires thrive because of me." Toward the end of the dialogue, the Angel of Peace extends its arms to the Angel of War ("Is it not easier this way?") and the Angel of War lays down its sword.
The Knickerbocker asked Mr. Kostos if the first reader that evening, Ms. Scalera, was Greek-American. No, she is Jewish and married to an Italian, he said. Mr. Kostos said the reading series is "wide open" and a bit of a mishmash. That makes it all the more New York.