Steve Cannon: Being Blind Made Him Visible
This year’s Whitney Museum Biennial, (April 6 to September 5, 2022) had a poetry component—an unusual event for an art museum. Even more unusual, the Whitney honored Steve Cannon and his stapled-together magazine A Gathering of the Tribes with an exhibition and two days of poetry readings. Impressive that they didn’t choose someone from the “Canon of Famous Poets” with their famous literary magazines, but, wisely, chose Steve Cannon—blind, poet, novelist, and connector of everyone in the downtown arts scene.
M.H. Miller described Cannon’s apartment on East Third Street in Manhattan in this New York Times article of February 9. 2018, A Blind Publisher, Poet — and Link to the Lower East Side’s Cultural History:
A GATHERING OF THE TRIBES may have begun as a magazine, but it quickly grew into a gallery and salon run out of Cannon’s apartment. It was a living monument to Lower Manhattan’s lineage of multicultural artists and thinkers — people who often get overlooked in favor of narratives of and by successive generations of self-destructing, gentrifying white bohemians—but it was also an all-hours open house, where all were welcome (even the gentrifying white bohemians) and an essential site of Lower Manhattan’s last gasp as the center of the avant-garde. David Henderson, a writer and major figure of the Harlem-centered Black Arts Movement in the late ’60s and ’70s, describes Tribes as a place where “you could walk in at any time and be welcome and there would always be something interesting going on, and if there wasn’t you could start it just by showing up."
Tribes is frequently described as diverse, publishing writers who couldn’t get published in the established venues, who were excluded by the art and literary gate-keepers, invisible artists, people not recognized, not seen, but always welcome in Steve Cannon’s scene. In a way, this describes Steve Cannon as well. Though he published in 1969, his book Groove, Bang, and Jive Around, called a “funky, pre-Rap novel” by Ishmael Reed, and though he taught for years at Medgar Evers College, his real notoriety blossomed as he morphed into the blind poet mentor extraordinaire with his home/gallery/salon/crash pad for artists new to New York City.
While he didn’t go completely blind till 1989, it’s a rare article or interview or blog post that doesn’t mention that this fact about him. In some strange way, his blindness became, not his Achilles heel, but his Super Power, if you’ll forgive the metaphor mixing. Odd, that being blind bestowed on Steve Cannon a greater visibility to the rest of the world, though he was very much visible to those around him as novelist, poet, and teacher. But this was Steve Cannon, everything about his life was unusual and astounding, from his mother’s death only months after he was born, to his jumping out of airplanes as a paratrooper, to his writing the crazy novel of wild sex.
For two days, April 8 and April 9, The Whitney Biennial offered a marathon of poetry and prose readings by those published by Tribes from the Steve Cannon sphere of writers often ignored by major publishing institutions. Writers stepped up to the mic on a stage before a giant window with a view of the Hudson River, Jersey skyline, and Jersey sky. Also visible behind them was Days End, the silver bars art work on permanent display by David Hammons, Steve Cannon’s friend and co-conspirator who helped create the installation for the exhibition.
Chavisa Woods, Executive Director of A Gathering of the Tribes, hosted the first afternoon session of weekend of poetry. She said when she was twenty-one years old, new to New York, no place to live, she met Steve Cannon and she stayed at his place for two and a half years. Switching from host, she said she’d start with her own poems, since no one else volunteered to begin the reading. She agreed to be the “sacrificial poet who goes first to warm up the stage.” Then she pummeled us with a powerful, painful, compelling poem “Seven Gifts” for her brother. Among the many memorable lines, one stuck with me: “Mom tried to give me her gun, said don’t worry, it’s not registered.”
Later, Pamela Sneed read in her high-voltage style. As soon as she announced her first poem “The Slap,” the audience gasped in recognition. She compared Will Smith smacking Chris Rock at the Oscars to honor killings of transgender sisters and children in Iraq and their “flimsily constructed, poorest excuse of protecting the family honor.”
The theater was packed and the audience was having tons of fun. I saw many people I hadn’t seen for years. The inimitable John S. Hall, who was to read the next day, joined me at my table. The schedule of readers turned out to be, in Tribes fashion, fluid. Some of this lengthy list from two days included Yuko Otomo, Puma Perl, Wanda Phipps, Anne Waldman, Jennifer Blowdryer, Thad Rutkowski, Dorothy Friedman August, Norman Douglas, Paul Beatty, Chocolate Waters, Eve Packer, Bonny Finberg, Regie Cabico, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. All in person and livestreamed on YouTube. Links to the videos are at the end of this article.
On April 20, I returned to see the exhibition with Katherine Arnoldi, who acted as my Beatrice, guiding me along, pointing things out to me, such as the issues of the Tribes magazine hidden in plain site on a shelf filled with books from his apartment. She humbly mentioned that she’d designed the cover of the issue number one. The exhibition tried to recreate the feeling of his apartment, but, Arnoldi noted, the coffee table with an ashtray loaded with cigarette butts that they’d placed before his couch was too small. She laughed, saying he had to have a long coffee table to hold not just his ashtray, but also piles of books, magazines, and mugs and paper cups of coffee. In his apartment, the seat of honor was next to him on the couch, where he’d shower you with questions and interest in what you were doing. She said he genuinely found joy in other people and loved to connect them, often saying that you should talk to this or that one. Arnoldi said, “Steve saw more in you than you saw in yourself.
Photos from Whitney Biennial 2022 Gathering of the Tribes / Steve Cannon Exhibit
Arnoldi pointed out the myriad of posters covering the wall of readings and exhibits put on by Tribes. As I read the names, I was once again impressed with the range of talent and interests of the characters that he helped promote. As I was only an occasional attendant at Steve’s side, I was thrilled to even find my name and JD Rage’s listed at an event. Not far from that poster, Arnoldi guided my eye to a series of drawings—drawings made by blind man Steve Cannon. She said that one day not so many years before he died, she and David Hammons were with him. David gave him a piece of paper and told him to draw Arnoldi. And to her amazement, on seeing it, she said, “You do know what I look like.”
Paintings by artist Steve Cannon
The full exhibition at the Whitney Biennial 2022 of Quiet as It’s Kept, curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, confronts what American borders mean and evokes much of the grief and loss experienced during the pandemic as well as the assaults and struggles from long before of peoples and nations experiencing colonialism and racism and greed. It’s beyond my scope here to write about it, but need to mention, in keeping with this theme of blindness, that, for this exhibition, Awilda Sterling-Duprey created abstract paintings as she danced, blindfolded, to jazz improvisation during the installation.
All in all, it was momentous for the Whitney Museum to lend credibility to these poets of Gathering of the Tribes, to give them importance, to make them visible. Steve Cannon was always highly visible, but no more so then when he became blind, in spite of the blindness of exclusive hierarchical world of the art and literary establishments who often distained to publish him and the people he championed.
Not only has Steve Cannon gained entrée into the limelight of such a major institution as the Whitney Museum, with the gate-keepers, in effect, canonizing Mr. Cannon, but, in the Great Upstairs, Steven Cannon, after teasing and jiving with St. Peter, has now smooth-walked his way through the Pearly Gates—by the VIP entrance, of course.
Photos by Jan Schmidt
A GATHERING OF THE TRIBES WEBSITE
VIDEO OF POETRY MARATHON AT WHITNEY MUSEUM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbNmI1N7480 DAY ONE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzXJ9f8PFAg DAY TWO
WHITNEY MUSEUM BIENNIAL 2022 A GATHERING OF THE TRIBES / STEVE CANNON EXHIBITION APRIL 6 TO SEPTEMBER 5, 2022
WHITNEY MUSEUM BIENNIAL 2022 QUIET AS IT’S KEPT
APRIL 6 TO SEPTEMBER 5, 2022
Awilda Sterling-Duprey . . . Blindfolded Whitney Biennial 2022