I heard Steve Cannon’s voice before I met him. “Read the poem! READ THE GODDAM POEM!” His heckles were a key ingredient of the brand-new slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1989. They sounded like the disgruntled, impatient curses of a drunk – which, okay, they were – but they were also so much more. Steve did not suffer fools silently. He shouted at hapless literary wannabes stumbling over lengthy introductions to their work not to silence them, but to remind them why we were all here — to hasten them to their point: poetry. It was all about the goddam poem.
Steve played the part of the crank, the jester, the barfly. He used his growing blindness as a mask; there was a sort of barbed minstrelsy to his jeers. But he was actually a deep, generous spirit. He heckled because he cared. His lasting legacy is the way he opened his mind, his home, his heart, his wallet to all creative spirits who joined him on The Stoop. The Stoop was exactly what it sounds like: the steps up to his brownstone building in New York’s Lower East Side. Every New York denizen knows the culture of the stoop: the passageway in and out that becomes a hang, especially on days when either the sun beckons you out, or the heat inside is so oppressive you have to get out.
Steve was all about community: He had a permanent stool amid the collaborative space of the cooperatively run Nuyorican. He gently pushed and prodded the think tanks of the salons Stray Dog and the Stoop. The name of the magazine he founded and edited and the gallery that subsequently took over his home says it all: A Gathering of the Tribes. (A poster of the first cover, featuring art work by David Hammons, hangs on my office wall.) In the midst of the heyday of identity politics, Steve wanted us to all to think outside of our boxes.
Sadly Steve is not remembered as much for his own fiction, plays, and criticism, though his 1969 novel Groove, Bang and Jive Around is a cult classic. Once he lost his vision to glaucoma, it was hard for him to write. He relied on others to transcribe and edit his dictations, which were necessarily freeflowing and rambling. How else was a blind, elderly artist supposed to compose? Many people generously donated their time and energy to help him with his scripts, his gallery, his publication, his finances, his health, his life. It was no easy task. Steve always seemed to be on the brink of disaster, of losing his home (which he did, eventually, despite numerous individual and collective efforts to save Tribes), his sanity, his life. He lost the last battle July 7, at age 84.
Steve appreciated creativity and identified and nurtured talent. He was an explorer who encouraged the experiments of fellow black outsiders such as his friends and colleagues Ishmael Reed, Hammons, David Henderson, and Butch Morris. A then unknown poet who spoke directly to Steve’s sensibilities by not messing around with intros or theatrics and just plain-speaking his dense, punning verses won that first series of slams at the Nuyorican, and I can’t help but think that Steve’s heckles somehow, subtly, influenced the judges. Steve became one of future Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty’s first mentors and publishers. Paul was one of many writers and artists Steve pushed and prodded, including Willie Perdomo, Carl Hancock Rux, Sarah Ferguson, and myself.
I was with Paul when I last visited Steve at Tribes about six years ago. It had been several years since I moved away from Loisaida and the literary scene I was once immersed in, but he greeted me like I had never left. He held my hand tightly, introducing me to all the friends and interns and hangers-on and proppers-up in the room – Steve always traveled in a pack – asking me many questions about my work, my husband, my son, my life. He was the most kind and caring heckler you could ever know. The poet Bob Holman has called him, aptly, “the great connector.” For Steve, it was about the work, not the personal trappings. He wanted everyone to cut the crap and just speak their poem, their truth.