The Poetry Project

A Remembrance of Steve Cannon

Chavisa Woods

Forget Me Not. Collage of Steve Cannon © Steve Dalachinsky
Forget Me Not. Collage of Steve Cannon © Steve Dalachinsky

Our friend is gone
And he was magnificent
As is his absence

I recently came across a journal entry penned during the two-and-a-half years I spent living with Steve Cannon at Tribes. It reads: Steve is originally from New Orleans and conducts his life with a completely ubiquitous open-door policy that is startling to everyone. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can come into Tribes at any time, and even if they get 86ed, they can always come back. Short of burning his building down, Steve forgives everyone for everything and lets them back in. I may have misspoken, actually. I think he even let the guy who burned down this building back in.

In 2003, at the age of twenty-one, I moved to New York City from Saint Louis Missouri, after being interviewed by Steve Cannon for what he said was a mix between “a writing residency and a personal assistant position” with his organization, A Gathering of the Tribes.

What this actually meant was, for two-and-a-half years, I lived in a bunk bed next to a file cabinet in the small back room of Tribes that overlooked the garden at 285 East 3rd Street. Every morning at eight a.m. exactly, Steve knocked on my door and I got out of bed. Then, in this order, I did these things: I stood up and put on my pants. I went to the deli and got Steve a black cup of coffee with two sugars, and one buttered roll, and got myself a sandwich. Then I sat across from Steve and we ate breakfast. Then I read him the entire New York Times. Then I showered and dressed and went to work in the office, which was two rooms away from where Steve sat on the couch running the affairs of the gallery and press, until five p.m.

Steve lived on the couch in the gallery/living room. By “Steve lived on the couch,” I mean, Steve slept, ate all of his meals, smoked, drank, took work meetings, doled out assignments to office staff and college interns, and conducted all of his both personal and professional business from his couch, where he could be found basically 24/7.

The first couple of months I lived with him, Steve quizzed me constantly. He scanned my brain, assessing everything from my knowledge of the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire, to my grasp of quantum physics, to whether or not I could differentiate between modern and contemporary art, to how much of the English literary canon I’d read, to whether or not I’d grown up far enough south to be familiar with Dirty Jonny jokes.

I was just a kid, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that Steve was a true genius. He was also the most eccentric person I have ever known. He held a Ph.D. in World History from the London School of Economics. He was also known for his coarse heckling, and belligerently lighting up cigarettes, anywhere and everywhere, including in the Guggenheim. (When they told him smoking was not allowed, he famously asked, “Is there a sign?” When they told him there was, he inquired, “Is that sign written in braille?” The answer was no, to which he responded, “If the rule isn’t posted in braille, then it doesn’t apply to me.”

He could not read braille.)

The combination of his expansive wealth of knowledge and magnanimous and peculiar nature made it possible for Steve to form deep connections with a stunningly diverse array of people.

He was just as comfortable telling crass stories and “talking shit” with rough kids off the street, as he was having heady philosophical conversations with artists, students and professors. Through Tribes, he fostered organizational partnerships with all of the establishments in his neighborhood, guided by the same imperative for diverse engagement that informed his personal relationships. He made a rule of always inviting women from the “battered women’s shelter” (as he called it) across the street from Tribes, to all of our arts events. And they came often, and they all knew and loved him. He also had a good, professional relationship with the manager of the bank on the corner. He believed it was necessary to be connected to the people and places around you. How else could we really be part of a community?

My fifth year working at Tribes, a Washington Mutual bank popped up on lower 3rd Street. A lot of people in the neighborhood hated this. Steve found a way to work with it. It only took a few months before Steve had turned the new Washington Mutual branch into an offshoot of Tribes Gallery. He convinced the manager to replace their bland, decorative art with the often very provocative paintings and photography of Tribes’ artists, which rotated out to new artists every few months. The bank even sold some of those pieces to their customers for us, and didn’t take a dime for themselves. “In this neighborhood, it serves them to be community minded,” he told me. “People don’t like them here. They better get with the program, or get out.” He’d told the bank manager the same thing, albeit in slightly different words, repeatedly, and in addition to showing our art in their bank, they funded multiple Tribes events and block parties, which sometimes included clothing-optional brass-band parades.

Beautiful things happened at Tribes. Ridiculous and sometimes even unsettling things happened at Tribes. Steve created the most alive arts space I have ever experienced, with seemingly no boundaries, and a constant demand to create and engage.

The beating heart of the truly avant-garde, absurdist, raucous and diverse artist community I’d been dreaming of since I was young was A Gathering of the Tribes. Every day, for decades, people streamed into Tribes to view the art on the walls, to talk to Steve, to argue with each other, to find help and support, to drink and fight, to hear a performance and to read “the blind guy” a new poem.

As I prepared for this, I made a list of possible stories I could recount to illustrate, on some level, just how strange and awesome Tribes was. Some highlights from this list are:

  • When he asked me to email Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, and Ani DiFranco, requesting they “put on a benefit concert to raise some money for Tribes,” which they did not
  • When he had me invite Bill Clinton to play the saxophone at Tribes’ Charlie Parker Festival, and Bill Clinton actually accepted, then sent last-minute word that he would not be able to attend because of hurricane Katrina, and there was already a line out the door of Tribes, waiting to see Bill Clinton, and everyone accused Steve of lying, for weeks
  • How one day he could have $20 left in his bank account, and the next day, it would be $20,000
  • When he brought the cultural attaché of Venezuela to Tribes for a meeting, and then sent me to Venezuela as a guest of their government to collect poetry from “the axis of evil”
  • The vagina-photo covered wall, the folk band of all blind musicians, and the very offended Christian sound company
  • When he introduced me to Hillary Clinton, Mayor Bloomberg, Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka, and on and on…
  • How he had me email Yoko Ono dozens of times, year after year… How she never responded
  • How he had me email Toni Morrison dozens of times… How she always responded
  • How he cried so hard during Obama’s famous speech
  • When he told me about his bicycle being repeatedly stolen when he first moved to the L.E.S., and how he looked at buying it back from the thief every few months as a parking fee
  • The week he spent drinking the bottle of French Absinthe
  • The nights when there were five, eight, ten artists sleeping on the floor at Tribes
  • How he fed all of the artists in the Lower East Side every Thanksgiving
  • When he took me to Gracie Mansion
  • When he made everyone who came into Tribes wear a blindfold, so they could experience blindness with him
  • When he sold the David Hammons wall twice
  • When he was evicted, and he left, but he took the wall with him

As many of you probably know, Tribes was closed down when Steve was evicted in 2013. But even last year, sitting and attempting to read a book to Steve between the still-steady flow of guests that came through his new, much smaller apartment on East 6th Street, I realized Tribes would always exist wherever Steve was.

Steve was deeply rooted in the Lower East Side. When Steve died, I imagined the Lower East Side might crumble into the ground like a sorcerer’s castle imploding in on itself, like in the last scene of a fantasy after the master has fallen.

Being close to Steve often felt more like being friends with an entity or a great, unstoppable force, rather than a person. He did not take no for an answer. Your logic didn’t matter. When you were in his presence, Steve’s will ruled.

One week after I’d driven my beat up, twelve-year-old Dodge Shadow from Saint Louis to New York, and moved into Tribes, Steve told me he wanted to go to a reading in Harlem. “Just drive me in that little car of yours. Save us some cab fare.” I was only twenty-one years old, and had spent the first eighteen years of my life in a small farm town of 1,200 people. New York seemed like a teeming, overwhelming entity, impossible to ever fully know.

“I can’t drive you to Harlem,” I told him. “I don’t know my way around New York. I’ll get in a wreck or I’ll get lost, or both.”

“I’ll direct you,” he insisted, holding out his hand for me to give him his sunglasses.

“How can you direct me ? You’re blind!”

“That’s a hell of a thing to say. Just take me to the damn car.” And that was that. My first time driving through Manhattan, I went from the Lower East Side to Harlem, absolutely terrified, at the direction of a blind man who knew where we were and how we should proceed much more certainly than I did throughout every moment of the trip.

Now it’s sixteen years later, and this day has become a metaphor for so many years of my life. Last week, I finished a new essay, and as I punched the final key, a hollowness filled me. I realized that I have read Steve everything I’ve written almost as soon as it was complete for more than a decade-and-a-half. I lied my head down on my table in front of my keyboard, and simply cried. My grief, of course, has much less to do with missing my mentor, and much more to do with missing my friend; a friend who seemed somehow simultaneously like a father, and a mother, and a child. I know that he ingratiated himself with his seemingly endless supply of love, and temper, and need of equal measure to countless others as well. He not only related to, but seemed himself to contain multitudes.

Steve taught me that if you want art in your life, there’s no “making time” for art, but that you must live your life in its service. And likewise, if you want community, there is no magical place to go and “find community,” you simply have to invite people in. If you want to live without boundaries, you simply have to step over the line. What will come will come, and it will not always be easy, and it will sometimes get very messy, but what we get back will always be, and very much already has been, far more valuable than what we risked.

Steve is irreplaceable, and I find his absence from this world unacceptable, incomprehensible. And I still love him… you know how.

-Chavisa

#259 — Nov/Dec/Jan 2019-2020

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