The spoken word of Bob Holman, the globe-trotting unofficial poet laureate of the Lower East Side

Poet Bob Holman of the Lower East Side
Poet Bob Holman with a painting by his late wife Elizabeth Murray

They say that one should write about what you know. In that case, poet Bob Holman of the Lower East Side should have plenty of material.

He came to New York at age 18 to attend Columbia, where he was when he published his first poem, titled “Grandmothers,” in Rolling Stone magazine in 1969. It didn’t exactly make him famous but, he says, “my friends were impressed! It was a nice launching pad.”

After college he was “ a vagabond for many years.” He lived in a commune in Brooklyn and relocated with them to Pennsylvania; moved to Chicago, where he worked at the Whole Earth Bookstore; attended Woodstock; followed the Festival Express across Canada (“my big moment was kissing Janis Joplin,” he recalls); lived in Cape Cod for awhile where he helped found the Woods Hole Theatre Company; and, by 1972 he was back, living in a large open loft in Tribeca.

Various jobs paid the rent — taxi driver, construction worker, a 5 a.m. gig at the flower market, and bartending at Your Father’s Mustache, a bygone West Village joint — while he began to go to Poetry Project readings, getting to know the poets in that scene.

Oh, and we should mention that there was a brief stint out in California where he was a “Mescaline Capper” on Mt. Tamalpais, but that’s another story.

Holman holding the book that contains Chuck Close’s portrait of Holman’s late wife Elizabeth Murray with his praise poem for herPhoto by Bob Krasner
Holman’s floor is covered with poems painted by Mark Turgeon. Each line is from a different poet and there are 37 different languages represented. It was composed for the Frankfurt Book FairPhoto by Bob Krasner
One of Holman’s shorter poems, on his bedroom floorPhoto by Bob Krasner
Bob Holman at his desk, where he frequently composes his poemsPhoto by Bob Krasner
Holman leaning on a piece by Sam Jablon called “Poets Sculpture”Photo by Bob Krasner

He took a break from the city in 1975 to travel by thumb across Europe and Africa, where he managed to hitchhike across the Sahara. Learning about the Griot tradition there came in handy many years later, when Chuck Close invited him to write “praise poems” to accompany the artist’s daguerreotype portraits in a collection called “A Couple of Ways of Doing Something.”

Involved with theater since college where he performed in works by Beckett and Brecht, Holman wrote and directed plays as part of the New York Poets Theatre. He continues to appear onstage, currently at LaMama for the Yara Arts Group’s production of “Radio 477!”

In 1976, Holman provided a valuable service to the city by creating the NYC Poetry Calendar with Sara Miles and Susie Timmons — a mimeographed listing of all the poetry readings in the city, which he distributed free to all the bookstores that would take it.

“Poetry is a tiny town with many, many neighborhoods,” he muses. Not only did his calendar help bring those hoods together, it gave him some credentials when he sought out teaching gigs.

“I taught in high schools and kindergartens for the CETA Artists Project,” he recounts, before eventually moving on to gigs at the New School, Bard and Princeton.

In 1988, he was instrumental in the re-opening of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where he served as the “slam master” for the regular Poetry Slams for the next eight years. The new popularity of the form led him to take a touring company of poets to Europe and to create and produce “The United States of Poetry,” a five-part series that ran on PBS.

“Slams grabbed the attention of the media,” Holman explains. “We toured all over the US, France, Australia, Germany.”

Bob Holman as Capt John Smith and Susan Hwang onstage in “Capt. John Smith Goes to Ukraine ” in 2014Photo courtesy of Victor Serbin
Holman onstage at the Bowery Poetry Club , acting as emcee ( and reader) for Susan Hwang’s Bushwick Book ClubPhoto by Bob Krasner
Bob Holman hanging at the Bowery Poetry ClubPhoto by Bob Krasner
A sampling of the books that contain Holman’s poetryPhoto by Bob Krasner
Some of the memorabilia in Holman’s digs on the Bowery – including a Jack Kerouac bobble headPhoto by Bob Krasner
Souvenirs from Holman’s travels in Africa and IndonesiaPhoto by Bob Krasner

After numerous other projects, including the founding of a spoken word record label — Mouth Almighty, in collaboration with Mercury Records — he founded the Bowery Poetry Club (BPC) in 2001.

“For the first 10 years, we were open day and night, from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. The best thing about it was the community and the accessibility, bringing together different kinds of poetry. The worst thing is — well, they say you can’t go broke running a bar in NYC, but…..”

Help for the ailing business came form of Duane Park, a Tribeca Burlesque Supper Club that takes over the space for most of the week, leaving the BPC in 2002 a couple of days for the spoken word to reign.

So Holman — who has performed everywhere from a Tej bet (a honey wine bar in Ethiopia), Madison Square Garden (a UFT benefit) and his friend Susan Hwang’s stoop in the East Village (a pandemic trend) — is turning 75 in his apartment on the Bowery, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

After having been published numerous times, he still writes daily. Appearing with the group Maputi on Sunday night at Lucky on Avenue B, he wrote three poems while listening to their African-inspired tunes and then got up and recited them while the band played on. Up next is a birthday celebration courtesy of the Reverend Billy, who is planning on declaring him “St. Bob.”

Susan Hwang, who has collaborated with Holman many times, sums him up with admiration for his talent and his outlook. “He’s hilarious and deep at the same time – his heart is as large as his courage,” she says. “He extends so much love and support to all around him.”

More info online at bobholman.com and bowerypoetry.com. Instagram is @bobholman.