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Walt Whitman's 'spirit' to be celebrated at Coney Island poetry party

About a dozen wordsmiths will take to the boardwalk for a day of poetry and music called "Whitman Was Here."

Walt Whitman's 200th birthday is being celebrated on

Walt Whitman's 200th birthday is being celebrated on the boardwalk at Coney Island with poets reading aloud on June 2. Photo Credit: Public Domain / George Collins Cox

For Walt Whitman's 200th birthday, poets in Coney Island are doing something a bit "wild." 

On June 2, about a dozen wordsmiths will take to the boardwalk for a day of poetry and music called "Whitman Was Here" — free for all who walk by (which would likely have pleased the "poet of democracy").

Amanda Deutch, the founder and director of Parachute Literary Arts, which is putting on the event, says the location is the ideal setting for a birthday bash. After all, the literary icon visited Coney Island in the mid-1800s when he lived in Brooklyn and wrote about it later in his life: "Long ago, when I was a young man, Coney Island was a favorite spot. At that time Coney Island had not the reputation it has now—it was then a desert island—nobody went there."

Poets will gather at the beach starting at 3 p.m. Some will perform their own works, others will read Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Yiddish and other languages, and actor Tim Cusack will dress as Whitman to do a site-specific "response" to sections two to four of the poet's "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life."

The day will wrap up with the Bushwick Book Club, which will present songs in response to "Leaves of Grass" on the rooftop of Kitchen 21, where you can grab a Walt Whitman-themed cocktail and type up your own Coney Island-inspired poem on a typewriter.

"My vision is us out on the beach and being wild a little bit," Deutch told amNewYork. "Public events like this create a present moment experience that you can't get from a phone screen. Strangers become friends and people of different generations meet those they wouldn't otherwise meet. It's radical to get us out of the house and away from our screens."

She learned about Whitman's connection to Coney Island about eight years ago, and decided that the poet needed to be celebrated at the Brooklyn getaway.

For "Whitman Was Here," Deutch and co-curator Susan Brennan booked award-winning poet, performance artist and vocalist Tracie Morris; poet and filmmaker, Stephanie Gray; award-winning author of numerous poetry collections Patricia Spears Jones; South Bronx based, Puerto Rican-born, writer, performer and translator, Urayoán Noel; Cliff Fyman, a poet who drove a yellow taxi cab at night in New York City and wrote poems about it; and Coney Island native Carol Lipnik, who is a singer/songwriter and performance artist, among others.

"They are people who I thought had embodied [Whitman's] spirit and Coney Island's energy," Deutch said. "I'm looking forward to hearing the sound of different languages wash over us, to reflect that New York City is multilingual and bring Walt Whitman's work into the present day, where things have changed and there are so many more immigrants than when he was here." 

If you go: You can arrive any time between 3 and 6:30 p.m., when the poets will be performing on the boardwalk and West 21st Street.

At 7 p.m., the party will move to the landmarked Childs Building (Kitchen 21 at 3052 W. 21st St.). In case of rain, the entire event will be inside at that location.

It's free but register at whitmanwashere.brownpapertickets.com.

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