Poet and Performer Thomas March on Combining Poetry & Cabaret
Author: Shane O'Neill
September 4, 2019
Is it O.K. if I call Thomas March “an iconoclast of the New York spoken poetry?” I mean, it’s true: that’s what he is. But a phrase like that evokes smug undergrads or “O Captain! My Captain!” theatrics from a high school teacher who bums cigarettes from his students. And Tom is none of these things. At least I hope not—Tom don’t bum cigarettes from your students!
So how do you describe who Thomas is and what he does with his “Poetry/Cabaret” series, now returning for its second season at The Green Room 42? A party promoter working in poetry? Too alliterative. A disruptor of the poetry industry? Too tech bro-y. A man building a bridge between the worlds of poetry and cabaret? He is doing just that, but that phrase doesn’t capture the peculiar bravery that Tom foments at the events he curates.
I first saw Tom read live poetry at Club Cumming, a mostly-gay cabaret bar in the East Village of New York. The crowd was there to drink, pick each other up, maybe sing along with whoever was at the piano, and then drink some more. But there, shortly after midnight in that friendly but raucous environment, stepped Thomas March, reciting poetry with such conviction and palpable generosity that I found myself totally transfixed by his words. Well, his words and his hair, which is so perfect it might as well be designed by Pixar. I’m one of those irritating “I don’t really get poetry” types, so it’s no small feat that he won me over to his vision of the possibilities of spoken poetry in a theatrical context.
I spoke with Tom about the alchemy of programming his “Poetry/Cabaret” series, the role of poetry for people incarcerated in the U.S., and how he deals with jerks like me who like him but “don’t really get poetry.”
I’ve always been struck by your courage in creating intimate moments of poetry readings in raucous drunk environments like Club Cumming. What compels you to take on the challenge of an audience unused to listening to poetry? What are your strategies for holding the audience’s attention?
When I approached Lance Horne about starting the “Midnight Poetry” segment during his “Monday’s in the Club with Lance” evenings at Club Cumming, he didn’t hesitate. He’s a great supporter of poetry, and so is the regular crowd that shows up there on Mondays.
Inserting poetry into an already full night of raucous, joyful song and spontaneity was a challenge I wanted to take on for a couple of reasons. First, I like to hear performers read poetry—and people I’ve asked to read things have always responded enthusiastically to the challenge of cold reading new text in a compelling, performative way. The second reason I started it was to give poets the experience of reading in a different kind of environment. “Different”—as you may know—is also Midwestern for “what the fuck?!” As in, when you ask your grandmother if she likes the spirulina and wheatgrass smoothie you made for her and she says, “It was…different.” So for someone not used to this kind of environment, reading to a boisterous, maybe-little-drunken crowd can be similar to a spirulina and wheatgrass smoothie’s effects on a Midwestern palate and digestive system—disruptive but ultimately invigorating.
The strategies are the same for a poet and performer—connect to the audience. I don’t mean that in the sense of pandering. I mean that if you practice keeping the presence of the audience in mind, you’re more likely to bring a more emotionally attentive approach to the reading. Just asking that question, in my experience at least, makes me look at the text in a fresher way every time.
Poetry and cabaret are in some senses very similar, but in practice usually discrete. What appealed to you about attempting to bring these two worlds together?
Poetry has always been part of nightlife as such—at least since people started entertaining other people around the fire at the end of the day. And there are plenty of series that happen in venues that aren’t bookstores. But you don’t often see poetry as part of a variety show format. I think it’s a natural fit.
I started producing and hosting “Poetry/Cabaret” back in July of 2018, a couple of months after my poetry collection, Aftermath, came out. I had produced a variety show for the book launch, at The Green Room 42, a great cabaret space in New York City. They offer a rich variety of content every day of the week—legendary performers, emerging artists, new theatrical work, drag performance—and they were open to the idea. I’d always wanted to do a variety show book launch—and I recruited a lot of friends who were generous with their time and talent, either to read from the book or perform something—a song, a standup set—that resonated with the book’s themes. It was eye-opening, for me, to step back and experience the work as having a life separate from me, to experience it through these other performers. It also confirmed for me that an audience’s experience of poetry isn’t going to be discordant or off-mood in a show that includes comedy and musical performance. It doesn’t kill the room. It’s relevant.
So when I started “Poetry/Cabaret,” I wanted to recreate that atmosphere, giving the audience different points of entry for a range of emotional responses. As I design the flow of the show, I try to plan an emotional trajectory—sometimes with great shifts between acts—to keep the audience engaged and surprised. If there’s something new coming at you every 8-10 minutes, my experience in an audience at least is that you tend to remain alert and ready.
I’m sure you encounter people all the time who say “poetry isn’t for me” or “I don’t get poetry” or something similar. What is your answer to those people?
I think it’s a fair thing to say, actually. People don’t have to love everything and shouldn’t feel obliged to pretend to. But some people say that in a humble way or curious way—and some people say it in a way that attempts to bait you into offering a passionate defense of the art just so they can say, in the end, “Yeah, not for me.” And that latter person—they exist for everybody who makes any kind of art.
However, I always remember something one of my mentors in grad school said to a student who said that whatever we’d read that week “didn’t do anything” for them. His response was to ask, “Well, what did you do for it?”
Cue Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” I suppose!
Poetry and cabaret are also both relatively niche and rarefied art forms, so in some sense combining the two could be like creating a minority out of a minority—a slice of a slice. Is that a fair assessment? Has that been your experience?
The “slice of a slice” phenomenon has been my biggest fear, because you’re right about that. But the goal of the show has always been—because it combines musical, comedic, literary, and sometimes drag acts—to build audiences for these art forms by exposing people to something they might not usually come out for. These are all forms of expression that appeal to me as an audience member—but maybe in reality there’s not actually a big overlap on the Venn diagram of standup and poetry audiences or standup and cabaret audiences. My hope is that people who show up for one thing find that they like something else more than they expected. I’ve already had people tell me that this show was the first time they’d seen a live drag performance. And I think, to answer your earlier question, some people might find that the poetry is affecting them in ways they weren’t expecting. Not that the whole idea is to trick people into listening to and liking poetry more. That’s a great outcome—but I hope that’s the outcome for others in terms of the music and the comedy, too.
Somebody reported to me that, after the spring show, he overheard this from some young first-time audience members as they were leaving: “I don’t know what that was, but I fucking loved it!” I think that’s the best review you can ask for. A lot better than just “That’s different.”
You are an accomplished poet and you’ve carved a space for yourself in the cabaret world. Have you considered pursuing a more traditional cabaret project? Can we expect “an evening of Tom March singing Jerry Herman” in the next few years?
The answer to the latter question is—I’m staying in my lane, but I wish. The answer to the first question, though, is yes—or at least a project more traditional for a cabaret room. At around the midpoint of every “Poetry/Cabaret” show, I do a comedy monologue related to the theme of the night—often involving childhood and adolescent mishaps, which, let’s face it, are painful to re-process but real comedy gold if you can find a way to be funny about them while also being honest about the agony—because maintaining clear but forgiving connection to the agony is what keeps them authentic. Now, I’m saying that as the writer of these pieces. As a performer, I have less experience and a lot to learn, but the joy that’s in it for me is a clue that it’s worth it. Luckily I have people in my life who are performers and who are honest in their feedback—and, because they are performers, know when to offer it. As in, days or weeks later—and in the middle of a conversation about something else.
There’s a narrative arc that connects a lot of these pieces, so, in addition to publishing them as a book of essays, I’m interested in exploring how some of the more thematically-connected ones could work together as a one-person show. Depending on the set, You Knew This about Me, Right? would make sense as a title. As would They Made Me Play Outside.
What are some highlights from previous poetry cabarets? Lowlights?
The only lowlights for me have been when I felt like I could have given a better performance—I think that’s fairly normal, though.
The highlights are too many to name. The people I invite to be in this show are people whose work I already love.
Although the June show “Proud” was billed as an all-queer show, the cast isn’t always exclusively queer. But I’d say it’s a very queer-inflected, queer-influenced show. Especially on the comedy side. There are plenty of other places where straight white dudes can tell jokes. The audience, though, at least among the people I know who have been at the show, has been just about as straight as it has been queer. And no straight people have been harmed by hearing some very explicitly gay comedy.
Can you tell me more about the prison poetry project that you’re part of?
PEN America and The Poetry Project asked a number of reading series to participate in a program called “Break Out,” whose purpose is, as they put it, to “reintroduce incarcerated writers into literary community.” Among the many good things that it does, PEN America is involved in outreach to encourage people in prison who are writing, among those the literary awards they confer for writing by incarcerated artists.
Because of the circumstances, it won’t be possible for the participating poet to read live via video or audio feed, or even to get that audio recorded in advance. But there will be someone special there to read the work for him, and audience members will have a chance to send encouragement and write responses to the work that PEN America will ensure the poet is able to see. The invigorating dynamic of connecting with a live audience might not be something we can provide, but we will do what we can to provide the affirmation and validation that an audience’s response can provide.
Why is poetry particularly resonant for people who are incarcerated?
I’ll let the poet’s words speak for him—there’s a statement from him that I’ll read during the show. But one thing I think is clear is that our culture tends to dismiss and disregard people who are incarcerated—and that writing of any kind in an assertion of and lifeline to one’s own humanity. And I think it’s crucial that people have access to the means to make work—and achieve recognition for that work—especially under circumstances that otherwise seek to undermine that humanity.