Passing Stranger

Conversations, Poetry
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PSlogoPassing Stranger is an audio poetry tour through the East Village that guides you to various locations that were frequented by seminal American writers from the Beat Generation and their disciples. The Tour is narrated by Jim Jarmusch, with a soundtrack from John Zorn, and is easily downloaded to a smart phone. A lot of care and attention to detail were edited into the audio tour that allows participants to time travel back to the days when Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara and others were just ordinary fixtures on the streets of the East Village. The tour is produced by Pejk Malinoski and The Poetry Foundation and lasts about 90 minutes, but it will stay with you forever. We talked with Pejk about the tour, Jim Jarmusch and poetry at large. 

S2S: Pejk, you have always had a passion for poetry. Today, there is spoken word but poetry is often thought of as rather antiquated. What was it about poetry that made you want to become a poet? What were some of the poems that influenced you?

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Photo: Eric Michael Johnson

Pejk Malinoski:  There was always “spoken word,” that’s how poetry started. Homer and those guys. Spoken word. Stand up-storytelling-poetry-slam. I don’t think it’s antiquated, I have met people who thought that, I don’t know why. There will always be poetry and always be a need for poetry as long as there is language, until we figure out a way to hook up our brains to each other with some kind of wire. The impossibility of knowing what each other think, feel, dream, really knowing, will always feed poetry, feed new ways of using language.

My grandfather was a poet, my mother is a poet. I grew up at poetry readings. That’s how I came to poetry. Not very imaginative. The first poets I read were Brecht, Pasternak, my grandfather, Ivan Malinovski, Whitman, Danish poets, Morti Vizki, Inger Christensen.

When I started out I was very interested in what I could make out of language. I wasn’t trying to say something as much as I was trying to make something, see what could be made. More like sculpting. What would happen if I threw those words together? How do they affect each other? What can I learn from that?

S2S: You then went on to make documentaries, and got a MA in Radio from Goldsmith College in London. Obviously with the East Village Poetry Walk, you managed to combine the three art forms. How did you come up with the idea for an audio tour and how long did it take from conception to the finished product?

Pejk Malinoski: I lived in the East Village when I first came to New York in 2003.

I knew the poet Ron Padgett and we went on a walk and he pointed out all these buildings

Ginsberg's old apartment where he would throw down the keys to visitors in an old sock.
Ginsberg’s old apartment where he would throw down the keys to visitors in an old sock.

to me and told me stories about the poets who had lived there. I also read Daniel Kane’s book All Poets Welcome, The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960’s and I used a lot of his research for my walk. He is also narrating certain parts.

I think I schemed up the audio walk idea with Curtis Fox (the exec producer on the project) sometime in 2005. All the podcasting started happening, radio was suddenly freed from the radio, and it seemed like the next natural step to tell stories where they actually took place.

The project took forever. Mainly because I got a full time job as a producer for Studio 360, right after we started it. But these kinds of things do take a lot of time. A lot of research went into it, a lot of interviews with poets, a lot of test walks to time out the route with the material. And for some weird reason it took a long time to find someone to build the website.

S2S:  The audio walking tour Passing Stranger (2012) of the East Village’s poetry history is supported by The Poetry Foundation. Was it difficult to receive founding?

Pejk Malinoski: So the funding was in place from the get-go. The Poetry Foundation liked the idea and gave some money. They never expected that it would take so long. I didn’t either. But I ended up putting a lot more hours, weeks, months into it than I got paid. I worked for free basically and that’s ok, it was my baby. The Poetry Foundation was very generous and very supportive.

S2S:  The tour is very comprehensive. I expected it to start with the Beats but it included predecessors such as Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden and Frank O’Hara and even Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian opera writer. What kind of research did it take to find information and sound clips that go back so many decades?

Pejk Malinoski: Yeah, Lorenzo Da Ponte was a wild one. I think Ron Padgett first told me about him. I found a first edition of his memoir and gave it as a present to Jim Jarmusch after our recording session. He was very excited about it, said he would show it to his friend Roberto Benigni. I have been hoping for years that they would make the Da Ponte movie, they would be perfect!

Whitman was so enormously important for all of these poets, especially Ginsberg and O’Hara. He’s really the father of modern poetry. And he loved to walk the city. I had to have him in there.

Auden also influenced a lot of younger writers, so he was important. And I love the fact that he and Trotsky were in the same building, not that many years apart.

Back to your question: Well, yes, it took a lot of research. A lot of reading. A lot of talking to people.

Mural in Loisaida for Gil Scott-Heron, a poet in his own right.
Mural in Loisaida for Gil Scott-Heron, a poet in his own right.

S2S: The title “Passing Stranger” is based on a poem by Walt Whitman. During the tour curious strangers walked up to us inquiring why we stopped in front of buildings, while equipped with headphones, we were deeply immersed in the stories told. Obviously, one would never expect that a famous poet had lived above what is now a fancy restaurant – or even more surprising Trotsky… How did you make your editorial decisions?

Pejk Malinoski: I love all the random meetings I’ve had with people in the street while making or doing the tour. People who, when I told them what I was doing, will suddenly start reciting a poem, or tell me about some poet friend.

I had tons of material. Hours and hours and hours of tape. Interviews and archival stuff. Probably more than 200 hours. So the trick was to really limit myself. I think the early version of the tour was more than 2 hours long. You just can’t listen that long. It’s exhausting, especially while walking. There is so much to process, not just in listening, but in navigating the street. So it ended on 90 minutes. Which is still probably too long. But you can take a break in the middle, that helps.

A lot of editorial decisions were made according to geography as well. Which was new and interesting to me. How long does it take to walk from this church to that house? 50 seconds, ok, so that’s how long I have to tell the next story, or do say whatever I need to.

S2S: The beauty of audio tours is that you can experience the environment of the previous generations first hand. Even familiar places get introduced to the listeners in a new light. Yet, sometimes the geography has changed, like the church across from Ginsberg’s apartment that is no longer there. How often do you have to update the information?

Pejk Malinoski: During the years I was making it, this happened a lot, empty lots were

suddenly not empty anymore, storefronts changed etc. I updated the walk, or the directions, several times during the production, but I haven’t done it since the launch in 2012. Yeah, that church is gone now, I will have to update it again.

View of the empty lot where the church used to be.
View of the empty lot where the church used to be.

S2S: The audio tour is not a straight chronological narrative but is rather a montage of poetry, commentary and archival recordings. Whether or not somebody is interested in poetry does not even matter because ultimately it is about experiencing the city through other’s eyes that is so fascinating. Are there any other audio tours that inspired the format?

Pejk Malinoski: I knew Janet Cardiff’s work when I started. Hers is very different though, much more sensory, experiential, much less “information heavy”. But she was still an inspiration. And then, during the process, I became aware of Soundwalk, a company that has made a number of audio walks in the city. Very good ones, I recommend the one they made in South Williamsburg about the Hasidic community. It’s a nice little peak into a very closed community. So those walks were inspiring to me too.

S2S: Jim Jarmusch is the narrator of the audio tour and John Zorn provides a beautiful soundtrack. How did this collaboration come about?

Pejk Malinoski: I wanted to find a narrator who had a relationship to the subject and the neighborhood, but someone who could bring the tour to a wider audience. I knew that Jarmusch had studied with Kenneth Koch at Columbia in the 70’s and that his early ambition was to be a poet. He is also friends with some of the poets in the tour. I sent him a dummy-cd with a few of the stops, and he liked it and agreed to be the narrator. He was the best narrator I could have hoped for, a total perfectionist. He read the 45 pages of script cold, with very few mistakes. And kept doing retakes until it was perfect. In the one smoke break we had during the almost 4-hour session, he told anecdotes about shooting guns with Burroughs. It was a fun day.

John Zorn was very generous to let me use his music. He has been living in the East Village for many years and is incredibly supportive of the community, and all the musicians, with his label Tzadik and The Stone.

S2S: Personally what is your favorite part of the tour?

Pejk Malinoski: Hmmm. I love Hettie Jones (listen to an excerpt here). She has had such an amazing life and she is still living there on the Bowery. I warmly recommend her autobiography How I became Hettie Jones, it’s an amazing little piece of US history.

The audio tour can be downloaded here.

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