Emily - Right

These days Emily XYZ is living somewhere outside of Chicago which is odd to think of after all she is a downtown Manhattan phenom, oh so downtown, funky slam poetry goddess, one of the archangelic queens of badly lit performance poetry stage scenes, it is hard to imagine her elsewhere, only in some beat coffeehouse or converted warehouse, walking onstage out of nowhere, mesmerizing audiences, well maybe they could wrap her up and package her and sell her to America in L.A. but i mean other than that.

Of course she came onto the scene like everyone else from some other place, Rochester or something, upstate, so what's to stop her from living elsewhere. and besides the Illinois thing is because of this guy Virgil, her husband, he does experimental music and gets paid for it by universities, and there's a university in the midwest, Northwestern i think, which is Illinois, they're paying him, so they're living there, yes, Evanston Illinois; and can you believe it but Emily XYZ has basically unpacked her bags and is living there there and that's that.

Rochester aside, legend has it that emily got her start out of town; in oston, she claims reading Dr Seuss, Fox In Sox, to an audience that was not ashamed to throw bottles at some act they didn't understand, and she had to be escorted off stage in a hurry; if that story's not apocryphal it should be but anyhow i love it, and a year later it didn't matter, she was topping the alternative charts in the village, a white indie performance artist jazzy and pop, one of the diva's of the 1980s Nuyorican United States of Poetry scene, and she didn't need rowdy Boston audiences to manufacture aura and mystique. She had it in spades.

Actually I crossed paths with her a little later than that, Emily had already done the route from St Marks Place to Alice Tully Hall and back, restlessness had set in, there was no place to go with things, she was touring the provinces; here on Long iIsland Steve Borthwick had gotten involved in the Manhattan scene, he had taken to wearing a beret and goatee, it was the early 1990s, who did that then? Borthwick did, he had a sixth sense for alternative GQ fashion, no doubt still possesses it today, wherever he is living; Steve knew what was the thing in 1992 -- and what was the thing in the performance scene? It was Emily XYZ, who along with Bobby Holman, Reggie Cabico, and some others, were trying to find their way from minor gigs everywhere to secure positions of status and recognition which befitted their enormous stage talents.

They were all good but no one had the there'ness of Emily XYZ, whatever, I didn't realize any of this until Borthwick brought Emily to town; in the 90s I had no desire to be part of the downtown scene, for me it was a time of hunkering down and regrouping, but I couldn't keep from loving her act.

That was then and this is now, Borthwick is nowhere to be found, I am migrating back into the downtown scene, and in anticipation of a coming out party, of sorts, I am supposed to read to the cognescenti at the Cornelia Street Cafe, i have been easing my way back into this environment with visits and meetings and deep soul searching conversations, I go to check out Cornelia Street and it turns out Emily's appearing! and just the exact week before I am supposed to, wow, ten years; what's better than that, I want to time things out and dig the scene, and here's Emily XYZ showing up whose voice I love and whose vision both frightens and amazes me. so I do show up, and I'm glad of it.

Cornelia Street Cafe is jumping Friday night, one of those chase your blues away Manhattan side street environments not quite overrun with hippy commerce, the strolling easy capacity good times or bad to charm a person just wandering down a treelined pretty street, not quite ruined with hustlers or incense sticks, Tibetan yak blankets, brass chimes, the overeager suburban hipsters in for the weekend looking to score; these are bad times, post September 11 downtown just beginning to find itself again, perhaps it is just a stroll down a side street, Cornelia Street; now here's a streetside cafe you can sit at and it's all European and quiet and contemplative and mild, never quite sure if you're seated indoors or out, waiters and tablecloths and tidy bottles of wine or calvados or mineral water spilling tidally everywhere, spring fresh with possibilities, rushing and clean, in and out the french doors and cafe windows.

By contrast the performance space is down a flight of steep stairs, subterranean; oh yes, just the place for we conspirators in the underground bohemian collective vision, a converted cellar, blacklit innerspace wrapped with pipes and asbestos everywhere, way below level; undecorous, foundation brick painted over world, there is a cacophony of mirrors hung everywhere, not fooling anyone with this illusion of space, narrowly speaking thirty people fill this underground alleyway, a subway car going nowhere and not needing to; the subterranean east village world is beat and eager and alive, nothing can kill it, not even the collapse of two hundred story towers, nor how many hundredtons of ash and steel and body parts, things falling everywhere but nothing can smother this; something is stirring beneath the New York City skyline and now here it is and here I am, how prettily the opalescent eyed waitress finds her way down the center aisle, yes I would like a drink!

The place is stacked up, of course, with all the regulars, the ones who queue up for open microphone and they get their three minutes apiece, but then the moment arrives; Emily XYZ swings out of oblivion and stands oracular on stage, a distant far out gaze beyond wisdom to some greater self-apparent truth made manifest, in her eyes. What I mean to say is that when Emily walks out and everything else subsides; at first I can't even spot her in a crowd, but when she steps out on stage, she becomes everything you need to know, she is it. How? Some people seek the oracular in themselves, that's good, and others reach it, better. As for Emily XYZ, standing on stage she is possessed by the oracular, an easy enough transformational glazing gaze comes over that face, her body tightens up spring loaded coiled and ready to roll; all this seems effortless, Emily transforms right in front of you, from an indistinct waiflike insubstantial form, lost in subterranean shadows, to something that would be frightening if it didn't happen so easily, so unquestioningly; Emily takes center stage, channels for an hour or so, and you just go with it. time is irrelevent, it ceases to exist when Emily performs, oracular, outside of time, not so much the predictive seer but a voice that carries in it the visionary ancient aura of judgment reserved for sybils and seers, hormonally imbalanced puritan girls, Hecate at the chalice well, that aura just hangs over everything like a veil, time stops.

When Emily XYZ performs, she is the only thing in motion, pendular in her judgment, a voice cutting through the darkness, and with an authority handed down from ancient gods through similarly possessed women.

Looking back is looking forward. The profound is the predictive. Could it be? Within moments the audience sways hypnotic and easy into the logic and simple conviction of it, the strange searing seeing-eye simplicity of her channeled vision.

Emily XYZ early on dispelled the myth of "one person one poem" by appearing in tandem with her performance partner Myers Bartlett, and not too long into the set myers joins her for a reprise of some early work. It is funky and fun. In her pop, performance days, when she stormed the barricades of slam poetry circles, Emily's topics ranged from popular figures like Jimmy Page and Frank Sinatra to examinations of the seamier issues of money, politics, sex and legend -- Slot Machine and Who Shot Sadat? were two of her more notorious "hits" -- anyhow skewering her targets in some lines, lauding them in others. "the bar is closing and sinatra walks out/ just a man in a hat and a trenchcoat, a standing ovation always follows," she and myers intone, but it gets more complex than that: by turns, sinatra's presented as "an incredible entertainer, an inspiration to three generations," but then again "a terminal delinquent in a bad mood, a temper tantrum over three generations."

There is an edginess to Everything Emily XYZ touches, a good/evil ambivalence to our heroes, leaders, myths and ideas, emily is good at that, of course the same material would be less convincing presented by a person without the emotionally loaded benefit and haunting contrapuntal modality of the ancient greek chorus, the voices of the gods on stage tonight, Cornelia Street Cafe.

Emily XYZ has come a long way from those days of youthful contrariness; playful iconoclasm is one thing but now she has moved on to more complex issues; and sure enough tonight she lays down some work from her most current experimental stuff - spoken word interpretations of the Bill of Rights, haunting jabs at the terrorists who attacked America on September 11 - jabs acutely attuned to the "new urban post-apocalyptic aesthetic" of anger and defiance and solidarity and mourning mixed into the residue of 60s era starry eyed naivete.

Turns out this this is debut night for her new work, here at Cornelia Street. though it was set to be performed to Virgil's music at an experimental music festival, Wetterfest, Austria, a few weeks previously. "a very small scale thing, I wasn't expecting that going in, there would be no sound system," she says, "and we were all electronic! No sound system, it was supposed to be a music festival. we were flabbergasted - spent the whole time trying to mock up a sound system."

So what's with this Bill of Rights thing? I ask, I am not interested in Wetterfest. "I like to work on texts that are not standard performance pieces," says Emily. "How do you make that rock? I do a lot of research, riff on a lot of phrases, phrases like "you are called upon to deliberate," that one, from the first amendment. There'll be a poem for each of the ten amendments. It's a commmentary as well as a depiction of it."

Whatever, I haven't come to hear the technical Emily, but the visionary; how Emily makes something like that rock is through her hypnotically varying use of repetition, a technique that pays deference not only to the experimental Ms. Gertrude Stein but throws in an ancient classical rhythm and pulsing stage presence I think old Gertie would've been surprised to find. or maybe not, she was a smart cookie.

Myers, fresh from one of her theatrical gigs in Manhattan, is hot tonight, breathless and wide eyed, a presence on stage to match Emily, and the two of them rock, and the Cornelia Street audience wails its appreciation, and suddenly I don't care anymore if she's living in Illinois or Lourdes, Emily XYZ's still got it.

After, I stop her at the door, Emily's making a quick getaway into the post-Apocalyptic East Village night. Don't you long for the good old days, when America wanted to just have fun? I ask her.

Yes and no. "As artists, we were letting people down," she says. "People who called themselves stand up comics didn't even care if they were funny or not, that was part of their work. And people who called themselves serious artists had abdicated any responsibility for talking about anything important. The beauty of what's happened since September 11 is that all of these ideas - the Bill of Rights, American values - were hypothetical, now people are taking these issues seriously," says Emily. "We're great when we get serious about things. Brave. But Americans wants to get back to the stupid shit."

I turn to the bar for a drink, then turn back to ask another question, I need more. But in the moment's turning, Emily has disappeared into the Cornelia Street gathering night, indistinguishable in the crowd from which she came.

Yes and no. Sure. Typical Emily XYZ.