Marathon man

Reclaiming the tea party, one poem at a time
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 2, 2010


"Most poets can't tie their own shoes," says Jim Behrle. "They don't know what time it is."

Behrle's on his cell phone, walking back from the public library. He was at the library because he needed to print something out. He doesn't own a printer. He's a poet.

"It's kind of amazing to think your job is to describe the beauty of the universe," he sighs. "Poets aren't like other people."

How does a poet without a printer get 88 other poets to converge in one place, over one weekend, to read poems on a tight schedule?

"What you need is a giant bastard," says Behrle, "which is kind of what I am. I yell and scream and make sure things run on time."

Along with Bostonians John Mulrooney, Mick Carr, and Aaron Tieger, and the New York–based David Kirschenbaum, Behrle has resurrected what was once a Boston summer tradition: the poetry marathon. Together, they rounded up the dozens of poets that comprise this weekend's Boston Poet Tea Party.

"Academic poets are coming to this thing, and crazy poets who drink all day and write about killing people," Behrle says. "There's a big enough tent to hold everybody. Even if you don't like some crazy Flarf poet, you can probably get through eight minutes."

Flarf poets compose intentionally abrasive verse that often consists of Google search results. If the Flarfists don't appeal, have no fear: the Tea Party will feature everyone from postpunk feminist hero Eileen Myles to visual poet Geof Huth. Poets from all over — most from Boston and New York, some from as far away as England and California — will be on hand to read for exactly eight minutes each. The marathon will last from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon.

Saturday's program alone is exhausting to contemplate: 36 poets will read over the course of 10 hours. Behrle will sit through it all. "That's part of the rules for me," he says. "I'm always going to be accountable for the stuff that I book. If there's a poet who wants to go on for an hour, I'm going to say, 'Look buddy, you have eight minutes. You've got to stop.' "

Behrle began organizing marathons — then called Boston Poetry Massacres — while programming events at the Brookline Booksmith about 10 years ago. ("I said no to Dave Eggers for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," he admits. "They never let me forget about that one.") He left the Booksmith for the late, great WordsWorth Books in Harvard Square, then decamped to New York when the Red Sox won the World Series. "I was in a fugue," he says.

Behrle's departure left a noticeable hole in Boston's poetry scene. To fill the void, Mulrooney and Carr started the Unaffiliated Reading Series, hosting monthly events in Cambridge: at the Plough and Stars outside of Central Square, Outpost 186 in Inman Square, and Harvard Square's Pierre Menard Gallery. The series showcases what Mulrooney calls experimental poetry. "It thrives on a network that functions in a very DIY, punk-rock aesthetic," he says.

FREESTYLIN' "Poets aren't like other people," says Boston Poet Tea Party co-organizer Jim Behrle

Behrle and his friend Kirschenbaum were at a New York Mets game this spring when they decided to resurrect the poetry marathon, this time in Philadelphia. It fell through.

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