By Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
When Maggie Estep passed away on February 11, 2014, the news was slow to spread. Maggie, a one-time East Village icon in New York City, had move upstate years ago, where she wrote her eclectic novels and essays, doted upon her beloved rescue dogs, and was the guaranteed coolest person in any Hudson Valley yoga classes she frequented and taught.
I, too, had become an expat New Yorker, living in Austin, Texas, when I received the heartbreaking news of her passing a few days later from our friend John S. Hall, an icon of the East Village himself and the co-star in her video for “Hey Baby” playing a lecherous street harasser with the misfortune of tussling with Ms. Maggie.
The news of her passing left us speechless. She was — and always been — so full of life. It seemed impossible that she could be gone.
I can say without a doubt that I would not be who I am today — as a writer and as person — if Maggie Estep had not blazed the incredible and unlikely path she did.
The daughter of itinerant horse trainers, Maggie had a nomadic childhood before striking out on her own as a teenager. To make ends meets she worked as a horse groom, a go-go dancer, a dishwasher, a nurse’s aide and box factory work before find her way to New York City and beginning, in earnest, her career as a writer. The Nuyorican Poets Café and its weekly poetry slam proved to be the perfect platform for Maggie, and her unapologetic and often hilarious takes on life and love. Her career exploded.
Although I entered the New York City poetry slam scene well after she left it to spend her days writing delicious and darkly witty novels, her influence was still felt everywhere. Her poetry was still being read and performed by devoted fans; her videos, albums and books still shared like a secret handshake. And her influence wasn’t just limited to the five boroughs of New York City. Through her tours with Lollapalooza, her record deal with Mercury Records and the clear crush that MTV had one her, she became the face of early 1990s slam poetry. Some of my biggest mentors were poets who came to New York City after seeing her on MTV and thinking, “That’s what I want to do! That’s who I want to be!”
I finally met Maggie when I was interviewing poets for the book which would later become Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam (Soft Skull Press, 2008; reprinted found below). I was extremely nervous to meet her. Other poets from her generation of writers had been very frank in their refusal to be interviewed in my project. They had worked too hard to escape that the moniker of slam poet (which, at that time, they saw as being negative and limiting), so they wanted to absolutely nothing to do with me or this history I was writing. While Maggie had agreed to be interviewed, I still had no idea who would meet me at the door.
All my worries were for naught. She invited me into home, and rained upon in person everything I loved about her on the page. She was smart, warm, devastating funny, incredibly human and a hard fucking worker. She was a beast when it came to generating thoughtful, clear and clever work, and getting it out into the world. When I thanked her for the interview at the end of the night, she said, “I’ve got a funny feeling we are friends now, kid.” And so we were, cackling in the backs of rooms were found ourselves in, popping in on each other’s readings, and showing each other iPhone photos of the rescue dogs we spoiled liked crazy.
The last time I saw her was last summer in Hudson, New York, I bumped into her on the street while walking the town’s main drag with my pal, poet Sarah Kay. I was dumbstruck at the luck of it – that I would get to introduce these two trailblazing women poets, one the generation before me and one the generation just after. Sarah was a bit awestruck, and Maggie handled it like boss. She was, in that moment, as I have always known her: just the coolest person in the room. A brilliant North Star who never seemed to know now how many ships she helped guide to safer waters, to dry land.
The world has lost something incredible with the passing of Maggie Estep, but I am comforted by the fact that so many of us — whose hearts were lit by her radiant example — will continue down the amazing path she helped blaze for us all.
Thank you, Maggie. You will be missed so goddamn much.
What follows is an excerpt from Cristin’s interview with Maggie, as published in “Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam” (Soft Skull Press, 2008), reprinted with permission.
Chapter Nine: An Interview with Maggie Estep, First Wave Icon
If you were to compare this period of the poetry slam with another arts movement, perhaps the most appropriate would be the punk rock movement of the late 1970s.
Punk rock originated in New York City, but it was the London punk rock scene that would really define and popularize the punk rock culture. This was largely due to the work of one man, Malcolm McLaren, whose clothing shop SEX became the nexus of UK punk culture. He also discovered and began managing a band called the Swankers, which McLaren promptly renamed the Sex Pistols. And despite a career the lasted only few years, the Sex Pistols became perhaps the most influential band in punk history.
In the poetry slam version of this story, New York City would stand in for London, Bob Holman would be Malcolm McLaren and Maggie Estep would be the Sex Pistols.
Estep was never a traditional girl. Born to pair of nomadic horse trainers, she grew up moving throughout the U.S. and France. She worked as a horse groom, a go-go dancer, a dishwasher, a nurse’s aide, and a box factory worker before she moved to New York City to pursue writing, which she had studied at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, CO. She was one of the first poets whom Holman approached about participating in the Nuyorican Slam, and although she thought of herself as more of a prose writer than a poet, she gave it a shot.
Although not the first poet to receive acclaim in the slam — that would be Paul Beatty — Estep remains arguably the most influential poet of her generation of slammers. Her meteoric rise in spoken word included book deals, two albums with Mercury Records, numerous TV appearances and several national tours. In a seemingly unconscious response to the bloated and non-linear academic poetry, Estep’s work was direct, aggressive and uncompromisingly modern. Her cynical yet bitingly hilarious poetry spoke to and for her Generation X peers with rants like “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With,” “Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere” and “I’m Not Normal.” Her inky black hair, glittering black eyes and all-black wardrobe cut a striking figure on the stage, and attracted legions of fans (including me) as well as fawning attention from the mainstream media.
But like her Sex Pistols counterparts, Estep didn’t care about the trappings of fame. She considered herself a fiction writer, and the book deal she landed with her poetry she quickly used for her debut novel, Diary of an Emotional Idiot. Estep performed her poetry for the fun of it, and certainly appreciated the attention that she received for it, but she didn’t feel as she needed to prove anything with her poetry. Her laissez-faire performance style and nothing-to-lose writing style gave a fresh voice to the staid poetry scene, and a new spokesperson for the New York City Poetry Slam.
In this excerpted interview, which was conducted in her Brooklyn apartment the night after she taped her segment for the third season of HBO’s Def Poetry, Estep provides an insider account of this electric time in the NYC Poetry Slam movement, touches on the major figures and major events — including the Bob Holman-Miguel Algarín falling out — which we will cover in-depth in upcoming chapters — and on how quickly the scene evolved and how little the poets within the scene were aware of the impact that these events have on them and their careers.
COA: So when did you first hear about slam? Was it through Bob?
MAGGIE ESTEP: It was through Bob, yeah. And maybe I heard of it before then, but I don’t really think, I don’t think so. I don’t think it was before I came to the Nuyorican.
COA: Describe the Nuyorican back then.
ESTEP: It was great. I lived a block away, so it was very convenient. I lived on Avenue C and Third. You walk in and it would seem invariably packed and it was always a very mixed audience, like before that I would read at maybe ABC No Rio, and those places that used to exist and thrive back then, but it was all white people there, and so finally it wasn’t all white people, and that was a nice break. And it was really alive, and that was a great feeling. And from that moment I popped in there, there was a real sense of community. It didn’t last for very long, mind you. But for a couple of years, two years tops, we all used to work together and go to slams together, and um, there a nice sense of community to a degree.
COA: And what are your memories of Bob Holman?
ESTEP: Bob Holman, well, Mos Def does a really great imitation of him. He is the Czar of Poetry, and, I don’t know. Bob’s amazing. He’s got an amazing eye for people, he somehow scoured around and found all these interesting people and brought them to the Nuyorican and now I think he’s doing the same with his new place. He’s incredibly smart.
COA: What about Miguel Algarín?
ESTEP: I never really knew Miguel that well. He was always nice to me. But, you know, I was never invited back to the Nuyorican once Miguel and Bob had their… I guess I was considered a “Bob person.” I didn’t really know him well at all.
COA: You were on a Nuyorican National Poetry Slam Team. Do you remember who was on your team that year?
ESTEP: It’s hard to remember what was “the slam team” and what was just when we went on these tours, but I really have no idea. Reg E. Gaines, probably. Was he? He started refusing to slam. Paul Beatty was the first [to start refusing to slam], and then Reg E. was shortly afterwards. But I don’t know. I can’t remember who was on the team. I’m sorry. It’s all a blur. A lot of stuff happened. I didn’t even slam that long. I went through the whole thing to the Finals at the Nuyorican, and then I was on the New York slam team once at the National Slam in San Francisco and I didn’t fare very well. And that was the end of it. I don’t think I ever slammed after that.
COA: How was the Nationals to you?
ESTEP: That was what kind of grossed me out about slam. In New York, it was usually pretty interesting writers. Paul Beatty, you know — he would never win a poetry slam now, he’s a serious writer and he reads from his paper and he reads for seven minutes straight. But he was so amazing, that nobody cared that he wasn’t doing, you know, a song and dance. At Nationals, it was all about the song and dance, and the PC thing, which is, you know, everything is so knee-jerk politically correct that… I found it offensive [laughs]. Well, that was my turnoff from the slam, was going to that Nationals that year.
COA: Was there anything good that came out of it at all?
ESTEP: Again, my memory is really bad, but there were some people who were really good. Obviously, there had to be. But people who tended to win—this is vast generalization and I don’t remember anything—but I remember being really appalled at what was winning, thinking that it was purely theatrics and no content.
COA: Let’s talk about Paul Beatty and Reg E. Gaines.
ESTEP: Paul was always just the best writer among us. We all thought, Wow, maybe we could all grow up and be Paul. He went on to write amazing novels. And Reg E. was always hyper and upset about something. Then he wrote that Broadway thing [1996’s Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk], and I don’t know what he does now. I haven’t seen him around. He is around, though. He used to be a tennis star or something before he was a poet and then one day he just decided to be a poet, and then he was, you know, late in life. Well not that late, but in his mid-thirties. So that was Reg E. And Dana Bryant, of course, was the goddess of the whole thing. She was a tall, beautiful black woman whose poems about booty busters—Dominican girdles, booty busters — because she had no ass. What else … Oh, there was Mike Ladd who was the only person to get zeroes at a slam I think. He [slammed] a few times, and he got zeroes. I don’t know, because he made the audience angry? I don’t know. I wasn’t even there. I didn’t see it, I just heard about it. So I don’t know what the hell he did.
COA: So when did you exit?
ESTEP: Probably ’93. I think I went to Nationals in ’93, I think, it may have been ’94, and then, yeah, that was kind of the end of slamming, and then I was in a band, and we did a lot touring and stuff, so it wasn’t even as if I made a conscious decision not to slam. I just got very busy. Then I started writing books. It was kind of like a natural progression.
COA: Let’s talk about some of the projects. Where you in The United States of Poetry?
ESTEP: Again, it was Bob, Bob Holman and Mark Pellington [director of the award-winning video Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and later the films Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies] who shot if not all of it, much of it. He was video director, and he did a video for me and my band and he was a friend. So they asked me to do it, and I did. And there were some tours, actually. A few of us went to England. Don’t ask me to remember who. Although, one of them was Mike Ladd, I do remember that!
ESTEP: And the MTV spots?
COA: Somehow Bob got MTV people to come to the Nuyorican and they saw a bunch of us, and they also do this thing, this other thing on TV called Words in Your Face! before The United States of Poetry. That one Mark Pellington directed. I don’t know if he did do The United States of Poetry. He may have. Um. So I think Bob showed MTV people that thing, and they were intrigued and came to see some of us. And then called a bunch of us up to MTV headquarters, I think I remember a bunch of us being called up at once, you know: me and Reg E. Gaines, Paul Beatty, Todd Colby, and maybe or maybe not Dana, I think Dana Bryant. And we all called up and told that we would be given $500 if we did these 30-second spots. And we were all like, “30 seconds, eh?” You know, chop down 5 minute poems to 30 seconds!
The first poem I did was “Hey Baby” and it’s like a 3-minute poem, and it had to be 30 seconds, and I just couldn’t. They had to do 30 takes of me doing the poem faster and faster and faster, until finally the final product was utterly incomprehensible. I don’t know! But they shot it in a way that looks cool, they shot at Coney Island under the boardwalk, so it looked good. The poems didn’t really matter to them. So that was that.
From that, Bob Smalls, who invented Unplugged I think, decided to do a Spoken Word Unplugged and doing two of them. And bunch of us—the same usual suspects — plus I think Henry Rollins maybe, and um, the guy who wrote the Sadness of Sex, Gary Yourgrau, and some other people were all on that. And then that kind of blew up. And then there were stories in the Times and here and there, and that’s when I got all the publishers who called me and left me messages, and I was like “Woo!?” And suddenly I was offered book deals, and I didn’t even, hadn’t even tried. It was amazing.
COA: What was the reaction around town?
ESTEP: People hated me or liked me, people who never given the time of day suddenly wanted to be my friend. It was very drastic. And other people from the Nuyorican suddenly being very snotty to me. You know, it was pretty extreme and disquieting. You know, that is all tied in why I was increasingly retreated from performing because I like to perform, but I don’t like all the stuff associated with it. I felt like, I don’t know, I felt like it was fucking me in my head. All these weird reactions from people and all these expectations. I hated it.
COA: And Nuyorican Anthology?
ESTEP: Yeah, which circulates widely. I still get emails, so many emails, from these kids in high school who perform poems of mine— I mean, I’m sure they do others too, but I only hear about mine—in speech competitions and stuff. The first time I got one of those notes, I was like “What?” I guess that thing gets around.
COA: Talk about Lollapalooza.
ESTEP: Ooh, that was so much fun [laughs]. But then even more people hated me. I had no idea [how that came about]. I think there was a plan instigated by I’m not sure who to have poets on Lollapalooza, but I don’t think my name was foremost, but then I heard that someone in the Beasties Boys said that they would like for me to be in that. But then the Beasties Boys were really mean to me, so I don’t think it was them, I don’t know. I still see Mike D all the time and he scowls at me still. It was definitely not him. But somehow I ended up on the tour and that’s how I met Shappy [a Chicago poet who hosted many of the Lollapalooza’s slams]. So I ended up on that tour for like a few weeks. I had a really good time. Apparently, there was feuding going on the poets’ bus and stuff. I’m not going to name names, but there were parties attacking each other, but I hooked up with the Breeders’ tour manager, so I slept on their bus, so I don’t know. I didn’t notice all the bickering going on…. She’s my dear friend so maybe it’s OK that I say something, but Liz Belile — she does Gynomite? I love this girl — and she was I think sort of in charge. And she and this other woman who was really nasty—she hated me, I never did anything to this woman and she hated me! — they had some sort of thing going on. I don’t even know what they were bickering about.
COA: I think I heard about this in an interview. I think they were upset because you had your own publicist?
ESTEP: Oh God. There were all these rumors circulating that I was arriving by limo, snorting coke with the Smashing Pumpkins. Stuff like that. At the time, I was dating, I think it was then, M. Doughty from Soul Coughing, and he would call me up and say, “Guess what I found in this chat room about you?” and I was like “What?” [laughs].
COA: That’s what I heard. Tons of rumors, and some ruffled feathers because when the poets came to town, your name was always on top.
ESTEP: Well, I guess I was well-known a little bit. It wasn’t my fault [laughs]. I did two weeks somewhere—like New York, Toronto, East Coast-ish — and then I did another two weeks later at the end, L.A., Seattle.
COA: I heard that the rock stars on the tour would sometimes come in the poetry tent and do something.
ESTEP: The Beasties came and did stuff [in the tent] once in a while, and one day Perry Farrell was hanging around, but I don’t think he did something. Oh, and what’s his name, Billy Corgan came in and accompanied a few of us, actually. Me and Liz and maybe even Juliette Torrez.
COA: Did anything good come of that?
ESTEP: [long pause] Oh! I made out with Courtney Love!
COA: So did Shappy!
ESTEP: He made out with her, too? I’m jealous! I had been hanging out with Billy Corgan, and there were rumors that we had something going on even though we didn’t. And so she came to join us and, I don’t know, sleep with him or something, and she heard that he and I were hanging out, so she came to see him at this bar where we were all performing one night for fun. And she goes, “Oh, so you’re Maggie the poet?” She grabbed and she stuck her tongue down my throat and I thought, “Wow! This works well!” [Ed. note: This is pretty much how it went down with Shappy, too!]
COA: Talk about your experiences with Nuyo Records, which soon became Mouth Almighty records.
ESTEP: Um, Bob, again, Bob Holman. They decided to start a label, and I was getting a lot of attention right then, so they asked if I wanted to make a record, and I had a band—that was just a coincidence, we didn’t do my poems or everything, we were just a band for fun and we played, like sometimes. We opened for [The Voluptuous Horror of] Karen Black. So then my band and I tried to work out stuff to go with my poems, and then we made the record [No More Mister Nice Girl]. And it was weird [laughs]. It was like, “How did this happen?” I mean, all this stuff happened really fast. All of the sudden, like in a year, all this shit happened. So yeah, we made this record and Mark Pellington made this beautiful video—I don’t know if you’ve ever you seen it?—of “Hey Baby” that got on Beavis and Butthead. That was its main claim to fame. And John S. Hall played the creepy guy who harasses me on the street, and he has a sock in his pants so it looks like he has a huge dick down to his knee, and he grabs his sock and stuff and it’s beautiful. He had gold teeth. It was a pretty high-budget video [laughs].
Oh, and then we went on tour opening for Hole for a few weeks, actually. That was fun, but by then with Courtney, I had fallen out of favor, and I don’t know, she didn’t pay me any attention. And then, that was about it. The second one [Love is a Dog from Hell] I did with one guy, with Knox Chandler. Because my band and I—like my bass player had all these conflicts with him sailing in the Caribbean with her rich boyfriend and all this stuff—I don’t know, we couldn’t stay together after a while, it wasn’t working out. So I made another record with just one other guy, and um, we didn’t really tour or do anything for that one. By then, Mouth Almighty had switched from Imago Records to Mercury Records, its parent company, and there was all this intrigue at Mercury and things we sort of falling apart, and the record didn’t get promoted. That was the kind of the end of my recording artist career [laughs].
COA: I have to ask: What did Beavis and Butthead say?
ESTEP: I think ultimately the verdict was good! At first they were like, Ugh, chick’s not singing. And then they were like, Nah, she’s a poet. And then they were like, Hey, that guy’s grabbing his stuff! Ultimately, they liked it because of John S. Hall’s grabbing his dick. That was the verdict.
COA: So how were you perceived by poets outside of the slam scene? You never really considered yourself really just a poet.
ESTEP: No, no, I mean, I don’t even know the laws. I’ve never studied poetry. I just wrote little prose pieces and made them a little bit repetitive. Academics hate me, but the academics hated my prose, too, you know, across the board with a few exceptions. So I mean, I was just considered disposable fluff, I think.
COA: How has slam developed? You mentioned how Paul Beatty would never win a slam now. Do you think that it has gotten more showboat-y?
ESTEP: Yeah. Certainly, in New York, when I first encountered it, it was [less so]. There was some pretty good writing that was winning the slams, and I don’t know, I haven’t been to very many slams recently, but throughout the last few years, if and when I’ve gone, I don’t know, I just got annoyed. I’m sorry. It just seems like it’s a different thing. It’s not about writing; it’s about Theater and acting. And a lot of these people go on, like Saul Williams—he’s amazing, he’s amazing, I love him—but you know, it’s about Theater and acting and stuff like that. It’s not really about writing.
And I approached it as a writer first and I’m back to being a writer now. And I like that, because I thought that it was this beautiful thing, you know, there would be no division between so-called low and high art, I loved that. It brought poetry to a bigger audience, and I thought Wow, what an amazing tool. But I went on [HBO’s] Def Poetry and half the stuff just sucks, you know? Hopefully this won’t be in print and they won’t cut me right from the show [laughs]. Some of it’s great! But most of it’s just like fucking bad rap, you know? It’s not good. And then…I don’t know what the fuck I’m saying.
COA: Did you ever think that slam had reached a peak, and that it could not have gotten any higher?
ESTEP: I didn’t really know. I didn’t think about it. I was really really shocked that poets were getting on MTV, and that I got a book deal and a record—I mean, it was totally shocking and I am… like, when kids write to me and say, “How can I do what you did?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, I never expected it. If you expect it, it probably won’t happen.” But it seems to keep going. It seems like Def Poetry is the new thing, and they were talking about it backstage about these other shows that were coming on.
COA: Could you talk about how the slam community is like now compared to how it was back then?
ESTEP: Well, that there was a sense of community, you mean? Yeah, I don’t know, I mean the bunch of us that came out of the Nuyorican, we would try out new shit on each other, and encourage each other, and you know, encourage Paul when he said, “I don’t want to slam anymore. I want to write novels.” But then we all splintered apart and went our own separate ways. I mean, when I went to Urbana [one of the three modern NYC poetry slam venues], there was a sense of community. It’s not really my community now—I have a different one, it’s smaller, I hang out with crusty novelists—but anyway, but [slam] does engender community, which is really cool… It’s kinda of like Gertrude Stein in the 20s. I mean, different, but similar.
COA: What do you think about the new spoken word–related projects?
ESTEP: It’s cool, it’s cool. There were some kids last night who were really amazing, ya know, and they were really young and great, and hopefully it will encourage them and take them where they need to go. But see part of the problem is with that stuff, but if you do get trapped — and I’m not going to name names, but there are a few people from my generation, who got stuck on that, and got so addicted to the immediacy of that, and they would only write one poem a year, and they never grew as writers, and now in their mid-30s, and it’s one-trick pony … I don’t know if I sought to deliberately avoid that — but if that doesn’t happen to someone, it can be an amazing tool, because for like me, it ultimately did. It landed me a book deal that I probably wouldn’t have gotten for another ten years, in utter poverty and stuff. It really saved my ass.
So if you can use it, like, and grow, then it’s great. But the downside is, like, [laughs] kids moving to New York City to become poets and get on Def Poetry! Conversely, there were some kids who were on Def Poetry who were amazing and some that really annoyed the fuck out of me. There was one guy backstage in front of everyone, stood in front of the mirror with the mike practicing his facial expressions—I almost puked on him! I mean, I couldn’t—and he had no hang-up about it at all! And it was like, Oh man, that’s not good. It’s not love. That’s not writing because you have to; it’s like trying to use it for a part on Law and Order … Actually, that’s what I want! I want a bit part on Law and Order! [laughs] Where I turn on the lights and fall? That’s all I want! [laughs]
For more information on Maggie Estep or to purchase her books, please visit her website at http://www.maggieestep.com.
CRISTIN O’KEEFE APTOWICZ is the author of six books of poetry and the nonfiction book, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. She founded the three-time National Poetry Slam championship venue, NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam, and is one of a handful of slam poets to win a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.