Gathered Tribes: The Legacy of Steve Cannon

By Melanie Maria Goodreaux

Steve Cannon, 2017. Photo: Adam Golfer

  • Nov 13, 2019

I knew Steve Cannon for more than a quarter-century. I knew him as the immeasurable gravitational force behind ‘A Gathering of the Tribes,’ his literary and art magazine. I knew him as the sightless patriarch who presided over his storied East Village poetry and performance den with wit and grace and fierce intelligence. I knew him as the man who published our books and our poems, who came to our plays, who listened to us and counseled us and chided us and made us his tribe. I knew him as someone who had already lived several lifetimes before I met him. But until three weeks before he ‘left the planet,’ as he would say, I somehow didn’t know that Steve had been a paratrooper during the Korean War.

I found out just after he’d had hip surgery, necessitated by a fall from his exercise bike at home. I rode the empty elevators and walked the lonesome hallways of the Manhattan VA hospital to see him, presidential portraits staring bizarrely down at me from the walls, U.S. flags drooping from their poles. Steve lay shivering in a hospital gown, no smile on his face this time, his dentures across the room on a hospital tray. For once, he really looked like the old man that he was. But even with the pain of a broken bone still acute, he issued commands from his bed just as he had from the roost of his couch for so many years. ‘Read me my emails, my dear!’ he said. For a man who was blind and 84 years old, Steve saw, and oversaw, many things. He was a novelist, poet, playwright, publisher, everyone’s fill-in father, mentor, culture vulture and archetype of New York City cool. ‘A Gathering of the Tribes’ nested wherever he happened to be centered since the early 1990s in his home, the townhouse he owned on East Third Street between avenues C and D. Tribes was more than a literary magazine. It was an art gallery, meeting space, website, writing collective, crash pad, office, global hangout and a conduit for us all into Steve’s brain and compassion. He was a handsome, smooth-brown example of black-don’t-crack. We were a collection of his eyes.

Cover of ‘A Gathering of the Tribes,’ Issue 8, 1998. Artwork: David Hammons, Era of Corn, 1997. Courtesy ‘A Gathering of the Tribes’ magazine

Steve and I were both native New Orleanians living in the big city. We enjoyed laying easy on pronunciation and telling tall tales in Southern-city accents. Whenever I could, I’d bring him a pot of my homemade gumbo. I had heard all the myths and stories that other poets and writers had heard about him, at least since he had begun losing his sight to glaucoma in the late 1980s and became ‘the blind guy.’ How he’d yell, ‘Read the goddamned poem!’ at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, heckling green poets at the microphone, perched on a barstool in the back in his suit and sunglasses, full of red wine, waiting to smoke his next Winston. How he told stories in grand exaggerations in his rich New Orleans accent and slur. How he knew you for ‘thousands and thousands of years’ and ‘loved you, madly’ at the end of emails. I knew about the mound of poetry books he had published and his pride in them. I knew he had been featured in The New York Times and had, just last year, received the Writers for Writers Award from the organization Poets & Writers, along with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Richard Russo.

‘He wanted words to fly, to float off the plane, to land wherever their chutes took them. Blindness didn’t stop Steve.’

I knew that his ethos was far-reaching and that he liked his coffee black with two sugars in the morning. We formed a friendship through morning ritual. I would go to see him and read him his emails and The New York Times, catching up on gossip and news. He would make sure that I was writing something, anything—a play, a poem, an essay, a review. I would listen to him answer the phone in his husky, friendly, important voice: ‘Yallo, Tribes,’ and chat it up with whichever literary giant or curious young intern was on the line. ‘I need help around here… What time can you come in, my dear?…Well, well, well…can you write a review?’ His long brown hands hunted over the curly cord of his rotary phone in search of the base. Sometimes he’d trip over a fifth cup of coffee, spilling a black river of caffeine toward the stacks of poetry books set to be read to him. More times than I can remember, I cleaned the coffee stains and cigarette ash from his table. And yet, somehow, I did not know that he had jumped out of airplanes. As a paratrooper, your job is to leap with no hesitation, to fly, to land, to roll, to kill. You can look only forward—even the plane that plops you into the drop zone disappears immediately, leaving the rest up to you. Steve took one big leap after the next, earning his jump wings so many times that he seemed unstoppable. Unstoppable, he had already survived without a mother; his had died just months after his birth. Unstoppable, he grieved over a young son, who had bled to death in New Orleans in 1976 after cutting himself on broken glass while playing. Unstoppable, he jumped from the third floor of his house to the sidewalk one night during a fire. Unstoppable, he began publishing books on his own as soon as the Xerox machine became available and did so without pretentiousness or a plan for what was next. Unstoppable, he wrote a filthy novel called Groove, Bang and Jive Around, full of enough sex, rhythm and New Orleans bite to turn even the most disenchanted reader into a voluptuary. He wanted words to fly, to float off the plane, to land wherever their chutes took them. Blindness didn’t stop Steve; it transformed him into a guru who offered a regal economy of exchange: I-need-you-and-you-need-me.

The entrance Cannon’s East Village townhouse, 2006. Photo: Nikki Johnson

Keith Roach, slam master of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, brought me to Steve’s house for the first time one night in 1992 after an evening at the legendary arts space. My father had just died, and I was in New York City from New Orleans looking for a way to drown my grief with adventure. A blind black man from New Orleans who smoked like a fiend and knew everything about poetry? A townhouse party that seemed to blend big-city mischief with French Quarter mystery? A real-life Black Gatsby? What could possibly be better? The hypnotic smoke of a chic poetry den floated up into a solar system of Afro-hairballs that David Hammons, the artist himself, had made from the sweepings of Harlem barber shops. Another Hammons piece, a red wall detailed with golden squiggles, became the backdrop against which the boundless vibes of parties at Tribes echoed. Steve could usually be found on the throne of his couch, nestled amid a group of women whose legs dangled over his lap. He’d whisper charming questions into their ears and file the responses away in a memory that seemed able to retrieve particulars wholesale, whether the subject dropped by again in a week or a decade. The crowd would wind down the back stairway of the house into the garden, where poets recited work toward the stars. A jazz quartet and a singer would bounce songs off the bricks of the tenements. White folding chairs would hold the artsy-fartsy asses of audiences set up to hear Ishmael Reed or Lydia Cortes or Jesús Papoleto Melendez. There were annual Charlie Parker Festivals with second line parades and art exhibitions and readings and rehearsals too many to count, along with the occasional drunken fights at the edge of the night, prompting threats from Steve to call the police, even on his friends. Steve was one badass motherfucker. That’s what he’d call you if he was really impressed. He couldn’t quantify us with colors, shapes or lines. He had to feel out our vibes and listen really hard to the various melodies of our voices. We had the luxury of having him on view the whole time, taking in his stature and his personas—hot and sexy Steve, grumpy Steve, Saint Steve.

‘Steve wasn’t about hemming and hawing. He was about getting things done. In the school of Steve, ain’t nobody got time to hesitate.’

He lived at the intersection of upper echelon literary society and East Village cool, friend and publisher to figures like Paul Beatty, Eileen Myles, Sun Ra. But he’d give you a place to stay if you were homeless and willing to help out, to serve as another pair of eyes. And if he thought you weren’t doing enough, he would complain vehemently, because he didn’t tolerate laziness. Or hesitation. Somewhere deep in the construction of ‘Just read the goddamned poem’ was Steve with the parachute on his back, flinging himself into the air at the sight of the green light, looking from 14,000 feet toward the ground below. Steve wasn’t about hemming and hawing. He was about getting things done. In the school of Steve, ain’t nobody got time to hesitate. One night during a party at the house, we all watched a performance by an artist who had created sculptures from glass-enclosed honeycomb, which oozed into gray-blue slushy forms before our eyes. When I arrived at the house at seven the next morning to read him the paper, Steve asked—as he always did—for a postmortem: ‘Thumbs up or thumbs down, my dear?’ ‘Thumbs up, Steve. The art is actually changing right before our eyes. What do you think?’ ‘What are you asking me for? I can’t see it. I’m blind, remember?’ By morning, Steve would turn into a particular iteration of himself—part Professor Steve Cannon, who taught humanities at Medgar Evers College; part headstrong director of a tenacious nonprofit arts organization, always abuzz with publishing the next issue, hosting the next show, making the publishing process accessible to diverse writers. Sometimes he would tell stories of the trade, like the one about the well-dressed customer who approached a table that he and Ishmael Reed, young black publishers, had set up on the sidewalk in Harlem. The two had just released the novel ‘Francisco’ by Alison Mills. ‘I’m sitting at the table, and who comes up looking at books but Arthur Ashe. I said, ‘Say, man, congratulations. You’re the baddest fucking tennis player out there. You got to buy some of these books. We’re a little publishing company. The least you can do is support us.’ He smiled and pulled out 10 dollars and bought our book.’ The last time I saw Steve he was at a rehab facility working on his hip. He was content enough, but he wanted to go home. ‘I’m bored, my dear.’

In Cannon’s East Village townhouse, an interior wall with two works by David Hammons on the left

Bob Holman, his longtime friend and colleague, arrived, and we talked about art, about the Venice Biennale. Bob recounted memories of going with Steve to the movies. We imagined smuggling him out of rehab and into the Film Forum across the street. Steve’s best-loved friend, Mary Chen, arrived that Tuesday wearing a pretty dress. They had shared lots of good times, and he loved listening to jazz at Lincoln Center with her. Steve could hear my voice light up over Mary’s pretty outfit. He was all smiles. Bob announced, ‘Party at Steve’s!’ We gathered near our gatherer for one last good hurrah. The night he died I had a beautiful dream of orange lanterns on a road that stretched far away beneath me. I wondered the reason for all the lights and beauty. ‘Anne Waldman is reading,’ I heard. The road, cobblestoned, seemed to go on forever. The orange lamps were covered in a tangerine fabric that I wanted to be closer to. I moved to walk down the road, but quickly I realized I was standing on a ledge, about to fly. I wasn’t afraid. Later, I wondered if this was me or a vision of Steve heading to the next planet. Steve believed in spirits. I know this because he once told me that he felt the presence of the poet Diane Burns in his house after she had gone on to the land of her ancestors. I hope he leapt off the edge that evening, flying down into the amber light toward a never-ending poetry reading. Steve with full sight, in flight. I hope he saw all the colors and shapes he hadn’t seen in such a long while, and the people—Butch Morris, Keith Roach, John Farris, Charlie Parker and the rest. I hope he got to see how President Obama actually looked and the covers of all the books he had published. I hope he saw the face of his mother and his son and the prettiness of Mary Chen, finally. We shared our eyes with Steve and now, with super-sight, he leaps toward what’s next. – Melanie Maria Goodreaux is a New York-based poet, playwright, writer and actor. Originating from New Orleans, her works of poetry and fiction are characterized by elements of musicality, rhythm, and original voice. Goodreaux’s works have been featured at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Center, and the New York Theater Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater.