As the poetry scholar Rona Cran once wrote, the downtown poetry scene in the twentieth century was “less of a site of primarily male subjectivity and naturally-occurring genius (as tends to be implied) than part of a self-creating process powered by the (often hidden) labor of women.” The poet Hannah Weiner is a perfect example of an often-overlooked and overshadowed woman poet of the avant-garde poetry movement in our neighborhoods. Her visionary experimentation within, and beyond, the written word, was her “hidden labor,” and she formed an integral part of the East Village artistic community from the late 1960s until her death in 1997.
Hannah Weiner was born in 1928 in Providence, Rhode Island, and attended Radcliffe College, graduating with a BA in English literature in 1950. She was a longtime resident of the East Village. As J. Mark Smith writes in his book Time in Time: Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North American Avant-Gardism, 1963-2008: “[Weiner] lived in lofts in various states of decrepitude. She explored drugs and Eastern philosophy and wrote openly about her sex life. A little older than many involved in the counter-culture of New York City, Weiner was known and liked for her kindness and generosity towards younger poets.” Smith describes her as an “active participant in the experimental art scene so vibrant in the 1960s and 70s.”
Weiner herself narrates her own unconventional life path in her autobiographical poem “SILENT TEACHER” (published in 1995):
“she… worked for three publishing houses got fired by all of them / she then turned to / retailing and was an assistant buyer for… ladies dresses in / Bloomingdales basement she married a psychiatrist freudian and divorced him four years later then she exaggerated but not lied / herself into a job designing lingerie and turned down her second request for marriage.” She continues, “by this time she was making the rounds of galleries and parties in the early sixties and began to write poetry in 1963.”
Weiner’s poetic education in New York began with a class she took with Kenneth Koch at the New School. In this context, she began situating herself in the second generation of the New York School artists (which included much cross-pollination between visual artists and poets). By the later 1960s she had become more established as a specifically East Village-based poet and artist. She also became more associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry after participating in workshops with poet Bernadette Mayer at the Poetry Project.
Later, as Weiner self-narrates in “SILENT TEACHER,” her art practice branched out into performance work. “These became rather wild performances,” she writes. One of the most well-known works of this time was a series of performances entitled STREET WORKS 1-7. Weiner collaborated with her romantic partner, the Village Voice art critic John Perrault, as well as fellow poet Marjorie Strider, to create these avant-garde “happenings.” The press release for “World Works” (one of the performances in the STREET WORKS series) reads simply: “Artists and people everywhere are invited to do a street work in the street of their choice. A street work does not harm any person or thing.”
Weiner also co-organized, in 1969, a performance event entitled the Poetry Fashion Show, again collaborating with John Perrault. It featured garments designed by Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, among others. She writes in the press release: “some of the reasons we chose to make the effort of presenting an actual fashion show were: To move outside the limitations of the printed word, to move away from personal expression, and to present the limitations of the printed word, to present a fictionalized version of a real life event… We would locate the Fashion Show Poetry Event in the area of that particular subcategory of fashion language.”
Street Works IV involved a collaboration with Vito Acconci who, along with East Village-based poet Bernadette Mayer, was also the editor and creator of the self-published mimeograph magazine 0 to 9 — widely considered to be one of the most experimental and influential publications of the mimeograph and small press movement in America. Weiner and Perrault brought in a wide variety of collaborators for Street Works, including the Argentinian artist Eduardo Kosta, and the renowned Japanese-born conceptual artist Arakawa, as well as other friends involved in the Poetry Project.
Hannah Weiner self-published a mimeographed magazine entitled Assembling in 1970 and continued to publish volumes of poetry at a prolific rate until her death. One of her most notable books, The Clairvoyant Journals, was published by the East-Village based small press Angel Hair — founded and run by Weiner’s friends and fellow poets Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh.
Also notable was Weiner’s publication CODE POEMS. In this volume she made use of the INTERCO international code of symbols, a universal coded translation system established by mariners in the 19th century. In CODE POEMS, she proclaimed: “I am interested in exploring methods of communication that will be understood face to face or at any distance, regardless of language, country, or planet of origin by all sending and receiving.”
Weiner created and fulfilled a poetic niche wholly her own. As she writes in a flier for a performance piece entitled HANNAH WEINER AT HER JOB, “my life is my art, I am object, a product of the process of self-awareness.”
A comprehensive collection of Weiner’s work can be found at the Electronic Poetry Center of the University of Pennsylvania here.
Continue to delve into the literary and artistic heritage of the East Village through our interactive resource, East Village Building Blocks.
For a more in-depth history of the East Village’s Poetry Project and its associated movements and communities, check out our recent public program with Kyle Dacuyan here.