Friday, April 28, 2006 at 12:23AM
April 27-May 3, 2006 issue
Politic and poetry collide at Tara Bracco's annual reading bash
Ten years ago, Tara Bracco, then a recent college grad, was miserable. She'd just been dumped by her first love, she was sleeping on her friend's floor, and she had no clue what to do with her life. But instead of taking a shitty temp job, she decided to figure things out on a cross-country tour: Armed with $600 and an Amtrak pass, she traveled through upstate New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, writing and performing new poems about gender equality and love. "I felt cradled by coffeehouses," she said recently when she met with TONY – appropriately enough at Mudspot café in the East Village.
Outspoken and politically-minded since her days as a self-declared high-school drama freak on Long Island, Bracco got hooked on performance poetry while she was a student at Marymount Manhattan College. Her countrywide journey allowed her to fuse her budding activism with her love of performance – and inspired her to work in the nonprofit sector when she finally settled back in NYC. She even spent a week at the Center for Popular Economics last summer – for fun.
And for the past four years, the self-proclaimed punk poetry princess has been returning the love she found in the nation's coffeehouses by nurturing local talent. On Thursday 27, she presents her fourth annual "Poetic People Power" event at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a project that combines literary performance and political activism in honor of National Poetry Month. Each year, Bracco chooses eight poets to write new works on a single issue (This year's theme is "Raise the Wage"). She acts as director, producer and host, structuring the poems into "sets." The readings draw a mixed crowd, from hard-core political activists to poetry-reading circuit regulars.
Bracco, 30, produced her first reading in 2003, in support of Poets Against the War. It went well, but she worried that the antiwar community would disperse when the war got off to a smooth start, so she decided to diversify into other causes. "Had I known how long [the war] would last, I might have kept organizing those events," she says. Instead, she used that first reading as a springboard to an annual series. Since then, while working various day jobs, she's produced two more "Poetic People Power" evenings dealing with, respectively, voting and democracy, and the environment.
To spark ideas for her poets' assignments, she compiles a resource list of websites, articles and other media. "You can't be truly enraged if you're not informed about the extent of the problem," she says. "Two-time participant Erica DeLaRosa says she appreciates the help. "It's a great motivator… . The commission pushes me to learn more about how these issues affect the world that I speak for."
Bracco says she chose the "Raise the Wage" theme because the working poor are among America's most disenfranchised – and least outspoken. "When people's basic needs aren't cared for, you won't hear voices speaking out. If I'm only eating a bagel a day, how does that make me feel empowered to change things?"
The Puffin Foundation recently gave Bracco a grant in support of this year's event. "The prestige and funding passes on to these new artists," she says. "It's not a 'me' project." This attests to the warm and respectful atmosphere she strives to create for her poets. Chris Martin, a recent winner of the prestigious Hayden Carruth Award and a participant in Bracco's readings since 2004, says, "Before Tara, I'd never done a reading where I hung out in a green room."
In the future, Bracco plans to produce a "Poetic People Power" CD, website, book and documentary – projects that will build toward her goal of creating an international community of political poets. "What we're doing is real and impactful. I have people writer me after the event and say, 'I went home and wrote a poem.' " She pauses, then lifts her hands and says, "Remember in seventh-grade chorus class, when we all hummed one note? I envision an activism that's a sustained hum. When one person drops out, you don't notice, because everyone else continues."