Interview: Thomas March of POETRY/CABARET

Cabaret ... it's not just for singers anymore.

By: Jan. 03, 2021
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Interview: Thomas March of POETRY/CABARET

Thomas March is not your usual cabaret and nightclub personality. His personal artistic focus is not that of a singer or an actor but that of a bard. This monologist is also a published poet who has created a kind of artistic mashup of his two careers, thrown in a dash of comedy and a soupcon of music, and created POETRY/CABARET. The Broadway World Cabaret Award-nominated series invites artists from the worlds of poetry, music, and comedy to take turns at the microphone, sharing that which is most uniquely themselves. Shortly after its debut Poetry/Cabaret (and March himself) developed a devoted following, proving once more that the cabaret and club industry is one that can be easily opened up to welcome people and artists of many demographics to the stage and to the community.

With a new year upon us, a year in which hope takes a front seat and anything might be possible, I reached out to Thomas March to learn more about who he is and where his artistic nature wants him to go.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced with minimal edits.

Thomas March, Welcome to Broadway World! Thanks for visiting with us today. Your bio lists you as a performer and a poet. What is the nature of your work as a performer?

I write and perform what I've started calling "tragicomic monologues." I've performed them in club, standup, and storytelling contexts, but for the past few years, they've mostly been appearing in my bi-monthly variety show, Poetry/Cabaret. they're more like personal essays that I'm saying out loud. There's definitely a narrative, but they tend to be a little more discursive. They usually center around my childhood and adolescence-early manias and misadventures that sometimes resulted in unexpected insight. They've covered things like rowing a magician and his pet bear across a lake in a canoe at night., improvising an apocalyptic puppet show starring Jesus, navigating the perils of kindergarten ambitions and downfall, and of course, Scouting, that special hell for gay boys who don't care for the woods.

Interview: Thomas March of POETRY/CABARET

Honestly, though, we enter adulthood carrying so much shame and embarrassment from dumb or just sincerely naïve things we did as children, that it can be really freeing to look back a little more gently, without downplaying how mortifying things were. It's not about "kids saying the darndest things," as it were. It's more about welcoming back all the pain and humiliation-but softly, with some jokes, and for the amusement of others. I hope that's healthy.

Is it fair to ask what came first, the poetry or the performing?

They both started in elementary school, but then the performing was on hold for about 30 years-except for a couple of weeks as a pre-adolescent child preacher, delivering sermons from the pulpit when the minister was out of town. In elementary school, I wrote plays, cast myself and my friends, and convinced the teachers to give us class time to rehearse. This peaked in fifth grade, when my play about two kids who invent a time machine got co-opted as a class project, to review the History curriculum. I lost creative control. But I rolled with it. Every kid in the class got a part, and we videotaped it for posterity, with an enormous mid-1980's VHS recorder. Unfortunately, only about a minute and a half of that play-film still exists, because my mother used the tape to record the Barbra Streisand A Star Is Born when it was on t.v. But that minute and a half are gold-sixty seconds in, and we've already built that time machine and traveled back to the Salem witch trials. I don't think I'll ever write a tighter exposition.

Now that they're both part of my life again, these questions arise when I know I want to write about something-is this a story, or is it a moment of clarity about something which, for me at least, makes it more naturally a fit for poetry? Sometimes the answer is both, but maybe serving different ends in each case. But there's no universally correct answer to that dilemma. It comes down to knowing what your relationship to poetry is, what it feels most appropriate for as you make sense of your own experience. And that goes for writing the essay or the story, too.

The life of a poet is extremely particular. What can you tell us about the industry and the art form that people probably don't know? What would a glimpse through a window tell a voyeur about the existence of a poet?

Well, most poets don't make a living writing poetry, so one thing poets have in common with each other is the challenge of balancing the day job with the creative life. Some people teach and find that's a way to stay connected to literature and language. Other people prefer to keep the writing separate from what they do for a living. But it's a luxury to have a choice in that. That need to make space for the creative life is something all artists share, though.

The poetry world has its cliques and coteries and rivalries and controversies, but I don't suspect that's all that different from other creative communities. Maybe poets are more intense about it? I mean, a lot of poems happen because you have an intense desire for other people to see this true thing you've figured out or this thing you're grappling with in what you hope is an illuminating way. But I think everyone is trying to tell the truth, to share some hard-earned insight, in whatever form that takes.

Poets and performers also share the experience of frequent rejection, from submitting work and auditioning-and the challenge that brings, to develop a thick skin while maintaining the vulnerability that is vital to the work.

You are the creator of the ongoing series POETRY/CABARET. Put a picture in my head of the creation of this very original show, from inception to now.

When my poetry collection, Aftermath, came out in May of 2018, I wanted to do something different for my book launch. I love a variety show, and I wanted to put together an evening that wasn't focused exclusively on the book but featured performances that resonated with its themes. I included friends who are cabaret artists, musicians, actors, writers, and comedians-people whose work moves me, makes me laugh, reminds me of important things that are true. There were some readings of poems from the book, but for the most part, other people read them. I acted as emcee and wrote a monologue that I wove in throughout the night. Together, we created this experience that reflected the thematic journey of the book. That combination of different styles, emotional shifts, tension, release-it was powerful. By the time I went to bed that night, I knew I wanted to do it again. That first show was at The Green Room 42, and we've been there ever since.

But going forward as Poetry/Cabaret, the show wouldn't be centered around my poetry. From the first show, Poetry/Cabaret has been about bringing together artists I admire and giving other poets a chance to read in this kind of setting, with its particular challenges and rewards and different way of connecting to an audience. If you're following a comedian and there's singer coming after you, you have to be more aware of the room. You have to be mindful of where the previous performer took them, what you're inheriting emotionally from that last performance. Is it a wave you're going to ride, or is it a current you have to absorb and redirect? What connects the poetry readings and performances is that they're all responding in some way to the evening's theme, which is usually an adjective describing an emotional state or attitude like "Fresh" or "Proud" or "Smitten". As the host, I open and close the show and deliver a mid-show monologue, to provide some thematic scaffolding.

What is the mission statement of Poetry/Cabaret and how do you curate these evenings?

Poetry/Cabaret is a bimonthly variety salon that brings together poets, comedians, singers, and other performers to respond to a common theme in a friendly evening of surprising emotional intensity.

I started calling it a "variety salon" to signal that there's a literary element but also to emphasize the atmosphere of curiosity and spirited play around the evening's theme. My mission is to offer a show that surprises the audience, keeps them interested and rewards their attention. I think people leave their homes to attend a show because, among other things, they'd like to feel something-something new or just something else. At Poetry/Cabaret, I want them to have as many feelings as possible.

By destiny and by design, it is a very queer and queer-adjacent show, but somehow the audiences tend not to be exclusively or primarily queer. But they can count on plenty of queer content. This is an evening for adults. And the show doesn't work without poets and performers who bring different experiences, styles, interests, and concerns. You're not really getting an interesting range of responses to the theme if everybody's approaching it from the same place.

Interview: Thomas March of POETRY/CABARET

When I start to plan a show, I decide on the theme first. Then I look over my lists of the performers and poets I want to invite and identify those whose work would work well with the theme-either to complement it or complicate it in interesting ways. I have long lists of people I'm dying to invite to read and perform, enough for years, and these lists keep growing as long as I keep going to shows and open mics and getting excited about performers who are new to me. When I'm thinking about musical guests, I try to consult with Drew Wutke, the show's musical director. Once the cast is in place, I definitely rely on his input when we're thinking about song choices. I ask comedians to give me a sense of what the focus of their sets will be, the highlights, and I ask poets to send me the 3-4 poems they're planning to read. Poets are sometimes reluctant to send those pages-poets tend to like the flexibility of being able to decide on or near the day (or hour) of a reading. But that's the difference between a reading and a show. All of this helps me choreograph the emotional trajectories of the evening. I do micromanage a bit-I have two binders on show night with duplicates of everything from sheet music to poems to my monologues-but that's really so nobody else has to worry about details or what happens if something goes wrong. I want people to be free to focus on their own performance and whatever prep they need to do.

Once I have this vital intel, I put post-its up on the wall and start moving things around. I never want comedians following comedians, poets following poets, and so on-I want the audience to have that extra stimulation of having to relate differently to what's happening on stage, from performance to performance. But I'm also mindful of the emotional experience the audience will be having, so the post-its move around a lot until I'm confident that the shifts in mood and tone make sense.

One of my favorite things about this show is that audience members almost always see something they don't usually seek out by itself. Maybe there are poetry fans who never go to standup shows, standup fans who have never seen drag, etc. So the poets and performers end up reaching some people who might not otherwise have been exposed to their work. But exposure is not payment. I think it's important that everyone in the show gets paid actual money for sharing their time and talent. It might not be a fortune, but it's a matter of respect.

Is Poetry/Cabaret the first show of its genre in the cabaret and club industry, or are there others like it?

There are definitely other variety shows, but it might be a little different to have this combination of the host's monologues framing a narrative arc throughout the show, along with four or five different art forms in one evening, all offering varying responses to the same theme. I knew a show like this could work because Lance Horne cast me, as a poet, in one of his Live from Gramercy Park shows, back in 2014. It was the most fun I'd ever had while reading, and I could see how stimulating the pace and the variety were for the audience. That night definitely planted the seed.

The club industry is mostly music, but not exclusively so: what can the cabaret community do to foster a welcoming environment for more poetry based productions?

I understand why it might be difficult to imagine poetry as part of a night at the club or in the lounge. But it goes both ways. More poets-and some certainly do-could start to see clubs and the nightlife world as an environment where poetry belongs, as entertainment, as provocation, as part of a whole evening of performance that isn't necessarily poet-centered. I understand why it doesn't feel like a natural fit. Poetry is often very solitary work. So poetry readings, however moving or dynamic they might be, can seem like collections of individuals who naturally don't see themselves as part of a cohesive cast putting on a show. Having that connectedness and shared sense of purpose with other artists-that responsibility for reaching an audience while being mindful of what's just happened and what's about to happen-that can be a new thing for many poets. There's an intimacy about a cabaret environment that's very different from poetry readings. When you take the stage to read, you have to think differently about how you're going to perform those poems right now, in the context of what's just happened, to have an impact on this crowd. It doesn't have to be for everyone, but it's a different kind of thrill.

A lot of people are afraid of poetry, intimidated by it. What could you say to those people to open their minds a little so that an evening at Poetry/Cabaret would appeal to them?

I hear that a lot, and I understand that people may have had a wide range of experiences with poetry when they were in school, maybe, and it didn't really interest them at 15. Or maybe they dated a poet in college and they feel like they've had enough. And some people just don't care for it, try as they might, and that's OK. We don't all have to love everything. But Poetry/Cabaret features such a diverse range of poetic styles, forms, and voices that anyone with preconceived ideas of what poetry must be is bound to have those ideas challenged during the show. At Poetry/Cabaret, the poetry is part of a broader evening of entertainment in which each performer is offering their take on a particular theme. So there's a sense of context and there's continuity, as well as variety- a lot of time for the poems themselves to sink in and take root because a poetry set is followed by a song or standup set or monologue. I've heard from a lot of audience members who felt like they could come to poetry differently, maybe give it another chance after hearing people read at the show-or at least look for more work by the poets they liked. And once that door is open, it's great if they approach poetry in general with a little less apprehension or wariness.

What does life for Thomas March look like away from the world of poetry? What would you like to tell our readers that would let them know who you are as a person?

When we aren't in a pandemic situation, I try to get out a few nights a week to see my friends' shows or attend their readings. Monday nights, I'm often at Mondays in the Club at Club Cumming. I try to be somebody who reliably shows up and supports other artists. I've seen so many artists for the first time, just by attending the shows of friends whose work I love. There is no downside beyond lost sleep.

I have a manageable obsession with fashion-manageable because I don't have enough money for it to become unmanageable. And I like to travel. Sometimes those two interests merge. But I've spent a lot of time at home in sweatpants over the past 9 months.

I also teach English, but I don't know what that says about who I am as a person. I'll tell you what it doesn't say-I don't correct other people's grammar at parties, and that's the first thing people tell you they're afraid you're going to do when you meet them at a party and tell them you're an English teacher. But I'll take that over being a doctor or a lawyer-I don't see how they ever get to enjoy meeting new people at a party.

Have you been able to tap into the online performance craze during 2020? Could you reach a wider audience for Poetry/Cabaret online?

Aside from hosting a couple of Zoom holiday parties, not yet. But I do want to. I was trying to figure it out toward the beginning of the pandemic, but I got sidelined by some medical things-and then the school year started. But I hope I'll find the best way to do this early in 2021. It would be great to feature artists who don't live in New York City and to bring in an audience from outside the city, too. With all of the downsides and the things that can't possibly be the same as being in a room together, those would be enormous benefits that only an online show could deliver.

How did you first discover your relationship with the art of poetry?

I'm going to answer this question with a poem of mine that my mother found a few years ago. Judging by the penmanship and lack of punctuation, I must have written it not long after I learned how to write-maybe fall of first grade:


So, here's this maybe six-year-old kid moving through exuberance to disappointment to resignation, to maybe some hopeful optimism at the end. There's not a word in that poem that isn't true now-whether it's Halloween, vacation, summer, whatever. I mean, think about all the things that are that simple and true but we spend a lot of energy dodging or trying not to feel like adults. Kids will just let it all out. I was fortunate enough that I had access to paper and something to write with. It's not that different now, except that, whatever it is, you realize that maybe other people have felt or experienced this thing, too, and might come along while you sort it out, find the right form for it to take.

But it hasn't been an unbroken line of deepening commitment and progress ever since "Untitled Halloween Poem"-there have been years away, and a lot of false starts. But I think the relationship, to bring it back to the question, is like any other-you build trust, let the truth be messy and confusing because you learn how to stay with it until it's clear, even if it's no less complicated.

When you write, do you find yourself attracted to or inspired by certain topics?

My partner used to call my work "tragic". But maybe I'd characterize it a little differently, maybe "exuberantly tragic"-there's longing in both of those attitudes, and it's not always a sad thing at all. Loss may be inevitable, and it should get its own proper attention, but recognizing that fact maybe deepens the joy that there is in longing for someone or something, sometimes even when they're present. It's hardly a new idea-I just think it's always worth grappling with, for whatever new version of the truth each situation might reveal. That "Untitled Halloween Poem" was maybe just the first time I felt strongly enough about a complicated feeling to try to find the words for it. But those questions-"Why do I love this so much, when I know it's going to go away? Why do I want it to happen again?"-for me, those are always worth thinking about. And I'll just say that a very high percentage of the songs I love to hear in an intimate cabaret setting are working through those very questions or the many adjacent ones. And maybe that's a way poetry and cabaret overlap, too-the intimacy of sharing the richness in those tensions.

I know a writer who feels that it is important, for him, to write every day; he sits at the computer and writes for an hour, then goes back to see if he likes what he has written, or he edits it into something that speaks to him. When you sit down to create, is there a process that you like to follow?

I have a lot of rituals when I actually sit down to write-specific pens for specific kinds of writing, and I always write on sketch paper because I like how it absorbs the ink. I write drafts of almost everything in longhand, with a fountain pen. But when I edit, I use an extra-fine Sharpie or a Le Pen-because I often edit in the bath, and that's no place for fountain pens. They're sharp.

As for a process that comes before that, I tend to collect a lot of notes about something first-lines, phrases, questions. And when there are enough of those that belong together and I'm clearly meant to think about them, I put them in their own folder. And every few weeks or so, I'll sit with the folders and see if there's something there I feel ready for. After that, it's very often like piecing together a puzzle-a puzzle with duplicate pieces and pieces missing at first. So it starts off kind of messy, but finding order in it is the rewarding part.

With the vaccines happening at this time, and a new administration going into D.C,. life in 2021 is going to (hopefully) be different than it has been in 2020. What is the vision in your head of what you will do next? Does it involve another book or more performing?

Both, I hope! Two of the projects I'm working on have a direct connection to the show. I'm expanding on my "tragicomic monologues" from the show as a collection of personal essays, called Puppetshow Apocalypse. And I have many more that I want to tell at future shows. For several years, I've been collaborating with painter Valerie Mendelson on a series of persona poems called A Good Mixer. It's based on a 1933 bartending guide, and it consists of Valerie's portraits of 33 of the cocktails and a pair of poems that accompany each portrait, written from the point of view of the person drinking the cocktail. We imagine they're all at the same cocktail party, and one of the poems represents the person's outward persona, while the other one reports their more private thoughts. There's a lot of longing-love triangles, resentments, missed connections, sweetness, love, sincerity, all of it. It works as a dramatic piece, too-kind of a boozier Spoon River Anthology-and I've featured actors playing these characters in Poetry/Cabaret, as well as at Club Cumming and other settings. A selection of these cocktail character portrait-and-poem pairings will be featured in an upcoming issue of Grand, the new journal from One Grand books. And I'm looking forward to offering more in the months to come as a Contributing Editor. And as soon as we can be in a cabaret room together again, Poetry/Cabaret will be back-with maybe an online show or two in the meantime.

Thomas do you have a favorite poet or poem?

It's more that I have a dozen or so poems that I look to when I need to be reminded that certain things are true-and that it's possible to find language that conveys those things powerfully and clearly. It's humbling and reassuring at the same time.

Thank you so much for visiting with us today and helping Broadway World Cabaret to broaden the scope of cabaret. Here's to 2021!

Visit the Thomas March website HERE


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