City poet hits hard times
In a long dank subway corridor below 14th Street, commuters and travelers hiked past in droves, filling the space with the repetition of clicking heels and pounding footsteps.
But Donald Green does not move amongst them. He sits atop plastic milk crates shoved into a corner and stuffed to the brim with various scraps of paper covered in remnants of his prose.
Small, dilapidated home-made signs dot the area around him, “A New York Times Published Poet Shares his Poems,” the signs read, breaking up the continuity of concrete and soiled tile for 10 feet in either direction.
Those that pause to read the signs fall victim to Green’s marketing trap, and he pounces on them, a cool customer with over 30 years of poem sales experience.
“Excuse my bohemian appearance,” said Green, a toothless smile barely peeking out behind the uneven bristles of his unkempt beard, “but are you interested in buying some of my poems?”
For Green, poetry is life, an over 50-year “journey” to reach literary fame, that peaked in 2000 when he was quoted in an article in The New York Times, and has since consumed him, leaving him in a pedestrian expressway clinging to past successes and future dreams.
Soliciting his stanzas on the streets and in subways has been Green’s only job since the late ’70s. He worked days in the book acquisitions department at Columbia University’s Butler Library and at night he wrote poetry, fostering a love that existed as young boy growing up in the heart of Harlem and in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance.
“The dream of fame begins very young,” said Green. “I remember sitting in my room in Harlem, no more than six, and thinking, ‘I want to be known, I want to be recognized, I want to be noticed,’ and fame is the way to that.”
In 1970, at the age of 23, he got his first taste of that fame: four of his poems were published in an anthology of young black poets called, “We speak as liberators.” Shortly thereafter, Green made his first television appearances, reading poetry twice on both the now defunct local New York television show, “Like it is,” and NBC’s “Someone New.”
“Looking back on it now, I took it all for granted,” said Green. “I was poet, on so many television shows, at such a young age.”
Emboldened by his early successes, Green scrapped his job at Columbia, where he said he had “run out of material,” and instead set up a table around Manhattan selling poetry with the hopes that he would grow as a poet and gain notoriety.
“When I went out and started selling and meeting people in the ’80s, I had a beautiful freedom when I wrote,” said Green.
But no matter how he evolved as a poet, Green saw little kick-back. With no publishing deals, and very few public appearances, Green’s career was on the decline.
“The level of fame I dreamed of could never be achieved by a poet,” said Green. “It has taken me many, many, years to accept that.”
That is, until a couple of major New York publications came calling. After Green was quoted in The New York Times, and had an article in New York Magazine written about him, Green redefined his business, creating signs with The New York Times and New York Magazine articles and logos plastered across them while taking on the persona of a distinguished poet.
“I’ve noticed, when you have a calling card that says you were published in The New York Times, people walk by and go, ‘Wait, wait, wait, The Times? The Times? Let me go back and see what this guy has here, ’” Green said. “It’s a very impressive thing for a poet to have.”
Green often recounts his encounter with Bruce Weber – the journalist for the New York Times that included his poem “Hope” in the Times article some 12 years ago – in vivid detail calling Weber simply “Bruce,” as if in casual conversation.
“Bruce was a very straightforward man,” said Green. “He knew what he wanted.”
But in a phone interview Weber remembered little about Green after 12 years. Weber admitted he was working on a difficult assignment, trying to piece together snippets of arts celebrations of the millennium from around the globe when he spotted Green’s set-up in the East Village and thought he might get an interesting quote. Aside from that, Weber’s memory was vague.
Still, Weber admired Green’s commitment.
“I have respect for a guy who believes in the written word,” said Weber of Green. “I like the idea of a guy who believes in the written word so much he’s not ashamed to present himself as a poet.”
During the digital age, Green has garnered support across the web for his eccentric persona and off-the-cusp poems. A series of youtube videos, blogs, and even a Facebook group were created in his honor, all of which he uses to market himself to passers-by.
“I’m very well known on YouTube,” Green said. “I walk into McDonald’s and the people who work there say, ‘I’ve seen you on Youtube! You’ve got five stars!’”
Green often brings conversation back to his association with authors and performers who have achieved the fame he sought so badly. At a 1992 book signing for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones, Green recalls a photographer ignoring Jones in favor of taking pictures of him.
“That’s when my career really took off,” Green exclaimed.
In another encounter, he recalls congratulating a teenage Aretha Franklin on the street after a performance at the Apollo Theatre.
“She was so moved by me,” Green said. “She was so full of pride. I made her night.”
But in reality Green is a proud, but poor man: a single poem sells for just $1, an original “on the spot” poem goes for $5, and for the low price of $10, your original poem can sit alongside a collection of his 10 best, stapled together shoddily between two pieces of thick blue construction paper and articles published about him in New York Magazine and The New York Times.
“I’m not a rich man, but I keep money in my pocket, “ Green said.
Green said he is not homeless, that his family has supported him so he doesn’t have to pay rent, and can continue to live out his lifestyle.
But his clothes are tattered, soiled with dirt, his fingernails long. He hardly leaves the corner of the subway, staying “sometimes past midnight,” and arriving, “before five in the morning.” When he does leave, he stacks his belongings neatly in the corner, and covers the signs with his namesake in AM New York newspaper clippings.
“I pack up all of my things so well, you can’t even tell what it is. I don’t leave out any signs that say I’m a New York Times poet.”
The table he used to sell his wares above ground is now broken, discarded alongside the remnants of food donated by New York City Samaritans who look at him and think he’s homeless.
“People resent my lifestyle,” Green said. “They think, ‘he’s a poet, he’s doesn’t make money, he doesn’t fit into the way society works, he’s a poet sitting out on the street.’”
So they drop off food, money, and clothes. Green relishes certain instances when the donations allowed him to live a different lifestyle. Once, he said, a man in a trench coat left him a $100, another time a woman left him, “an expensive peacoat, like the businessmen wear.”
Still, Green clings to his pride. As long as donations are anonymous he accepts them, but if they ask, he politely declines.
“Sometimes they ask if they can give me the food. If they ask, I say no, ” Green said.
He lumbers around; the pain from untreated hernias stifles his movements. He tries to hide them beneath baggy clothes, and walks into a corner and faces the wall so that others can’t see him readjusting his clothes, but they protrude from his lower abdomen like a stanza against his frail frame.
When asked about the toll his lifestyle is taking on his health, he offers a coy response.
“They aren’t life threatening,” Green said. “They are fine, the doctors said they are fine.”
But the same people that bought his poems in the past often stop by to check on him, concerned about his health. One woman embraced him and then pointed towards the bulging hernia and said, “You need to get that checked out, Donald.” To which he responded, “I know, I know.”
Yet, in spite his current situation, Green still holds onto the dreams of his past. He said he is working on a new book of poems, which he claims he will sell to a contact at HarperCollins he met selling his poetry.
“I still might be able to write shows that go to Broadway,” Green said. “I still might be able to write songs that go to Broadway. There is still space for fame.”