Harrisburg’s Ubiquitous Poet: Marty Esworthy

A perpetually in motion ’Gentle Ben’ of experimental poetics

Photo By Will Masters
Story By Randy Gross – rgross@harrisburgmagazine.com

Think of this as one-part limerick, two parts paen, and three additional mind-blowing parts experimental performance piece. True, that’s a lot of parts to swallow, but when the resulting poetical amalgamation comes attached with the name Maurice Esworthy, it’s guaranteed to be an intoxicating brew. In other words, this ain’t no Julie Andrews “just a spoonful of sugar” bitter pill of a profile. To the contrary, Marty (or, for his Facebook fans, Zuky Kunstweker I or II) is known to so many poets in the Greater Harrisburg world of versification – as an iconic writer, performer, and ubiquitous mentor – that he needs no introduction to those who frequent downtown, midtown, and almost-uptown coffee houses and art and music halls. It is because he is the sweet bit of cream in every finger-snapping wordsmith’s cup of java (or the foamy head to every mug of craft-made beer), that he has been chosen as this month’s Influencer. Therefore, allow us to introduce the Megaera-award-winning Marty Esworthy to those rare few in the ‘burg who may not know him.

The 50 stages of marty

Basically it’s like seeing a sunrise
or shivering in the cold. The edges
are very important. Do they become
undifferentiated void or fall in tune
with the rhythms of breathing?
(from “Stages of Trance,” published in After the Aughts, © 2018, Lost Alphabet LLC)

Okay, one might say that there have been more than fifty Marty Esworthy stages – and the word “stage” can also have more than one connotation. The poetry impresario has certainly entered into an eclectic array of “periods” over the decades (think Picasso and his “blue” and “rose” periods, only even more colorful); and, at the same time, he has also performed his poetry – and, as a host, invited other poets to perform – on a multitude of platforms. No matter what period or platform, there has been one constant: the mic has always been open for writers of all creeds, color, and experience level. Moreover, Esworthy has always been a gentle, nurturing presence in the room.

After all, isn’t that what a “teacher” should be?

Teacher, teacher, teach me more

Search for absolute zero. Peach
blossoms, starry nights — to know
no boundaries. The new
urbane loneliness, yeah … these
are the things you are to me.
(from “Life and Love Among the Amish,” published in Twenty-Six Javanese Proverbs, © 2006, Iris G. Press)

It could be said that the path from child to adulthood was both urbane and lonely at times for Esworthy. The Harrisburg native’s parents were well-read, and his grandfather was a schoolteacher, so his home environment was ripe with learning opportunities. There was just one problem: “I never understood the world,” he says, describing his own ADD self-diagnosis, decades after such diagnoses even existed. “I never did well in school,” he continues, “and people were always mad at me.” One of the “mad” ones was a guidance counselor who proclaimed Esworthy to be a rebel, something which still makes him bristle.

His learning disability often led to isolation. “My parents didn’t know what to do with me,” he recalls, “and they would let me not go to church, because I said I would learn more by walking down by the river.” It was during one of those solitary walks, at age 7, that Esworthy would write his first verse – a playful song – serving as a precursor to his poetry.

“When I was in seventh grade, I had a really nice teacher who said ‘we’re gonna talk about poetry, and maybe write some poetry.’ So, I did that,” remembers Esworthy. “I wrote some stuff and then I had it published in the school newspaper, and from there on I was a poet. I mean, in the regard of my friends. It got me some respect. To get it published, that changed my life.”

Once out of school and faced with a bleak employment picture, Esworthy worked a couple of stock boy jobs. “But I didn’t know what was going on, so I could never do good in almost any job, because I’d have to follow directions. The only good stuff I did in life was stuff that I initiated. Like with the poetry thing [to come], or before that, in Baltimore, when I was a music lecturer.”

That’s right, following in his grandfather’s footsteps – even if unintended – Esworthy began to teach (“I was more of a musicologist,” he asserts). While still in Baltimore, his Army radio/TV training would also earn him a part-time DJ job (“I was Maurice the Mood Man, over-night on a black radio station,” he says with a chuckle), skills that would serve him well again when working at the now-defunct WMSP in Harrisburg (a Christian station located in the basement of Market Square Church).

Esworthy would also land a teaching position at a middle school in Westminster, MD; and served as a writer for Harry, an underground newspaper in Baltimore in the late 60s and early 70s that included the late political satirist and journalist P.J. O’Rourke (“Eat the Rich”) on its editorial staff. It was a period of extreme growth and change that occurred just before his return to Harrisburg.

“My poetry changed then,” he says. “Even when I first came [back] to Harrisburg, I was writing the stuff like ‘oh I look at my grandmother’s chair … and then I took a walk in the woods … and then the end of the poem would be ‘then I learned yada yada yada.’ And I thought, ‘well, that’s stupid.’ Because I realized how foolish it was to keep writing what you learned … epiphanies and things like that. I mean, epiphanies are valid, I guess, but why write about them?”

His self-taught lessons are something he would eventually start imparting to other poets. But first, there was the matter of honing his “sword”-sharpening skills.

Wielding the paper sword

Poised. Rich curtains are hushed.
under gold of streetlamp and furtive glance.
At dawn. Levitation is like that. And
overflow floods great tendrils of roof, because the entire garden is a plane of moonlight. 
Glow, look. Listen.
(from “Levitating FireEscape,” published in The Fox Chase Review, Summer 2011)

The “sword” in this case isn’t of the Excalibur type, though The Paper Sword, a group that brought nationally renowned poets to the Art Association in Harrisburg for featured readings and held open readings for up-and-coming writers in the 1980s, retains an aura of the mythological in local circles. It’s legendary members over those years included Gene Hosey, Rick Kearns, Jack Veasey, Paco (Frank Miller), Tom Bickman, and, of course, Esworthy himself. “It was the only real game in town,” he recalls. “When I first came back to Harrisburg, I went to poetry things and so forth … but they were all a bunch of old ladies and stuff. And that’s not bad, but they had different ideas about what poetry was like. It was just not a very comfortable place for me.  I was always writing experimental stuff, of one sort or another, so The Paper Sword was a comfortable place for me.”

Meeting on Sunday afternoons originally, Esworthy would often be late for the gatherings (not a surprise, for those who know him). “They would say ‘where were you?’ and I would say ‘I was watching a football game’ and then everyone was shocked and didn’t like me for a while. (he laughs).”

Notwithstanding his tardiness, Esworthy wanted to fit in – while standing out – at those early Paper Sword readings. He explains, “so, I’m thinking ‘well, I can’t dress as hippie as these guys, so I’ll dress more dressy. And then Tom Bickman came, and he’s wearing a suit and a vest, and everything (laughs) and I couldn’t top him. So, then I went back to more casual attire.”

There was a lot of non-conformity versus conformity going on in those days – including in the world of poetry – and Esworthy was smack dab in the middle of it all. But he had a plan brewing. An “all-inclusive” one.

Poetry thursdays (but why not monday or tuesday?)

Sure. Anyone can grow up to be President, or a color-commentator.
Looking out on creation, like Shiva, yes! YES! Our drones
shall rise above infinitives of all nations.
Oops, there go/ another/ rubber tree plant.
(from “Totally Blown Away By Walmart’s Strip Mall-Everyman/Everyday Proclivities,” published in After the Aughts, © 2018, Lost Alphabet LLC)

Not unexpectedly, poetry had already been brewing – or percolating – even before the emergence of The Paper Sword, and much of it inside Esworthy’s own head. And he was creating enough of it that it necessitated the creation of a collective to promote poetry events in Harrisburg.

Or make that a Cartel.  The Poetry Cartel (later to be called The Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel), co-founded with Michael Lear-Olimpi, currently a Communications & Journalism professor at Central Penn College, initially served as way to promote poetic “stuff” the two were doing at the Paul Robeson Center. Says Esworthy, “I wanted to call it a Cartel, as opposed to ‘my gig’ or ‘his gig,’ so it could be a group thing. At least that’s why I used the term.”

A “group thing” would soon become Esworthy’s thing, when he began hosting regular poetry readings that incorporated his customary style of making every poet feel relaxed and welcome to read (or not read). Starting in the late 90’s, he would embark on a string of venues almost too long to list, with the very first Poetry Thursdays being at the long-defunct Sweet Passions coffee shop at 1006 North Third Street.

“I inherited the gig,” he recalls. “There were two women [Tammi Hitchcock & Karen Wisotzky] and they were running a reading close to my house. But I never enjoyed hosting.”

And yet, host he did. Over the ensuing years, Poetry Thursdays would move – and move again. Stops after Sweet Passions would include the North Street Café, the Gamut Stage at Strawberry Square, the Deli Bean (also in Strawberry Square), Violet’s on Walnut, Sparky & Clark’s Coffee Shop, Susquehanna Art Museum (when it was on Market Street), The Crimson Frog (on the West Shore), Midtown Cinema, the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, and finally – Esworthy’s last gig before retiring last year – Hertrich Fine Art.

Why, do you ask, did Poetry Thursdays have so many homes? Explains Esworthy, “They [the venues] had different expectations of what it was. I would tell them ‘Just remember that poets are different than regular people: poets don’t spend money!’”

Poetry Thursdays was a stupid name,” he continues. “If you’re moving from ‘one week you’re here, and then two weeks later you’re in another place’ … but it was also a practical name.”

Now renamed The Blacklisted Poets by new host Jeanette Amy Trout in an effort to not only continue but improve upon Esworthy’s all-inclusive format (“everybody will be considered a ‘blacklisted poet’ here,” she says, “a group of unanimous people”), Trout also pledges to build on her mentor’s work teaching poetry composition and literary performance – first with a series of workshops aimed at helping new readers overcome their stage jitters.

“It takes a while to get over nervousness,” maintains Esworthy, “but Amy is working with people to learn how to present their poetry. Because there are a lot of little tricks. If you pick even two out of ten tricks, it’s going to improve your reading.”

Sound poetry (and n-numerous n-nights of ng)

I think everyday of Ng,
for she is my obsession.
I am always thinking of Ng.
But I loves the waitresses
very muchly. They knows
what the boys like.
Sometimes when I think
of Ng, I listen to the
aforementioned waitresses.
Multi-tasking does not
diminish the quality of
my art. Hey, ars longa,
know I’m sayin’?
Viva Las Vegas.
Love is a sad charade.
I could rule the world if I…
you know what I’m saying, eh wot?
Marty Esworthy (posted to The Waitresses Forum, Saturday, 22 Feb 2003 02:03)

Uprooting his Poetry Thursdays group and moving from venue to venue didn’t deter Esworthy from the pursuit of his own writing. His published books include Twenty-Six Javanese Proverbs (Iris G. Press, 2006), Uh Oh! The Object Looks Back (T&T Press, 2009), and After the Aughts (Lost Alphabet LLC, 2018).

And it also didn’t stop him from further experimentation. One of his many so-called “periods” (and one that some may say he is still in today) is his “Sound Poetry” period. Also called “verse without words,” Wikipedia defines sound poetry as “an artistic form bridging literacy and musical composition, in which the phonetic aspects of human speech are foregrounded instead of more conventional semantic and syntactic values.” Or, as Esworthy himself would say in his best performance voice, “bluenotes bopping from nine to ten on the night — that wondrous night the beatniks invented rockabilly & WTF! baby, baby-baby baby! bébé-bébé-bébé!– what, I mean WHAT be-came/ of the early me?”

“Besides,” he continues, elaborating on the use (or ill-use) of prosody, “people totally waste sound.”

Then, there was also his Ng period (1998-2003), or more specifically “Thinking of NG,” a multi-year performance-art piece in the making, fueled by Esworthy’s vow to think of NG – and ONLY think of her, never look at her – DAILY for five straight years. NG was the name he gave to an internet girl who was living her life publicly at the time (“some would say wantonly,” he says) for all to see. This charmed him and became his “pure” obsession. Four public performances of his “Thinking of NG” epic would follow. (His many fans are hoping and praying for announcement of a new NG tour soon).

Marty’s legacy

Even the dancers at the fountain in Italian Lake
Wore a coating of snow that day suggesting
that its name, “Dance of Eternal Spring”
was no talisman against the onset of winter.
(from “Right, said Fred,” published in After the Aughts, © 2018, Lost Alphabet LLC)

It’s springtime in the city. Hibernating poets are starting to emerge, starry-eyed, from HMAC’s basement to recite in the courtyard once again. As a poetry host for 21 years, Esworthy has danced his own eternal dance, spurring poets to “awaken” like no one else in the Mid-State. Which begs the question: just what is his legacy? Perhaps that is best summed up with the words of the many poets the one-time Pushcart nominee has mentored, instructed (or maybe even driven to fits of jubilant keyboard playing) …

Praise for Esworthy:

When I think of Poetry and Spoken Word Ambassadors in Central Pennsylvania, Marty Esworthy is always at the top of the list. Marty is poetry in the flesh. He smiles, walks, and talks like a Poet. Marty Esworthy is a community pillar, and an elder with great respect. I am glad I know him. – Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Gadsden

Our first chance encounter was at a poetry reading in the mid-1980s. It impressed me how he wandered into his poems so casually you weren’t aware you had been grabbed by the elbow and dragged happily through a flurry of images and language curiosities that flew as they stumbled along every turn of phrase currently in fashion. Marty is a walking talking poem-in-progress. A hero in my all-too-heroless world. – Gene Hosey

It was years of attending Thursday night poetry hosted by Marty before I heard him perform his own work, and months before I saw him host. Why? Because Marty uplifted, encouraged, held space, and made opportunity for other poets and writers at every turn. More amazing community leaders and creative advocates have come out of Marty’s mentorship than can be counted, myself included. – Carla Christopher

Marty Esworthy’s poetry is focused on sound, language, and elements of postmodern writing. A true narrative is less important. I found out he can edit any form of writing. I spent hours with him editing a poem over the phone. During that conversation he suggested he feigns a narrative which shaped my future writing style. – Keith Snow

For the sake of the artistic word community Marty makes it happen. When one venue is no longer an option, he finds another. Artists can count on a place to share their work. Marty makes sure of it. He has a love for the literary, for the art, for the artists. – Bob & Deb Ryder

Cutting Marty Esworthy in half to count the rings would be like peeling layers of onion to find your new alias. Marty’s ageless, playful as a wink, and a truly wondrous planetary being. – Craig Czury

The first time I met Marty, we just picked up where we left off in our previous conversation. That’s how it’s always been. I’ve known him forever and just met him. I am the poet I am because of him. I am in his debt. He is in my heart. – Le Hinton

I met Marty in 1982 while he crouched on a curb, capturing “street sounds” with a huge reel-to-reel. He was adamant: The sound of poetry out-sings meaning. He knighted me protégé. We founded The Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel to push his assertion. I never heard poetry the same again. – Michael Lear-Olimpi

Marty Esworthy, all suavity and coolness, is every inch the legend he is rumored to be. He once gave me an opportunity to read my poems at The Midtown Scholar Bookstore, long before any of them were published. I was super nervous, but he was funny and sweet. He even mentioned poems he liked afterwards. That reading and his encouragement mattered and I’m truly grateful. – Dana Kinsey

When I hosted Yorkfest’s “Poetry Spoken Here”, Marty arrived Sunday afternoon, welcomed joyously by poets performing in an open tent along the bike path. The sun was golden, casting shadow-leaves on the tent roof. Marty looked up from his reading, entranced. “Look at that!” he said, “It’s beautiful! Look at that light!” His delight reminded us all to be appreciative and aware. – Carol Clark Williams

A prophet in his own right who howls and laughs and throws an occasional chair. He builds things, collects things, because they fascinate him. The newsprint, the faces, the writers… all collected through his art and his love of the avant-garde. It’s like he built so much of us- of what the community is itself. And so patiently, in that gentle Marty way. – Christine O’Leary Rockey

Marty Esworthy is a disciple of the avant-garde, an advocate of French new-wave cinema and an eccentric, electric poet with fascinating, mad, creative talent. And he shares it all with us! – Debberae Streett

Marty has rare words at his disposal and stands out as one of the most unusual language poets. But what is most endearing about him is that during open mics he pays attention and mentors on all kinds of poetry, including many quite different from what he does himself. – Rich Hemmings

Marty Esworthy taught me how to write poetry, how to read poetry, and how to host and maintain a weekly reading. When I took the reading over from him in May of 2021, he was instrumental in making it a smooth transition, from The Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel to The Blacklisted Poets of Harrisburg. I aspire to keep his unique style alive. – Jeanette Amy Trout

Marty is nationally and internationally known for his surrealistic poetry. His vast knowledge of US and pop culture history informs his work; snippets of Motown tunes can share space with quotes from Wittgenstein and Will Rogers. While he has the justified reputation for being weirdly comical, there are grand ideas and insights hidden amidst the dense thicket of metaphors and non-linear hijinks in his poetry and prose. – Rick Kearns, Poet Laureate of Harrisburg (since 2014)

Marty is a treasure. There’s just nothing like him. And it’s not just that his poems and brilliant performances are entrancing and surprising, it’s that he gives with his art permission for other artists to completely tear down their expectations for what a poem is or what a poem can do. He’s a sorcerer, really. His gifts are many and his power is thrilling. – Barbara DeCesare 

I have taken many a stroll around the city with Monsieur Marty Esworthy. His stochastic multivariate process cannot help but emerge. He couples these wonders with pop culture sound bites and streams them into his poetry. The results are pure genius! – Christian Thiede

Maurice Georges Esworthy III is not only a Space Cowboy and the Gangster of Love, but he is also the Mentor to beat all Mentors! Everyone (and I do mean Everyone) is better for knowing the Man, the Myth, the… well you get the point! I wouldn’t trust a person who didn’t like Marty! That is the bellwether for determining if a person deserves your time! Viva la Maurice!! – Kevyn Knox

Marty has supported me and my art for the last 20 years. I never felt like odd man out at Poetry Thursdays because he always embraced me and because of him, others did too. When my book “Talking ‘White’” came out, 76 people squeezed into the Midtown Scholar to support me. That was Marty. I will always consider him a part of my family. – Maria James-Thiaw

Marty and I have had many adventures: floating poems on Italian Lake, freezing words in ice, putting together A Poets Tour of Harrisburg, and creating a cacophony of sound with our tribute to John Cage in “Night of the Living Keyboards.” The best advice he gave me was, “Don’t ever apologize for what you write” and “Always wear something sparkly when you read your poetry.”– Julia Tilley

Encouraged to go to a reading in 2009, I was immediately struck by how deftly Marty managed the room. Even on days when I wanted to hide, he would find me (or my daughter) and gently remind us that it had been all men and needed mixing up. As a mentor he taught me that poetry is a living form. As a friend he has taught me more about life, art, and the 76ers than I ever expected! – Anna Jones

When I met Marty about 6 years ago, he tried to kick open a locked door at an art gallery. After that, I knew I had to work with him – and did for the next 5 years. – Jose Morales

Marty is the spontaneous overflow of poetical presence in and beyond Harrisburg. And, he never fails to inspire, and make us think and laugh! It’s no coincidence that central to Marty is a-r-t. Thank you, Marty! Long live your zany flow and magic so generously given! – Michael Hoover

Marty Esworthy has contributed so much to the local poetry community over so many years. His zany personality, wit, dedication to people and their words truly makes the world a better place. – Dana Sauers

Editor’s note: The Blacklisted Poets of Harrisburg, “the bastard stepchild of the Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel,” currently meets every Thursday evening at 7 pm in the basement or (weather permitting) in the courtyard at Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center, 1110 North Third Street. As a carryover from Esworthy, they still never use a sign-up sheet, and a desk bell is usually available to ring as a signifier that the just-read composition has reached its conclusion.