Steve Cannon: New Orleanian, Black Bohemian, Art World Giant

by Tracie Morris

Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

Tracie Morris has written the following to mark the passing of Steve Cannon:

Sunday, July 14th, New York City: It’s been one week since the death of gifted multi-hyphenate writer, publisher, gallerist, mentor, and community-builder Steve Cannon, founder of the magazine and organization “A Gathering of the Tribes” in New York City. Although many of us are still in a state of shock at the loss, it is important that his recent passing is noted. This comment is a brief mention to mark this time. I’m sure more extensive commentaries by others will follow.

Steve Cannon was a great writer. The roots of his work are as a proud New Orleanian. He often mentioned the city of his birth in his reflections on his life and cited his upbringing there in how he expansively considered life, culture, the spirit, art, and organizing disparate people and points of view. (One of his last publications was the book Black Jelly, with poetry by fellow New Orleans native Melanie Maria Goodreaux. Several months ago, he hosted a major event for the book at Langston Hughes’ Harlem home. An apt context.)

Steve very much made New York City his place. Earlier on in his relocation here he was a member of the culturally significant Black writers’ group, Society of Umbra. His impact on the influential Lower East Side/Loisaida/East Village art scene and its global influence from the 1960s to the present is incalculable.

In addition to being a renowned writer, publisher, and community organizer for authors, Steve was a friend of performance artists, musicians, and visual artists. Some legendary creative friends who predeceased him include Judith Molina, Miles Davis, Butch Morris, Ntozake Shange, and, if memory serves, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Appreciation of and respect for Steve by countless artists of all disciplines is a very long list, too long to begin to approach in this brief note. He was a draw. He was also an incredibly generous person with his time and care. Many of us are deeply indebted to Steve for his support, exceptional cultural memory, and deep connections throughout the larger art world. Even though he was known as more avant-garde in his personal approach to writing, he was extraordinarily well-versed and welcoming of all types of art and scholarship.

For many of us who grew up in the “downtown” New York City poetry scene in the early 1990s, Steve was a welcoming, fun, and brutally-hilariously incisive critic and supporter. His “throne,” in those early days of the revivified Nuyorican Poets Cafe, was the end of the bar where he could be heard to audibly and perceptively, well, heckle. “Read the got-damn poem!” was one of his most well-known critiques when the poet on stage was yammering through a warm-up to the text (present writer very much included). What Steve’s loving and bracing critiques, both toward the stage and in intimate conversations, helped to do was expertly mentor — and toughen up — many of the poets who embraced his company. I don’t think I realized how well he prepared so many of us for the writerly life through his witty comments yelled toward the stage. Those who had experienced that type of bracing humor that underlies a very precise suggestion on the poetry in the room were more than prepared for the critiques of, say, an MFA workshop.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Steve’s legacy, especially now in hindsight, is his ability to be a “neutral space” for many dedicated artists, including poetry cliques that naturally occur in communities by people of varying opinions. There were people who disagreed vehemently with each other or plain didn’t like each other, as people are wont to do, but everybody got along with Steve. He just refused to hold grudges or to hold on to bad feelings. He accepted that other people did, he listened but he wasn’t in a “camp,” he was the camp ground.

This included all the art disciplines that A Gathering of the Tribes represented on paper, digitally, and in live performance (including dance). He was a living “true north” for how to embody an open-minded, open-hearted practice and beingness.

Although it seems that Steve lived to a respectable age (84) before joining the ancestors, it feels to be a premature passing if you’d met him. He was consistently vibrant, vivacious, curious, and of sound mind and body (maybe just a bit frailer as he aged). He always was ready with a hearty laugh and intimate, smokey voice (unless he was loudly heckling) almost up to the moment of his death. He was a good friend and he loved connecting people. He was a fun organizer: “Introduce yourselves, introduce yourselves,” was another one of his known and beloved phrases when a few or a lot of people were in the room with him — and this was usually the case. He was extremely popular with people of all generations. (Folks loved to hang out with him and he was quite charming in his uniquely unaffected “Black boho” way.)

The fact that Steve was blind from 1989 until the end of his life might’ve been why newcomers, strangers, would introduce each other to each other at his request. After all, did Steve know who was in the room? Shoot, Steve knew who was in the room better than the sighted people in the room.  What he did by suggesting that folks introduce themselves was to create a welcoming space everywhere he was. Rather than just take over the place, he’d encourage all of us to connect one to another, making ourselves at home.

Celebrations are being organized throughout the city for Steve (and beyond) as we mourn the tremendous loss to our communities. Steve was very committed to publishing voices of artists from around the world and to mentoring subsequent generations of artists. Although he spent much of his time “gathering” various tribes, Steve himself was a serious writer of extraordinary versatility and often heightened minimalism. His economy as well as his flourishes were not only on the page but in his articulation of what mattered and how he brought it across in his care for artists.

His like will never come again. Never. But he has done more work to serve the arts community and the human community than most. So many stand on his shoulders, on the houses he’s built. He has inspired and will continue to show us the best way to make art and to “do” community. He gathered the tribes together and so we are left with the question he posed in the title of one of his wonderful plays: “What now? Now What?”

— Tracie Morris, July, 2019