Poet Steve Cannon, 84, of Gathering of Tribes
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON
Poet Steve Cannon, the legendary
founder of the East Village’s A
Gathering of the Tribes, died at 2
a.m. on Sun., July 7. He was 84.
Cannon was rehabbing from a broken
hip at the VillageCare Rehabilitation and
Nursing Center, at 214 W. Houston St.,
across from the Film Forum. He had
fallen and broken his hip in his East Village
home on June 12, after which he had
surgery at the Veterans Affairs Hospital
on E. 23rd St. and First Ave. He transferred
to VillageCare on Sat., June 29, according
to poet and friend Melanie Maria
Goodreaux said Cannon went to the
V.A. for surgery because he was a former
paratrooper. She had seen him the Tuesday
before he died.
“He said he was bored in the hospital
and he was really looking forward to going
home,” she said. “He was still talking,
still laughing, and we were still talking
“He was there to rehab his hip,” she
said. “He had to learn to stand and walk
around. He was going to be in rehab
about a month.”
But three days before he died, his condition
took a turn for the worse. Cannon
was sent to the intensive-care unit at the
V.A. Hospital Saturday night. Among
those at his bedside in his last hours were
his daughter Melanie Best and poets Bob
Holman and Chavisa Woods. Also there
during the fi nal week were poet Steve Dalachinsky
and artist/writer Yuko Otomo.
According to those with him in his
fi nal days, Cannon apparently had an
abscess that burst. Indeed, Woods, who
was with Cannon in the ambulance to
the I.C.U., said she believes the cause of
death was septic shock.
East Village performance artist David
Leslie said Cannon had been suffering
from a bed sore when he recently visited.
“He had a cyst or some sort of abscess,”
he said. “He said he had gotten
like a bed sore on his ass, which needed
to be cleaned up.”
Leslie said that he had, by coincidence,
been visiting Cannon with some friends
just about 40 hours before his death.
Cannon had been sleeping, and so he
woke him up.
“Steve seemed perfectly fi ne. He was
joking and in good spirits,” he said, “and
the next thing I heard, he had died.”
But Goodreaux said, although people
are saying sepsis, she thinks it was simply
Cannon’s age combined with the serious
“If he wasn’t blind, they probably
would have let him out by now,” Leslie
added. “People get out with a broken hip.
But you wouldn’t want a blind person
stumbling around with a broken hip.”
Steve Cannon in his younger
Cannon went blind from glaucoma in
the late 1980s.
He was born in New Orleans, the
youngest of 12 or 13 children, and raised
by his grandparents. He moved to New
York City in the early 1960s. Early on,
he collaborated with black artistic luminaries
novelist Ishmael Reed and artist
In 1990, Cannon created the East Village/
Lower East Side literary magazine A
Gathering of the Tribes, and soon afterward
turned his East Village home into
the Tribes literary salon and art gallery.
In 2014, Cannon was forced to vacate the
space, though he had thought he had an
agreement to live there until he died.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Holman,
the founder of the Bowery Poetry Club.
“The Gathering of the Tribes was just
that, where all artists were welcomed
under one roof. He embodied the generosity
of art. Artists who were doing it,
or artists who didn’t know they were artists.
There was an ever-welcome mat at
Steve’s doorstep. His was the ‘In’ that always
had room. The loss is incalculable.
“And now we’re in the new New York,
which seems to be looking everywhere
— technology, globally — but is missing
the human contact, which is what Steve
saw everywhere. He was the ‘Great Connector’
— the person at the center of the
Holman said that even in his fi nal
years, in his Habitat for Humanity apartment
on Avenue D, Cannon’s place remained
a gathering spot.
“There was a constant stream of visitors,”
he said. “The door was unlocked,
as it had been on Third St. There was
always someone there.”
It was East Village journalist Sarah
Ferguson who found Cannon that apartment
after he lost Tribes, Holman noted.
Similarly, Woods said, “He was magnetic,
magnanimous. He created the most
open space I’ve ever participated in — for
better and for worse. He was expansive,
warm, explosive, energetic, eccentric and
strange. He really believed in the mission
Steve Cannon at the finale of A Gathering of the Tribes in its former
space on E. Third St. in 2014.
of bringing people of diverse backgrounds
and perspectives together for
the purpose of creating art and community.
And sometimes it was really messy
and sometimes it was spectacular.”
Cannon was known for his tough love
toward young poets.
Poet/playwright Liza Jessie Peterson
posted a fond recollection on Facebook
of Cannon at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
shouting at young poets to dispense
with the introductions and explanations
of their work and “Just read the damn
“He was defi nitely a guide. He gave
counsel,” Peterson said. “He was just on
the surface like that — really mean, a
strict teacher. But he brought out the best
in you. He was tough, he wasn’t mean.
He just raised the standard. He gave us,
like backbone, courage, to get up there
and just, ‘Read the goddamn poem!’ …
He would just scream it.”
Sitting at the corner of the bar, Cannon
was the toughest critic in the place.
“It was like Steve’s sacred spot at the
bar,” she recalled. “This was in the ’90s,
you could still smoke inside. He was just
this Lower East Side cat. He just had a
keen ear. When you’re blind, it heightens
the other senses. He didn’t want no bull
crap: Just get up on that microphone.”
Today a playwright and actress, Peterson
has been nominated for a Drama
Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance
for her acting in her play “The
Goodreaux noted she knew Cannon
for 27 years, ever since arriving in the
“When I moved to New York in the
late ’90s, I would read the newspaper
to him in the morning, and his e-mails
and books,” she recalled. “Not just me —
many, many people read to him.”
This January, Cannon published a
book of Goodreaux’s poems, “Black Jelly,”
and Goodreaux said his impact as an
independent publisher must be acknowledged.
PHOTO BY SARAH FERGUSON
“I think he’s one of the most important
publishers in the history of the city,” she
On top of that, Cannon was always
simply encouraging people to write and
hone their chops.
“If we went to a movie, he’d say, ‘Write
a review of it, put it up on a Web site,'” she
said. “He was constantly pushing people
to write. He wanted to educate people
and he wanted them to understand the
importance of being an artist. But he was
also down to earth.
“He went to every play I ever had,” she
recalled. “He was constantly hungry for
art.” Woods, who worked for Cannon for
seven years and said he was her longtime
mentor, is the author of four books, including
“Things To Do When You’re a
Goth in the Country.” She said she would
often read entire books for him in one sitting,
sometimes lasting up to eight hours.
Afterward, they would discuss them, and
he would talk about the authors’ writing
and share anecdotes if he knew them
Holman noted that one thing Cannon
regularly had read to him was The Villager
newspaper, of which he was a fan.
“It was his newspaper,” he said. “The
Villager was a regular part of his literary
diet, for sure. That and The New York
Times, the London Review of Books. He
was a true intellectual, an intellectual of
Cannon was married twice. His son
from his fi rst marriage died in his teens
from hemophilia. Cannon was the adoptive
father of fi ve daughters from his
second marriage to the late poet Zoe Angelsey.
He has at least two sisters living in
Details were not immediately available
about a memorial, but friends said there
might be something this week, and that
they are working with the family to plan
a memorial later, possibly in the fall.
20 July 11, 2019 TVG Schneps Media