Debt Relief and Enlightenment: Postcard From New York City

Jean Hartig

On the second Saturday of this month, a renovated turn-of-the-century electrical parts factory in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens was aglow with jovial literary energy, much of which was generated in response to the albatross of many a writer: student loan debt. The tone of the evening’s program, which featured six readers and the artwork of around thirty artists, swayed between reflective and ironic.

Saturday’s reading was part of a weekend-long exhibit of art, music, and writing billed as a “three day celebration of debt relief and enlightenment.” The event was presented by AfterSputnik, a grassroots organization created by debt-saddled former students who want to “change the way people think about student loans” and help debtors manage their loans by providing access to financial planners and other resources.

I arrived at the end of poet Alyssa Harley’s reading and settled quietly on a circular velvet couch behind four rows of seats facing the stage. After Harley left the stage amid supportive applause, a blue-wigged Liza Minnelli doppelganger—the evening’s emcee, shod in silver stilettos and wrapped in black, leathery Lycra pants—sauntered into the spotlight. Liza (the performance artist Victoria Libertore) asked for a show of indebted hands and distributed candy to a few lucky individuals within her pitching range. The night, she said, was all about “sharing and helping each other get out of debt.”

She then brought on poet Jody Mousseau, whom she introduced as a former class clown now “distilled by the corporate business world.” Mousseau read her poem “Summon,” which played on the town-crier tone of the repeated proclamation, “Hear ye! Hear ye!” to advise indebted listeners of the alternative forms of payment (organs, limbs, offspring) that may one day be accepted by lenders to reconcile debt. As she read, Mousseau crumpled and discarded the sheets of paper in her hand as if they were loan invoices.

Next, Gabrielle Prisco, a poet who also practices law, took the stage to applause and remarked, “I don’t know if I’ve had too many people clap for my debt before.” Prisco read a poem whose sections were marked by the dictionary definitions of debt: “sin, trespass”; “something owed, an obligation”; “a state of owing”; “the common-law action for the recovery of money to be held due.” She also read a piece that ruminated on her identity as a third-generation Italian American (“I close my eyes and imagine my roots going down like a fig tree,” she read) who cannot speak the language of her grandparents, but is fluent in English and the language of American law, “these languages not in my blood roots.” The poem also reflected on the dreams of her grandmother, who wanted but was unable to study fashion design, and Prisco’s own college and graduate school degrees—good fortunes that indebted her financially. Her grandparents, Prisco read, gave her both of her graduation dresses.

Returning to the stage, Liza carried books recently cleaned out of her home—Rebecca Wells’s Little Altars Everywhere, Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible—from which she read excerpts and distributed to curious parties. I was waiting for her to offer the copy of Dr. Seuss’s classic—and popular gift for recent graduates—Oh, the Places You’ll Go! from the bottom of the stack, but instead she introduced the final reader, Susie DeFord.

DeFord, a graduate of the New School who now writes for BOMB magazine’s blog, read a poem about various extreme income sources to which one could turn in order to tackle debt (numerous terms in the Peace Corps, sale of plasma, or, terrifyingly, a woman’s own eggs). She finished with a poem from a book she’s writing about her more reasonable employment as a dog walker in Brooklyn. The job, which DeFord has turned into a full-fledged business with a few other writer-artist walkers, struck me as ideal for a post-graduate writer—if one could make it work as she has—with meditative time built in and canine clients whose presence is reported, if recent scientific findings are reliable, to be soothing.

Liza took the stage a final time to close the program, mentioning the importance of the event in unifying artists who happen to be in debt, and concluded with the remark, “It’s very powerful to know you’re not alone.”

Following the reading, I strolled around the loft, snacking on dark chocolate from the generous bowls of candy placed throughout the space and checking out the works by the thirty or so artists who contributed paintings, sculpture, and photography. I snapped photos of Shayne Aldrich’s “Opportunity,” a gilded carrot blooming green with a shredded dollar bill, hung with red twine on a pole, and a group illustration that prompted viewers to create their own images of loan debt (abounding with marker drawings of anguished faces and open mouths). Photographer Dana Schiffman’s portraits of students also caught my eye, particularly an image of a twenty-four-year-old woman who is attending rabbinical school—a spiritual pursuit akin to working towards an advanced degree in writing—whose educational debt was projected to add up to eighty thousand dollars.

As my companion and I were touring the space, Libertore, sans costume, approached us bearing postcards for her upcoming performance, “My Journey of Decay,” running later this month at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and asked how we came upon the SpeakEasy. Answering that we were both poets and poster children for educational debt, I mentioned that it must be nice to don a wig and assume a persona for a while on stage, kind of like what writers are able to do on the page when given the time and space. She replied that it allows one to really notice details and address things as they happen, from guests arriving late to the subtlest gesture, which galvanizes the room. Especially, Libertore said, when embodying a persona like the Liza character, “since she never really knows where she is” and therefore must reevaluate and remap her surroundings each time she enters them in order to maintain focus. At one point when Liza/Libertore got a little lost in her thoughts during the performance, she gave a big kick and shouted, “Hello!” as if to reset herself.

Evenings like the SpeakEasy, where literature and art happen in an open space, where the arts are given room to be absurd and earnest, reflective and liberating, offer a similar refresh. I left the event, venturing into the brisk wind hurtling off the East River, feeling heartened, a little more connected, and, for the moment, relieved.


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