“We do Bar Mitzvahs.”
In the benefit production Portrait of Poe, that’s about as close to optimism as Edgar Allan Poe, gets on October 8, 2011, at Area 405. And the show hasn’t even begun. Having revealed his freelancer roots – anything for money! – Poe (in the body of Baltimore actor and writer Mark S. Sanders) disappears backstage.
He’s a good poet, but, once again, the market research needs a little work. It’s Yom Kippur, and almost as he speaks, Shofars are blasting across Baltimore.
A few minutes later, he returns to the stage to open the first act. He takes his seat in front of a smallish crowd in a bleak, 160 year old abandoned warehouse, nestled in the sketchier section of the Northern Arts District,once the home to a window blind manufacturer, an equipment maker, and, before that, a brewery.
It hasn’t been a good year for Poe’s ghost, but he has a few loyalists. Mark S. Sanders is one of them. As Poe, he spent the night of the 7th – the anniversary of Poe’s death in 1849, and the opening night of Portrait of Poe — sitting in front of the poet’s one-time abode, a tiny brick duplex located at 405 Amity Street. In the mid-1830’s, Poe lived there briefly with his aunt, who owned the place, and young wife, Virginia. What was then a wooded area now is sandwiched in a housing project. “I was sitting there on the front steps of the Poe House, dressed as Poe, at 2:30 am,” says Sanders in a brief post-show chat. The neighbors from the surrounding housing project, he adds, “were great.”
But the City Government is less so. One hundred sixty two years after Poe was found dying in a Baltimore watering hole – wearing someone else’s clothes – he may go homeless again. Two years ago, the Baltimore City Government decided to withhold the $85,000 per annum necessary for upkeep and museum status. Once again, Poe may be left wandering homeless in Baltimore.
Across the city, a few of the aging wooden bus-stop benches still bear the old branding, in chipped white paint: “The City that Reads.” That’s turned into a punch line in a city where indie bookstores are a thing of the past, and Barnes and Noble makes its real money off of sweatshirts and double espressos.
The city that bleeds? Well, the homicide rate has actually gone down a little in the last year. The city that speeds? That’s more appropriate, given the fact that the city government spent much of the summer hacking down trees and laying concrete barriers for its highly vaunted Baltimore Grand Prix. The race looks like it’s on its way to becoming a Baltimore tradition.
But other traditions have fallen by the wayside. For sixty years, the Poe Toaster – an anonymous Baltimore persona – would place a bottle of cognac and three roses at the headstone of his memorial. For two years, though, the Poe Toaster failed to show up. On October 7, Poe went Toastless once again.
The day wasn’t a total loss. Earlier, Luke Evans from the upcoming film, “The Raven,”showed up to do homage at the graveside. So did Joe McTeague. On the other hand, John Cusack, who’s going to earn more money playing Poe than the poet himself earned over a lifetime, was a no show, despite a few rumors.
The atmospherics of Sanders’ current one-man show are appropriate. With an audience in the very low double digits, the pallid Poe, sporting his signature comb-over and funereal black suit treats the audience to another night of greatest hits. With a half-filled decanter to his left, he starts to shuffle through masses of books, stacked on the floor, for scraps of his manuscripts. But think Great White, or Poison. Like any aging 80’s hair metal band, he knows this audience has come for the song that made the charts.
So, a bit wearily, he starts to read from “The Raven,” his greatest hit from 1845. But he seems to realize after a single stanza that, if he shoots his wad this early, the place will empty quickly. Ever inventive, he comes up with a new strategy: reading snippets from “The Raven,” and weaving them in with lesser hits, and even a few (“The Conqueror Worm”) that deserve more fame than they ever got. Also, he treats the audience to an extended reading of his freelancing resume just to counter the dismissive tone of his stepfather’s letters.
To his right is the portrait of his dead wife, Virginia Clemm, the thirteen year old cousin he married in 1833 and spent two years with in Baltimore. She died in her mid twenties of consumption. Throughout the evening, Poe speaks mostly to the portrait itself. To the Poe scholar, that indicates that this evening with Poe could be taking place in the Poe Cottage in the Bronx, where he spent a lonely year mourning her death and trying to revive his freelancing career, before his brief and fatal return to Baltimore.
Writing and drinking don’t mix, but the increasingly regular shots from the cognac decanter do help Poe with his on-stage delivery. After a somewhat dreary opening, his intensity starts to take hold. We begin to see sparks of his trademark dark humor, and he treats us to a few synopses of his crazier stories – the ones you were never told to read in high school. (“Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is particularly notable).
After two hours, and two intermissions, the reading comes to an end. His incarnation of Poe’s ghost now concluded, Mark Sanders – a poet and freelancer, as well as actor – steps down from the stage “I need a drink,” he says. He thanks the production team from the horror flick, “The Ghoul Society” which is currently in production and which he stars in. They have shown up to fill a few chairs. Then he thanks the video team for Ventura Productions, which has filmed the presentation and will presumably be airing it on YouTube. The host of the event, Julie Fisher, chairperson of Poetry in Baltimore, starts to close the house down. (Hamilton Arts Gallery, another Baltimore collective, is co-hosting the event).
And now, it’s eleven o’clock, one day after the 162nd anniversary of the great poet’s demise. Outside Poe, assuming he still walks the streets — would find himself on East Oliver Street, facing a wall of empty and boarded row houses — a staple landmark in a city which is in part a nightmare Potemkin village. There are other cities – New York and even London – where Poe is being memorialized on the weekend of his death. Tonight, though, Baltimore is special. It is the city where one of America’s greatest and internationally recognized poets returned to and ultimately died in, delirious, penniless, and homeless, after being found in a bar that doubled as a polling station.
Released from the body of Mark Sanders, and heading up the increasingly sketchy Guilford Street at 11 pm, on October 8th, Poe’s ghost is probably feeling the same chill that he may have felt on that fateful week in October, 1849. Then, he found himself in Baltimore while heading from Richmond to New York City. No one knows exactly why he was there, or what he spent five days doing before he was found, drunk, slipping in and out of consciousness, and shouting the name “Reynolds!” over and over again. But there’s probably one lesson Poe would probably have for any aspiring writer: this is a city you may want to polish your craft in as a writer, but it’s not a city you want to die in.
By strangling the Poe House, Baltimore City Government is helping him press that point home. And with Portrait of Poe, Mark S. Sanders, with the help of Hamilton Arts Collective, Pennies for Poe, and Poetry in Baltimore, is pushing back.
Author’s Note: Poe is no lost cause, however. Baltimore writers and artists have all collaborated to fill in the gap and cover the expenses for the upkeep of the Poe House. Actors (including Tony Tsendeas and Sanders) have been bringing him back to life. The Pennies for Poe project (penniesforpoe.com), now under the stewardship of Baltimore writer Rafael Alvarez (alvarezfiction.com) has been collecting funds for the preservation of the Poe House.
A Portrait of Poe, a one man play starring Mark S. Sanders, is holding fundraising events for “Pennies for Poe”: Oct 14, 15 and 21 at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm). at Area 405 405 E. Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 Tickets: $10.