The following story was originally published in a shorter version in The Story of Albany: Told by the Times Union and its readers, sponsored by the Albany Public Library & published by the Times Union in 2009.
I left Albany in 1964 when I graduated from high school and headed to college in New York City, and in Albany at that time, there were no bagels and no poetry readings. Now there are plenty of both. One of the local figures who helped get Albany’s vibrant poetry scene going was Tom Nattell. I’ll leave the history of bagels in Albany to someone else.
I returned to Albany in 1986 and eventually found myself at the beginning of the poetry open mic scene that has put Albany on the nation’s poetry map. But in 1986, there were only a few poets who read at the music open mic at the 8th Step on Willett St. However, the energizing force was the annual Readings Against the End of the World, a fundraiser for the Albany Peace & Energy Council. Tom Nattell coordinated the event, beginning in 1984, a response to the Reagan-era ratcheting up of the nuclear arms race. It took place on a weekend at the end of April (or beginning of May), around Earth Day, from Friday midnight to Saturday midnight at various locations, starting at Richard Genest’s Half-Moon Café on lower Madison Ave., then the Social Justice Center, finally at the 1st Presbyterian Church, above the 8th Step. space, on Willett St. I had discovered the RAEW just before moving back to Albany, reading in it for the first time at 8:45 AM in 1986. After I moved to Albany I helped with the fund-raising & volunteered the day of the readings right up to the last one in 1993.
In 1988, Tom asked me to a take a photo of a rag-tag group of Albany environmental, anti-nuke, peace activists, poets and performers, a publicity shot that then appeared in the local newspapers as promotion for the RAEW. Year after year I would help out with the pre-event phone-tree soliciting funds for the event, taking publicity photos weeks before, doing introductions at odd hours during the readings, folding up tables and chairs at the end. And Tom would be there, constantly, 48 hours straight, he claimed.
Many local and regional writers and performers participated, including Harry Staley, Judith Johnson, Enid Dame, Donald Lev, R.M. Engelhardt, Mary Panza, Don Levy, Alan Catlin, Maurice Kenny, Barbara Smith, & others. And the occasional “celebrity” would show up: Ed Sanders of The Fugs performed a number of times and I have a photo of William Kennedy reading in 1987. It wasn’t just writers reading. Tom always included a “Children’s Hour,” usually at mid-day and other time slots included dancers, folk singers, magicians, and all kinds of collaborative pieces mixing words, music, visual art, movement & props and gimmicks. You never knew what you would see when you showed up, any time of the day or night. By the last RAEW in 1993 about 170 performers were signed up for 10-minute time slots each.
Tom had a sense of when enough was enough (or too much). In 1993 he quietly ended the Readings Against the End of the World after its tenth event. In a Times Union article by Amy Biancolli published just before the reading, Tom was coy, “Things start and things end, and if this (the readings) turns out to be the last one, it was meant to be the last one.” As word got out that this was indeed the last one, there was of course talk of others taking it over, but no one did. There have been other, similar marathon reading events after, but none ever achieved the energy, the number of performers, or the staying power that Tom, APEC & the army of volunteers achieved over the 10 years of the Readings Against the End of the World.
During the interview with Amy Biancolli Tom had also said, “I’ve got other things that I work on and other things that I like to do…” In fact, by this time Tom was running a monthly poetry open mic at the QE2 rock club on Central Ave. and had recently formed the poetry performance group, 3 Guys from Albany, with Dan Wilcox and Charlie Rossiter, and he would go on to write a popular bi-weekly column for Metroland, Albany’s arts & entertainment weekly. “Things start and things end…”
Tom died of cancer in January 2005. During his last month he arranged for his archives of the 10 years of the Readings Against the End of the World to be stored (and available for public scrutiny) at the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives at the University at Albany. Included are files of newspaper clippings and other documents, hours of mostly un-edited video tapes of the readings and binders full of photos. If you ever participated in the Readings Against the End of the World, you’re in there somewhere.