Bob Holman was born in Tennessee to Sally Ruth Lewis, the daughter of a coal miner, and Benjamin Franklin Geller, the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. Both of his parents were from Harlan, Kentucky. Holman attended Columbia University, where he was a student of Kenneth Koch. In the early 1970s, he attended Alice Notley’s workshop at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Other writers in that workshop included Charles Bernstein and Eileen Myles.
Holman is the author of numerous works of poetry, including Life Poem (YBK/Bowery Books, 2019); The Unspoken (YBK/Bowery Books, 2019), which contains a section of praise poems in the oral tradition dedicated to various figures, including Ntozake Shange and Sun Ra; Sing This One Back to Me (Coffee House Press, 2013), a collection of new and classic works; Bob Holman’s The Collect Call of the Wild (Henry Holt, 1995); Eight Chinese Poems (Peeka Boo Press, 1981); and his debut Tear to Open (Power Mad Press, 1979). Holman has also worked on a number of collaborative poetry projects with both artists and poets, including Pin the Tail on the Tiger (Norte Maar, 2016), with art by Jessica Weiss, and Crossing State Lines: An American Renga (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), coedited with Carol Muske-Dukes. Holman is also the translator and co-translator of several collections of poetry, including The Book of Sana’a: Poetry of Abd Al-Aziz Al-Maqalih (Yemen Translation Series, Number 4, 2006), co-translated with Samuel Liebhaber, a professor of Arabic, and Carved Water (Tinfish, 2003), poems by Zhang Er.
Holman has edited and coedited anthologies, such as The United States of Poetry (Abrams, 1996), a companion book to the PBS series, coedited with the film’s producer Joshua Blum and its director Mark Pellington, in addition to having his poetry featured in anthologies, including Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and serving as the author of forewords and introductions, as with Bullets & Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2005), edited by Emanuel Xavier, and Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and about the Police (Catapult, 2003), edited by Jackie Sheeler; and ALOUD! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (Henry Holt and Company, 1994), coedited with Miguel Algarín, which was the recipient of the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award in 1994.
Some of Holman’s other projects have integrated poetry and prose, such as Bob Holman’s India Journals (Rattapallax, 2021). Others have been audio and video projects, including Nuyorican Symphony: A Spoken Word Compilation (1994) and Panic*DJ! Bob Holman Live at the Club LaMama, which was performed in both 1987 and 1990.
Holman’s other awards include the Poets & Writers/Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award (2003), the Community Citizen of the Year Award from New York University (2005), the 2006 Elizabeth Kray Poetry Award from Poets House, and the Urban Word Champion Award (2012). For his work to develop spoken word as a movement and art form, Holman has been awarded the 1992 Bessie Award for Performance Excellence and the 1993 Legends Award presented by the Nuyorican.
Holman served as an arts administrator at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where he coordinated and hosted workshops, from 1978 to 1984. From 1988 to 1996, he codirected the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where he initiated and hosted the café’s famed poetry slams. In 1995, he founded Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records, the first spoken word poetry record label. He then served as the label’s vice president of artistic development until 1999. Holman also founded the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002, a nonprofit meeting place for poets and artists, where he served as executive director until 2005 and currently serves as artistic director. In 2010, he cofounded the Endangered Language Alliance and currently serves as its codirector. The organization is part of various projects in which Holman has studied regions and communities throughout the world where indigenous languages are endangered. In this vein, in 2015, he produced and starred in the two-hour PBS documentary Language Matters, winner of the Berkeley Video and Film Festival’s Grand Festival Award for Documentary. Holman also serves as a creative consultant for the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, which produced a performance that was inspired by the endangered language crisis.
Holman has also been the host and producer of several television and radio series. In 1985, he hosted Lines, a radio series for the Detroit Institute for the Arts. Starting in 1987, Holman produced and hosted WNYC-TV’s short film series Poetry Spots, which featured poetry recitations from various figures, including Allen Ginsberg and June Jordan, and was aired for six seasons until 1993. The series earned him an Emmy in 1988 for local arts programming and editing.
Holman has also served as a lecturer and professor of writing at Bard College, Columbia University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Princeton University, and The New School.