On December 9, J.J. Clarke was the featured reader at Mezzaluna’s monthly poetry series in Saugerties. As nearly as any of us can figure, it was his first public reading in eight years.
When I became a part of the Woodstock area poetry scene in the late 1990s, J.J. Clarke was the one most of us looked up to. As a friend of Shirley Powell, he had agreed to read annually at her Stone Ridge Poetry Society. After that organization migrated to Woodstock, James gave annual readings at the Woodstock Poetry Society, which was led by Bob Wright. His performances–you have to call them that–were amazing. His powerful, imaginative poetry was greatly enhanced by his readings, high drama in a startlingly strong voice. Although he is not a large man, James’s voice is one of the biggest I’ve ever heard, the speaking equivalent of those unbelievable singing voices that fill the Metropolitan Opera House.
James had been writing and publishing poetry for years. One of his regular forums was the Woodstock Times, which is where I first encountered his writing. (I still have a page of the old WT with several of James’s poems.) Apparently he published eight chapbooks, although I have only five of them and he claims not to have the others himself. He taught at Ulster County Community College (now SUNY Ulster) for 25 years. One of his students recently told me that people came into James’s class hoping for an easy grade, and were instead swept away by his intensity and wide ranging tastes. He would often lend books from his own collection to students. They loved him.
My own first encounter with James took place at one of those Woodstock Poetry Society readings. I bought one of his chapbooks, introduced myself, and asked for his autograph. I was surprised to learn that he already knew of me, from listening to my radio broadcasts over WDST. He asked if I wrote poetry, and I told him I had just started. He invited me to send him my work, so I summoned all the courage I could muster and sent him a few of my early efforts. He sent them back promptly, with some encouraging remarks and very useful suggestions, and invited me to continue sending him poems. Our correspondence continued for several years, and his ability to focus my attention on how I needed to express what I wanted to say was a great positive influence on my development. Eventually, he told me I had found my own voice and didn’t need him anymore, although I continued to send him work I was particularly pleased with.
After Bob Wright moved away and gave up running the Woodstock Poetry Society, his successor did not ask James to read. I heard him a couple of times in other venues, and then he stopped appearing in public. He told me he was having trouble with his vision and didn’t trust his memory of his own work to get him through an entire reading.
Eventually, though, the vision problem got bad enough so that he couldn’t watch boxing matches on television. That led him to have cataract surgery. When I called him a few months ago to discuss one boxing match I’d seen and he told me about the surgery, I asked him if that meant he would be willing to read again. He said he would consider it. I invited Judith Lechner, who runs the Mezzaluna series, to get in touch with him, and that led to the reading on the 9th.
Those of us who knew James’s readings from the past were a little worried that he might not live up to our memories. He has had health problems recently, and when we saw him, he looked somewhat shriveled. He started reading a bit tentatively. But within two minutes, the fire had returned and he was the booming bard of old, easily filling the large room even when he moved away from the microphone. He didn’t need it. Most of the poems he read were old, familiar ones, but that didn’t matter. When I hear a great performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it doesn’t bother me that I’ve heard the piece before. After the reading, admirers crowded around him, buying copies of the chapbooks that were duplicated for the occasion and asking him to sign them.
James is the greatest poet I’ve known in the Hudson Valley area. Recently I read through one of the chapbooks (The Axeman) aloud to my wife, over several evenings, and was thrilled again by the power of his language and his imagination. (Some of his best known poems, which seem to reveal intimate details of actual experiences, are actually fictional.) Hearing him read again was a remarkable and treasurable experience. Afterwards, he told me he had enjoyed the reading and would like to do more, as long as he doesn’t have to travel too far. A feature at Club Harmony in Woodstock is very likely for this spring.
Here’s a poem from James’s chapbook The Axeman:
When I was eight my father took us
to the Roxy Theater on eighteenth street where Houdini
hung suspended upside down inside a chamber filled
with water; you could see Houdini’s face, his eyes
were closed, the languid muscles in his chest began to
ripple, suddenly his eyes went back so only white was showing
and the audience went “Oooooooooooooo” and it seemed
as though Houdini were possessed by some fresh entity;
his mouth went wide and then the languid muscles tightened
one by one, and you saw his forearms move so quick
that if you blinked you would have missed it; then
the handcuffs drifted off and then the legirons and the
manacles, and then Houdini did a funny thing: He did
a sort of knee bend and then suddenly this dripping little
average-looking guy was standing on the stage, bowlegged,
bowing with his splayed sandpiper’s feet. He clapped
his hands three times and from the wings a high class blonde
came out and draped a cape around his shoulders and began
to lead him off; he wasn’t even breathing hard and he left
a trail of wet footprints where he had been. I would have
given anything to shake his hand, but I was eight
and all Houdini left behind for me were those wet footprints
leading off stage right. I like to think sometimes
you just kept going out the door and down eighteenth street
with that big highrolling blonde, plopping together wetly
down the avenue and out of sight, escaping everything. Harry,
I’m waiting by the door.