Once I was a Goat Hill Poet. On the first Sunday morning of the month I drove up the sweeping curves of Goat Hill Road, then turned into the driveway for the slalom course of puddled potholes to Leslie Gerber’s house to park behind his car quilted with anti-Bush stickers: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” etc. Never shy with opinions, Leslie always had strong and often funny reactions to the latest movie at Upstate or performance at Bard Summerscape or old comedy show he’d found on DVD. As the classical musical columnist for The Woodstock Times, he was a professional critic, but he’d never lost touch with that boisterous enthusiast who wants to be captivated and doesn’t hesitate to protest when he isn’t. Not that he didn’t enjoy stinkers now and again. Aside from Goat Hill Poets, he hosted Ed Wood nights around his large home theater screen to chortle and howl over America’s most famously inept movie director. Yet workshopping poems he never said an unkind word. He was fiercely supportive, a defender of that space that poems need to emerge in their tentativeness and vulnerability. The only reason that he might cancel our gathering was that he volunteered at a program for battered woman. He might need to lend his support to someone who’d suffered a terrible Saturday night. Not for Leslie the snarkiness that sometimes infects poetry. His goodwill was rock solid.
Leslie insisted that he was merely the host, not the organizer of the Goat Hill Poets. Our leader was Cheryl Rice of Kingston, herself a maven of old TV and old comedy, and for years the self-proclaimed Diva of the local poetry scene. For a time, she hosted an annual Sylvia Plath Bake-Off in honor of—well, you know what—until Pillsbury’s lawyers sent a threatening letter claiming copyright over Bake-Off®. For the Goat Hill Poets, their deal was that she’d recruit participants if he’d offer his kitchen table for gatherings so she wouldn’t have to clean for company. It worked. (I only wished I’d known Leslie at his previous home on Parnassus Lane, a modest ranch that happened to be Big Pink, where Dylan and the Band had made history.) We were joined by Marianna Boncek, a teacher from Liberty who commuted across the wild Catskill mountains early on these Sunday mornings, and by Guy Reed, who slipped away from his wife and teenage daughters for a few hours. After sharing jokes and jibes around the table, we got to work on our poems.
Times marches on. Leslie moved from Goat Hill Road to De Lisio Lane. I stopped writing poems and stopped attending. But Goat Hill Poets grew with new members and new ambitions. Now, for the second year, they will appear twice at the Woodstock Fringe Festival, this time on July 31st and August 10th. Last year, Dayl Wise of Post Traumatic Press published a chapbook anthology for the readings, simply titled The Goat Hill Poets. Here’s one by Cheryl that I especially liked. It makes me wonder if writing groups don’t serve a little like angels.
Without a god, instead I gather angels
on a shelf above my side of the bed, metal, straw, wood.
They are fingerless, plain-faced, eyeless, all knowing.
One of twisted golden wire trumpets silently.
One has what looks like hands tied into prayer,
twined wrists aiming abstract supplications
upward, outward, where?
This is as far as religion can take me anymore.
I have perfect faith in the monstrous evils of change.
For every reported miracle there is at least one tragedy,
one moment too late for every just in the nick of time.
One angel was twisted from pipe cleaners
by my boyfriend, early on, when his kids made ornaments
for his first Christmas tree alone.
It is able as the others, just as even-handed,
mere outline, but serviceable.
The angels are only mirrors anyway,
aspects of my former selves that needed reminding,
can-do kids of my golden age,
chorus of gumptious handmaidens
who fill my gas tank, get me into the shower,
get me out of bed, to the keyboard, the empty screen.
They cheer me on, hear my prayers rising
in bubbles of sleepy mucus from my allergic nostrils.
They do whatever it is that’s done with prayers,
file, collate, back up.
They are there. They are always there.
They see without faces all I can stand, all I need.
They do the hoping.
I do the rest.
And one by Leslie:
Meeting the Famous in Manhattan
I met Muhammad Ali
across the street from Madison Square Garden.
He shuffled along slowly, breathing heavily.
I asked him how he remembered fighting there.
“Like it wasn’t me,” he said softly.
“Like the dream of a butterfly.”
I met Johnny Depp
on the stage of B.B. King’s on West 42nd Street.
He was playing bass in the band.
I asked him why he wasn’t making a movie.
“I’m always pretending to be someone else,” he said.
“Here I can pretend to be myself for a while.”
I met Barack Obama
at a midnight basketball game in Harlem.
He was sitting quietly on the sidelines, watching,
an unlit cigarette in his hand.
I asked him how he like being President.
“It’s fun,” he said. “Lots of big things to do.
But this would be more fun.
Look at that kid’s jump shot!”
I met Queen Elizabeth
coming out of Bloomingdale’s.
The Prince was at her side,
“I’ve always wanted to meet you,” I said.
“You look a lot like my mother.”
“Poor woman,” she replied softly.
I met Sylvester Stallone
leaving the Chelsea Hotel.
He was high-fiving everyone who approached him.
“Hi, Mr. Stallone,” I said.
“Love your movies!”
He answered me with a smile.
I couldn’t understand a word he said.
I met Nelson Mandela
outside the Tombs.
Convicts were being released.
Every time one passed
he handed out a ten dollar bill.
I asked him why he did that.
“They need it,” he said.
Just then a thin woman asked if he was looking for a good time.
“I’m too old, dear,” he said, handing her a fifty.
I met Oprah Winfrey
trying on shoes at a thrift shop on East 21st Street.
She had picked out a pair of shabby sandals
and a pink plastic handbag with a broken catch.
She seemed to be crying softly.
I winked at her and moved on.
I met the Dalai Lama
outside Starbuck’s on West 14th Street.
It was raining.
I asked him why he didn’t carry an umbrella.
“I want to feel these tears of my people,” he said.
“Umbrellas are made in China.”