The Woodstock Poems: Golden Notebook

In 2009 the Golden Notebook had great success with Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town by Michael Perkins and myself. A year later Jackie Kellachin bought the bookstore, which continues to do well with Walking Woodstock and our follow-up, The Pocket Guide to Woodstock. I wrote this poem as a gift to her.

Book People
–Golden Notebook

Get ready for the
Old-fashioned days when
Laughter began in the belly and
Drove both children and cockatiels to
Ecstasies uncharted by Freudians.
Never mind the Freudians.
Nobody important
These days to all the neuroses
Easily obtained over the internet.
Books are the devices that can slay you.
Once upon a time it was
Okay and it still is to
Kill time thinking dangerously.

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The Woodstock Poems: Mikhail Horowitz

Since 1986 Mikhail Horowitz has been the speaking half–and, boy, does he speak–of a comedic duo with Gilles Malkine that brings the Marx Brothers spirit to the Norton Anthology. A later-day Beat, Mik once served as the Cultural Czar of the Woodstock Times. His given name isn’t Bob Pike, but it isn’t quite Mikhail, either.

Vaudeville Poet
–Mikhail Horowitz

Mad hatter.
Kvetch and
Hubristic lampoonist.
I’ve exhausted my vocabulary. Isn’t
Laughter a kosher aphrodisiac? Or did I already say that?
Hadassah has banned me from cruise ships. But I promise you, no
Octopus was harmed in the making of my Bar Mitzvah video.
Rugelach rapture in Ramallah: let’s rock ‘n’ roll, baby! No
Opinion is too low, but we do need a spell check.
When we’ve finished here
Treat you to gurus in tutus.
Zee end is nigh! My name is actually Bob Pike.

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The Dada in Me

(This essay appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of The Country and Abroad.)

“Dusted with surrealism,” began a review of a poetry chapbook of mine, but while I’m hesitant to disown praise from a critic, I haven’t been a fan of Surrealism since my teenage years when anything druggy, dreamy, and avant-garde seemed worthwhile. Back then, my budding appreciation of Freudianism let me know that the limp watches slung over tables and branches by Salvador Dali represented limp something elses. Surrealism was risqué, definitely not the Monet posters my mother hung above her flower arrangements. Along with the Beats and Kurt Vonnegut, Surrealism offered rebellious relief from the suburban niceness that was otherwise my fate in the Seventies. Soon enough, though, nothing is more embarrassing than your teenage enthusiasms. By college, I’d taped a Mark Rothko poster to my dormitory wall to prove my sophistication. Since then, my taste in art has roamed from gallery to gallery at the museums: the Ashcan Painters when I was a journalist in Manhattan, the Hudson River School after I moved to the Catskills. After a long chill I’ve lately returned to the Abstraction Expressionists. I’ve even had days when Dia:Beacon’s Minimalism seemed like a thing of beauty. But not Salvador Dali or his perverse dreamscrapes. Maybe it was his silly mustache like waxed cat whiskers or my suspicion that his work was about masturbation, but I still cringe at the thought of him. Recently, I happened by those limp watches at MOMA–they’re in his most famous painting, “The Persistence of Desire”–and I couldn’t help but notice that the dozen people crowded around with phone cameras were in their teens or twenties. Surrealism is for the young. I prefer to think of the wacky imagination that emerges in my poetry as wholly American, a product of our country’s love for zany humor and outlandish spectacle that pervades our advertising and popular entertainment. Just watch our Superbowl commercials if you want to see American weirdness on parade. There’s nothing French or Freudian about it.

Or so I thought until I heard William Seaton talk about Dada. A lifelong scholar of poetry and the avant-garde, he experienced San Francisco in the Sixties, but has now lived in Orange County for decades, where he found a home for his “Poetry on the Loose” reading series at the former farmstead of a Swiss-born Surrealist named Kurt Seligmann that has become a community center. Set amid low hills of fields and forests on the outskirts of a tourist hamlet of cottage shops that sell bath soaps and country knickknacks, this compound seems to have more in common with an Andrew Wyeth landscape than with the European avant-garde of eighty years ago. The rows of autumn corn stalk stubble in the field above the parking lot on the afternoon of my visit was pure American pastoral. Yet you never know what you may find in the Hudson Valley. In 1939, Seligmann was the first Surrealist from Paris to reach New York ahead of the Nazis, and he soon helped his colleagues leave as well. He taught at Brooklyn College and with his wife bought this farm, where the barn became his studio, now a fresh yellow meeting hall with an expansive northern wall of windows. A productive artist, he completed thousands of pieces and enjoyed success in the United States and Europe until Abstract Expressionism eclipsed Surrealism as the daring art of the day. Not unlike Dali he painted precise fantasy images of not quite human figures engaged in what one critic described as a “dance macabre in which anthropomorphic figures–comprised of an amalgamation of armour, heraldic devices, ribbons, cloth, helmets, bone and ceremonial paraphernalia–cavort in unknown ritual in darkly cavernous, yet undetermined, space.” To imagine them for yourself, think of a Surrealist at a Renaissance Fair. As a boy, Seligmann had marveled at the medieval troubadours and knights who performed in the summer carnival in his childhood home of Basel, Switzerland. Living in exile in an Andrew Wyeth setting didn’t dim his Surrealist vision.

The Seligmanns were a worldly couple with homes in Manhattan and Paris. But he invited guests to his farmstead, including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexander Calder. As reported in Chronogram, “Duchamp, in fact, shot five bullets with a .22 rifle into an abandoned chicken coop as a conscious work of art, which he later replicated on the cover of the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibit in 1942.” In a dark twist of fate, Seligmann later died by the same gun in a squirrel hunting accident in 1962, when he slipped on ice. Thirty years later his widow willed the property to a community foundation. The northern wall of windows in the meeting hall studio barn looks down upon a weathered red shed into the marsh reeds and pond that fills the shallow end of the valley. If you happen to be in the audience late on an autumn afternoon as the window sky darkens behind the poet reading at the podium, you’ll be startled again and again by the sudden arrival of Canada geese gliding low over the building towards a landing on the pond, a flock like a V-winged fighter jet. It may not be Paris in the Twenties, but it is enchanting. On one such afternoon Bill Seaton read from his book of German translations: Dada Poetry: An Introduction.

In the past I’d thought of Dada as a feverish bout of avant-garde pranksterism that broke out in a handful of European cities in reaction to World War One, a catastrophe that these artists countered with gleeful nihilism. But could I think of any Dada art that I’d seen in museums? I wasn’t wrong, but I soon learned that I didn’t know the half of it. Dada started in Zurich in 1916 with outlandish performances at the Cabaret Voltaire and spread to Berlin, Paris, New York, and other places before fading into other movements, including Surrealism, which Andre Breton defined with his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Some artists, such as Max Ernst, migrated from one to the other, but there were differences, especially Surrealism’s fascination with the Freudian unconsciousness, which it hoped to unveil in an effort to bring people closer to their truer selves. Dada was more rebellious. It didn’t seek redemption in a heretofore hidden interior life. It was more like punk when the Sex Pistols took England by storm almost before learning how to play guitar chords. Yet Dada was more than obnoxious, nay-saying fun. It was, as I learned from Bill Seaton, an incredibly successful artistic laboratory.

In Dada Poetry: An Introduction, he described the Cabaret Voltaire’s crazy, almost nonsensical performances: “Some evenings may have struck an accidental visitor as chaotic, but in retrospect the critic can discern virtually the entire repertory of modernist technique: first of all abstraction (which to some at the first seemed the party slogan of Dada), fragmentation, collage, performance art, conceptual art, aleatory work, simultaneity, sound poems (bruitisme or Klangdichtung), objects trouvés, interest in ethnological ‘primitive’ culture material and popular culture, even pranks such as sending false news items to newspapers.”

In Dada, the exhibition catalog for a retrospective at MOMA, the same point was made: “Born in the heart of Europe in the midst of World War I, Dada displayed a raucous skepticism about accepted values. Its embrace of new materials and methods created an abiding legacy for the century to come, with strategies that included collage, montage, assemblage, readymades, chance, performance, and media pranks. Radical then, they are foundational today–so much so that Dada may have had the greatest influence on contemporary art of any avant-garde movement.”

Paging through the catalog was a revelation. Not that I recognized many of the pieces, save for Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal signed “R. Mutt” that entered history when refused for exhibition in 1917, but I found that many of the pieces looked familiar from the art that came after them, ranging from geometric abstractions to biomorphic wood carvings to newspaper collages. There were precursors to everything from punk album covers to Joseph Cornell’s boxes to Robert Rauschenberg’s combines made out of discarded junk. At the time these Dada pieces may have been meant to offend, but now they looked appealing, a reminder of how much our tastes have changed. And in the collage-making and the use of unexpected materials to make art I could see links to my poetry. Who would have guessed that I had a bit of Dadaist in me? Maybe many of us do.

For years, I’d written poems the way that others write memoir, culling my memories for narratives that I crafted into poems with line breaks and music in the words. In time I published two collections, My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges, which invariably led readers and listeners to compliment me for writing poems they could understand. But selling poetry books–or attempting to–has to be one of life’s truly disheartening pursuits. I tried and tried and sold fewer and fewer. With a jaundiced eye I came to view my audiences as polite but shallow philistines who’d blow $16 on foamed drinks at Starbucks long before they’d buy my book. Bitter and burned out, I quit poetry and turned instead to my earlier dream of writing novels, where at least I’d have a fighting chance of landing a book in Barnes & Noble. But novel writing was a marathon. After a few years, I slipped back into fiddling with poems, enjoying the quick sprint of finishing a draft and then revisions. A poem didn’t take forever to get somewhere. But I didn’t write them as I had before, delving into memoir. That approach often entailed the healing of old emotional wounds, a worthy but draining pursuit. This time I played around with words to keep things light. For instance, I’ve long enjoyed Allen Ginsberg’s gift for concocting odd combinations such as “hydrogen jukebox, ” which appears in “Howl.” At a reading I heard–or, more likely, misheard– a poet say, “blue radio ears.” Back home, I let my imagination run wild.

What I’m Glad For

Blue radio ears.
Carburetor dung happiness.
The green theory of embryos.
Jupiter’s lost gossip queens.
Masquerading toads,
married one day,
elephants the next.
Then crows fly in,
shameless metaphors
scavenging sponsorships.
In a negative universe
Verizon sells extra silence.
In this one
what I’m glad for
is when suddenly
everything makes sense
but I don’t understand a word.

Ginsberg hadn’t gotten this idea from Dada but from T.S. Eliot who’d described the “telescoping of images” to link distant items like the hydrogen bomb and a jukebox to make a fresh kind of sense. But this is an example of a much larger force that Dada brought forth. “The juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated phenomena was the basic tactic of twentieth-century modernist art,” wrote Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century. “The idea was that, to the degree aesthetic categories could be proven false, social barriers would be revealed as constructed illusions, and the world could be changed. Things are not what they seem: that was the message then, and that is the message now.”

If Dada was an early effort to create crazy juxtapositions, then I was a fan. In the past my writing had been an effort to find the right words to express what I meant, a gratifying practice that I still enjoyed. But I’d learned to take pleasure in the opposite as well, starting with a jumble of words and phrases to see what meaning might emerge as I assembled them into poems. If the words didn’t sound particularly poetic, all the better. The fun came from composing something strangely compelling out of everyday dreck. I especially liked the feeling that these poems seemed to be by someone else, a late blooming poet who’d lurked inside me for years, not a rival to my previous self, but not someone who played by the same rules or shared the same tastes. My Inner John Ashbery in reflective moments. My Inner William S. Burroughs when I really got rolling. That I’d previously spent years dismissing Ashbery and Burroughs as charlatans who indulged in word games without saying much that was coherent, well, wasn’t that just one of those contradictions that makes life interesting?

Rather than working with memories, I was making word collages. I clipped headlines and images from newspapers and magazines to compose what I called Ransom Note Poems. I met with friends to write collaborative poems like an improv team trading lines back and forth. In the past I’d treated writing as a solitary pursuit, an exercise in quieting the many voices of society in my head in order to hear the one that felt truest and most private to myself. Now I realized that there were other voices that could be just as creative but needed spontaneous interactions to discover what they had to say for themselves. For instance, here’s a haiku composed while gazing out my cottage window from my writing desk:

the crow on the wire
shuffles its tail feathers
like playing cards

Here’s a collaborative poem finished in the same chair:


The cold wind makes orphans of mailboxes
under telephone wires tanned black by autumn.
The poor clown, his gospel barren, his crime revealed,
hides in a country ghetto where the beggar king promises
one day everyone will get to pump free gasoline and
widows will no longer burn effigies. Brides
will march down the aisles into the promise of cities.
But, for now, the mayor wears lead in his shoes
so as not to fly off like a balloon. Hope dies
early in the afternoon. Everyone refuses
to eat any more fluff, but still walks around
owing 2% interest to the fool with the dealership.
The popcorn gods have left butter clogging the drains.

For a time I taped one of Bill Seaton’s Dada translations over the cabinet mirror in my bathroom, a feisty, furious poem by Hans Arp, better known as a sculptor. I enjoyed reading this piece of Dada sacrilege each time I peed. Sincerity is all well and good, but poetry also needs its clowns.

The Swallow Testicle

Oh no, oh no, good Kaspar’s dead!
Who now will hide the burning banners in cloudbrain
….. and daily build a black mare’s nest?
Who now will turn the coffee mill in its old, old barrel?
And who will lure the idyllic deer
….. from its petrified paper bag?
Who’ll blow the noses of ships, parapluies, wind-udders, ancestral bees, ozone spindles,
….. and who will bone the pyramids?
Oh no, no, no, our good Kaspar is dead! Pious bimbam Kaspar’s dead!
The shark will rattle his teeth with heartrending grief when he hears his given name–so
….. I sigh on–his last name Kaspar Kaspar Kaspar.
Why has thou forsaken us? In what form has your great and beautiful soul
….. transmogrified? Are you a star? or a chain or water hanging from a hot whirlwind? or
….. a transparent brick on the groaning drum of rocky BEING?
Now our tops and toes dry up, and fairies lie half-charred on the funereal pyre.
Now the black bowling alley thunders behind the sun, and no one winds up compasses
….. and pushcart wheels any longer.
Who now will eat the phosphorescent rat at the lonely barefoot table?
Who now will chase the siroccoco devil when he wants to fuck the horses?
Now who’ll explain the monograms in the stars?

His bust will grace the mantel of all the truly noble men,
but that’s no comfort, no tobacco snuff for a deadhead skull.

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The Woodstock Poems: H. Houst & Son

As a Wasp, I share traits of the tribe, such as an inability to tell jokes. Here’s the one I remember: How many Wasps to screw in a light bulb? Two: one to mix the martinis; one to call the electrician. I’m the caller. In truth, I dial my landlady, who has had to go so far as to teach me how to pull the cord for the overhead kitchen light more gently so that it works. So I find entering Houst to be like entering a Gothic cathedral, a place full of meaning to others, but a mystery to me. Yet I love it. For a time, after a therapy session followed by a cafe latte at Bread Alone, I’d walk into Houst inspired by my therapist’s stories of Carl Jung, who liked to sneak off to indulge in child-like play. I’d treat myself to helium balloons, hackey sacks, or a hickory walking stick, a toy of sorts to take home to my all too serious life. I never failed to be surprised by what I might find on the shelves.

Therapy Playground
–H. Houst & Son

Heaven &
Hell in the same aisle as the helium balloons you buy to knock some sense into the sky.
Oil for the paraffin lamp so you can write poems by the light Emily wrote by.
Umber for the moods too much like March you begin to miss by July.
Suppose you weren’t born with the genes for splicing wires or hanging chandeliers.
There’s still hope at the hardware. The same two clowns who manage this place, the General
& the Saboteur, also happen to manage your psyche. One never fails. The other always has fun.
So buy the dog bone shaped like an Olmec god. The squirrel-proof bird feeder that squirrels prefer.
Order the ¼” screwlatchboltswitch that only costs 39¢ whatever the hell it’s for.
Nobody votes against hardware. Rumor says there’s a light bulb in back that burns forever.

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The Woodstock Poems: Enjoy Woodstock

A friend had suggested writing abecedarian poems as an exercise. Print the alphabet down the side of the page as the first letter for each line, then quickly fill in the rest with spontaneity be your guide. By the time I remembered to try it, I’d already made a mistake, printing the title down the side to make an acrostic poem, instead. In truth, I knew nothing about either form. But for several weeks on a writing retreat in Maine I filled up envelops with acrostic poems for fun over morning coffee before turning to the real work at hand.

After my retreat I was due to join a reading for my friend, Michael Perkins, at the Woodstock Library for his latest book. As a gift, I write an envelope poem, “Michael Perkins Poet,” which I took the time to revise from initial gibberish into a meaningful piece. Alas, he broke his hip a week before the event, so I brought him a framed copy in the hospital, where the poem remained by his bedside, the best gift I could have offered. In the past I’ve burned out on writing poems because the world is so indifferent to poetry. Rather than writing for the world, I thought, why not write for my friends?

Soon afterward, I brought copies of The Pocket Guide to Woodstock by Michael Perkins and myself to a gift shop in the village, where the manager asked me to sign them, which I was happy to do. “Enjoy Woodstock!” followed by my signature. “Enjoy Woodstock!” five times over. By the time I finished I was itching to try the phrase as an acrostic poem. The result surprised me. Maybe I should try to write all of Woodstock into a poem?

Enjoy Woodstock

Enter a
Nation without a name.
Join the
Occupation of
Yelling with ridiculous joy.

We all need
Other versions of
Don’t believe the
Shadows or the
Certainty can
Kill your crazy dreams.

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Woodstock History: Poets Duel in the Mud

(This piece first appeared in the Woodstock Times.)

Who, besides poets, likes the local poetry scene? Years ago, Mikhail Horowitz warned me, “The smaller the pie, the sharper the knives.” Oh, I’ve gotten compliments, but the slights are what I remember. The poet who’d reviewed my first book with kind words accepted the second to say, “Nice cover!” and handed it right back. Always a smile. And a sugary “Good luck!” It has made me regret my Waspy training in politeness.

Once upon a time poets in Woodstock knew how fight. It was1923, when the arts colony was in its heyday. Greenwich Village bohemians swam nude in the Sawkill. Young poets and painters walked the country lanes with the democratic swagger of Walt Whitman. Hard cider solved the inconvenience of Prohibition. Rivalries flourished with manly abandon.

The showdown began in Little Italy when several dozen young writers, some of whom had recently returned from tours of the European avant-garde, gathered at a restaurant to plan their assault on the literary establishment, or more specifically to figure out what to do about two floundering literary magazines, Broom and Secession, which they’d launched abroad and brought home to New York.

Called by Malcolm Cowley, the meeting attracted Hart Crane, who soon drank too much, Glenway Westcott, and Matthew Josephson. (Among the no shows from their circle who’d go on to major careers were William Carlos Williams, e.e. Cummings, and Jean Toomer.) Another absentee was Gorham Munson convalescing in Woodstock. He’d founded Secession in Vienna as a rival to Broom and viewed Malcolm Cowley and others as young rubes from America who’d been easily seduced by the dashing nonsense of Dada, a charge to which Cowley might happily have pled guilty.

In his memoir, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s, Cowley recalled his hope of doing Dada in New York. “We planned, for example, to hire a theater some afternoon and give a literary entertainment, with violent and profane attacks on the most famous contemporary writers, courts-martial of the more prominent critics, burlesques of Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Paul Rosenfeld and others—all this interspersed with card tricks, solos on the jew’s harp, meaningless dialogues and whatever else would show our contempt for the audience and the sanctity of American letters.”

But first there was the problem of the forthcoming issue Broom sitting in Mathew Josephson’s apartment in sorry shape. Munson felt no sympathy. He’d met Josephson a few years earlier though their mutual friend, Hart Crane, and hadn’t been impressed. “I met a rather stiff young man, narrow in his interests, brittle in his thinking, and at moments charmingly pompous in his speech,” Munson wrote in his memoir, The Awakening Twenties: A Memoir-History of a Literary Period. Nonetheless, he later recruited Josephson to be an editor for Secession, which proved to be a grievous mistake.

In Cowley’s telling: “I had known of a quarrel between them, based on a conflict of personalities: Munson was wax-mustached and a little solemn, while Josephson was addicted to practical jokes that weren’t always funny to the victim.” After “Munson had accepted a very long and bad romantic poem” for the magazine, Josephson, as the editor, “had omitted all but the last two lines.”

We might snicker, but Munson never overcame his offense. To Cowley’s Little Italy gathering he sent a letter. “I had come to regard Josephson as a literary opportunist, an example of last minuteism, a kind of stage player of the arts—to adapt a phrase of Nietzsche. I emphasized these things and called him an intellectual faker—fighting words, they turned out to be.”

Cowley read the letter to his assembled drinkers and would be Dadaists. “Because his feelings were intense, Munson was betrayed into using a pompous style,” Cowley recalled. “His rhetoric was as noble as Cicero’s; his phrases scanned; I have the impression that his statement was written more in blank verse than in prose. I began to read it seriously to my audience, but halfway through I was overcome by my sense of absurdity and began to declaim it like a blue-jawed actor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. The effect was unfortunate.” Drunken Hart Crane rose in defense of his friend Munson. Glenway Wescott marched out. The “apprentice gangsters” at the next tables told the young bohemians to shut up.

Josephson must have taken delight in being denounced in such elevated terms. As he later wrote in his own memoir of the period, Life Among the Surrealists, Munson charged “that I was a low, cunning, self-seeking, and dishonest character, a ‘fakir’ as a writer… Any movement of the American vanguard ‘must part from Josephson else Munson and his allies would shun it like the plague.’ Midway in the reading of this long-winded manifesto, written with studied effort and with pompous rhetorical flourishes, Malcolm was overcome by its sense of the absurd…and began to declaim it in the manner of a ham actor reciting Shakespeare.”

Josephson decided to take action. A friend had advised, “There’s no use discussing things with the man, I would give him a good thrashing.”

“I had heard rumors of his coming,” Munson later reported, “But dismissed the reports as only bluster… I was mistaken. Here he was knocking at the door, after traveling 100 miles to avenge himself… I had some guests for tea, when Josephson burst in shouting for battle.”

Josephson insisted that Munson started it. “It was he wanted to ‘parley’ with me. As I really disliked this business of fisticuffs and wished to get it over with, I became all the angrier.”

Manson’s Woodstock host was William Murrain Fisher, an art critic and early curator of the Woodstock Arts Association who had a cabin in the woods. He encouraged the two rivals to duke it out in the mud. “The worst fight I ever saw,” he said later. But that didn’t detract from its importance. Josephson wrote, “News of our Duel in the Mud promptly spread to New York and the press, whose literary columnists published excited conjecture and rumor about the ‘fratricidal strife’ among the literati of the ‘left wing.’ It was set down as (possibly?) the first time in the history of America that two men of letters came to blows over their opposing critical or aesthetic doctrines.”

To set the record straight, Josephson described the fight. “It was a cloudy afternoon in early November; as it had just stopped raining, the meadow where we squared off was mucky. Neither of us knew anything about the manly art. Munson, who had been convalescing for several weeks after a siege of ‘flu,’ had become very fat, outweighing me by about fifty pounds. His fists felt like pillows. He stood still; I hauled off and hit him a first roundhouse blow in the mouth that left a slight scratch….The slow-moving Munson, after a few exchanges, clinched with me and we fell to the wet ground, rolling about a while and becoming well covered with mud. I struggled to break free from him. We were both out of breath as we got to our feet and could scarcely swing at each other. Fisher, who was very good-humored about our little imbroglio, forgot to call off the rounds; and after about five minutes we both halted our hostilities. Fisher told me later that I was sitting on Munson’s chest when we stopped.”

Munson also set the record straight. Josephson “shouted for battle,” he wrote. “He was enraged and aggressive, in no mood for reason. However, he wasn’t fearsome; slightly built, he looked anything but formidable. It’s stretching a bit to call what ensued a ‘fight.’ Rather it was a scene in the theater of the absurd (or would have been had that theater then been born.) Josephson was ignorant of boxing as well as unathletic in build. The encounter was more nearly a scuffle than a fight. It’s high point—or better, the low point since it occurred on the ground—was reached when the Dadaist lay supine under the rump of the Secessionist, his body writhing beneath the weight of a convalescent who had been on a building up diet for six weeks, his arms pinioned by the knees of his critic, the dampness of the ground chilling his temper. ‘Let me up’ was the manifesto of this upsetting moment in the history of American Dadaism when instead of Dada attaining to its apex, the movement’s chief was thrown struggling beneath the podex of the opposition.”

Notice, please, who won. Need we further proof that this fight really occurred? No poet worth a memoir would admit to being pinned in the mud by a putz. When I recounted this tale to Thomas Whigham of the Woodstock Library, where this history can be found in books that probably nobody but me has checked out in years, he smiled and described the outcome as “Win-Win Poetry.” In fact, he suggested that my walking partner, Michael Perkins, and I find Fisher’s cabin to do a historical reenactment for the town history videos that he was recording for the library.

Mano-a-mano vs. Michael Perkins? Of that I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t punched anyone since my friend Steve Sheridan in third grade. Meanwhile, Michael, who was once stabbed within an inch of his life in an East Village street altercation, has written: “The man who has never experienced violence–or at least the threat of violence–has missed out on an important part of his heritage: he may have forgotten that he is an animal.” Was I ready to tangle with that kind of attitude? I told Thomas I’d get back to him.

In time all three men went on to literary careers far removed from these hijinks in their twenties. Gorham Munson taught writing at the New School for thirty-five years and wrote fourteen books. Matthew Josephson left poetry to be a journalist for The New Yorker, which led to a series of books chronicling the economic history of the United States, including The Robber Barons, which remains pertinent as history repeats itself today. Malcolm Cowley became the chronicler of his “Lost Generation” that included Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as an influential editor who established Faulkner’s greatness by publishing The Portable Faulkner. In the 1950s he brought us Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and in the 1960s Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He knew that the Sixties resembled the Bohemian Twenties of his youth. What he’s not remembered for is the Homeric parody that he wrote to memorialize the Duel in the Mud.

Know, Muse, that heroes yet exist
Whose anger brooks no intercession,
And tooth meets tooth and fist meets fist
And ‘Up’ cries Munson, ‘with Secession!
Down Broom,’ he snarls, and warriors pant
Each to defend his literary slant.

All afternoon the battle wavers;
Now fortune smiles on Josephson,
Now frowns, and now stout Munson quavers,
“Broom is unswept. I’ve almost won.”
The other sneers, “Almost how splendid!”
As deep in mud both heroes like up-ended.

Yet battling on, till strength and light
together failed. Then Fisher rose,
Grimly dividing weary wight
from bleary knight and fist from nose:
So, on another fateful day,
Half-dead Achilles by half-living Hector lay.

Our Colony of the Arts may not have produced much epic poetry, but it’s a start.

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Two gems from Richard Parisio

Several years ago, Richard Parisio hosted a group of us for afternoon writing retreats at Slabsides, John Burroughs’s rustic getaway cottage beside a swamp that once hosted his celery crop, a fact that inspired at least one of us to write a poem about Bloody Mary’s. Rich, himself, wrote about cedar posts, fern shadows, and other hints of Burroughs’s lingering presence. Now he has gone and won the 2014 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition for his manuscript, The Owl Invites Your Silence, given by the Hudson Valley Writers Center housed in old train station in Philipse Manor overlooking the sparkling Hudson River, at least on a sunny afternoon. In late March, Jo Pitkin, a fellow Slabesider, and I attended Rich’s book launch, where his reading was, indeed, punctuated by speeding trains, a nice companion to the quietude in his poems. Among the pleasures was meeting his daughter, a veterinarian. Here’s a poem he read for her:

My Daughter’s Surgeries

At five you’d plumb the cat-killed
chipmunk with a pair of sharp sticks,

open its limp body, pluck out tiny organs
till you found the bright read berry of the heart.

To see how it looks inside, you’d say.
And now, your still-small fingers

pull back shuddering skin and muscle panels,
reach deep into the rooms of horses’ sides

like throwing open shutters after a storm.
Your own heart’s strong enough

to beat for two, a thousand pounds of beast
suspended in your sling and all your hundred,

fire and fiber and nerve, as counterweight.

Here’s another one that tickled my fancy. Last summer, inspired by the detailed observations in an Elizabeth Bishop poem, I wrote about my mouse trap. So I marveled at how much Rich noticed in another small mammal.


Who knew you would turn up
in a tin mouse trap. Your tap-
tap dancing on its metal floor
gave you away. Not the peanut
butter never nibbled, just the tunnel’s
open door enticed you.

Perplexed, the two of us,
jailor and sudden prisoner,
you in your grey velvet suit, stub
tail, pointed snout, miniscule
claws, your eyes like tiny
obsidian beads stuck on–
an afterthought.

You don’t need vision in your lightless
leaf-lined passageways. You go
by feel, seize centipedes,
snatch fat grubs, pierce
soft worms with red-tipped
needle teeth. Ravenous.

At my doorway, I release you,
confident you won’t return. But go
for me. Go where the forest
hides its secret lives and deaths
in soft nests in the leaf mold.
Sun-blind like the stars,
we are flooded with daylight.

After the great flood, animals,
first one kind, then another,
were sent for a particle
of earth to make the world again.

Today it’s you we chose–
go down, go down, for all of us,
headfirst into the dark.

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For My Stanford 35th Reunion: a bald eagle and Peter Buffett

(For our upcoming 35th reunion, I’ve contributed a page to our class book. Here’s what I wrote.)

Here’s a Stanford moment: I live on the outskirts of Woodstock, New York, near an old reservoir pond that’s like a wildlife refuge with its herons, beaver, and ducks. On a crisp November morning with ice in the driveway puddles, I went out to my car to lead my visiting cousin in his car into town for pancakes and oatmeal at my favorite bakery. The black vulture swooping low overhead wasn’t a vulture, but a bald eagle, not such an uncommon sight anymore, but this one carried a branch in its talons, a wooden snake, an omen. Now, I’m not much of a birder, but I know enough to know that a twig or in this case an inch-thick weathered branch in the claws = a nesting bird. Sure enough, the eagle spread its ungainly wings a moment later to hover over the ragged top of white pine not even a hundred feet into the woods across the road and dropped the branch into what at first glance looked like a meteor of sticks crashed high on the tree trunk. This nest must have been days, if not weeks in the making, though I caught up in my daily mishegas of unfinished writing projects hadn’t noticed it until now. In an instant this bird reminded me of why I’d quit mid-town Manhattan almost twenty years for the Catskills, namely, to have the wilderness as my neighbor. Now, come spring, I could watch them nesting and raising their young right across the street. I felt like I’d just been let in on a rare and special secret.

In the car I turned on the radio to my staple station, WDST. Whom did I hear being interviewed by the music DJ but Peter Buffett, my old friend from freshman year in Rinconada. We’d bonded as the two artsy types who enjoyed hanging out late in the lounge, while everyone else was off in their rooms doing engineering problem sets. (I didn’t touch a computer until half-a-dozen years after Stanford. Oh, if only I’d known what was happening all around me, the fledgling of Silicon Valley!) Within a few years Peter had moved up to San Francisco to begin his music career. After graduation I returned east and landed in Hoboken, where I eventually became a writer. More than thirty years later, we’ve both wound up in the Hudson Valley, though we’ve crossed paths only a few times. Because of his father’s largesse, he has become a philanthropist, and there he was on the radio talking about a farming initiative that he and his wife have launched in the area. But his genial manner took me right back to Rinconada, as if our lives were still young and full of big futures. What did it mean that I heard Peter’s voice moments after discovering the eagle’s nest? I don’t know, save that life offers us synchronicities that promise more than the ordinary.

* * * * *

Here’s a photo Peter Buffett took of my crowded dorm room for the Stanford Daily. My mother kept everything. After she passed away I found this clipping in my old dresser drawer.

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Two Poems About Boys Eating Cigarettes

Karen J. Weyant’s poem, “The Boy Who Ate Cigarettes,” from her chapbook, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, reminded me of one of my own.

The Boy Who Ate Cigarettes

Some said he lived under the Mill Street Bridge,
burning cancelled checks and lotto tickets
to keep warm. Other said he stayed
behind the town’s tattoo parlor, pushing
old syringes up the banisters, just to hear
the noise they made when they rolled back down.
When we were kids, we only saw his reflection,
a corner of his smile in the deli’s dirty windows,
a chin in the potholes that cradled spring thaw.
With every glimpse of black teeth, singed lips
flipped cigarettes, he spit white ashes and soot.
The grownups blamed him for those mornings
when the fog never lifted, when the yellow haze
made us cough, hid the sharp edges of street corners
and stop signs. I saw him, finally, when I was 13.
Crouched on the pipe fence near the pool hall,
he blew smoke rings my way, reached out
to touch my hair. He caught a strand, tugged.
Donora, he whispered, as if murmuring
a lover’s name, as if I was someone he knew.

–By Karen J. Weyant

She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Her chapbook won the 2011 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest. Here’s synchronicity:

A Natural History of Cigarette Butts
Devil’s Notch, Catskills

Deep in prickly briar wands unclawing leaves
for May lies an open pack of Parliaments,
revealing nibbled foil, cigarettes tightly packed
yet trimmed of every filter. Did a mouse
harvest cotton for its nest? If so, may we
call this hope? My mother smoked,

smoked and had a throat scar like a nipple.
As a child to shame her into quitting, I ate
her Parliaments in front of guests and choked
on filters. I coughed with terrifying dryness,
until a man bent me on his knees and pounded
on my back. She thought I was dying.

One by one I pick them from roadside gravel
or straw-like gully grass woven down by runoff:
cotton filters wrapped white or caramel.
All morning I’ve collected trash in this notch,
where larger garbage should fill my yellow bag.
My mother quit but I can’t seem to stop.

–By Will Nixon

The Catskill 3500 Club has taken responsibility for litter pickup on the county highway through Devils Notch. One day, alas, I was the only member to show up for the task. Happily, I came home with this poem.

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Do Copycats Make Better Art?

Years ago at an artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks I met a young painter who found his source material in crowd photographs from magazines. Tracing the heads and shoulders gave him patterns for abstract paintings that retained the ghostly suggestion of masses of people. When not on retreat, he worked as an assistant to a prominent painter who made museum-scale landscapes of scenes often recognizable from the Hudson River School. For a flourish, there were handwritten messages in the plowed fields or the forest fringes as if to say that this artist was too smart to settle for paintings as mere illusions. He made art about art. The young assistant made art from media imagery. I wondered: why not step outside to paint the Adirondacks for yourself? Why not dare to be original?

For years, I remained skeptical of art’s self-absorption. Paintings that referenced paintings. Poems that invoked myths. Rather than ingratiating myself in tradition, I believed in responding to my own life experiences. I wanted to document the insights that occurred to me from my encounters with the world, not from what I’d read in books. Life is big and unruly and full of surprises. Art is someone else’s discovery. I wanted to write what no one else had to say because they hadn’t been there with me. Then everything changed. I happened to sit through a deadly dull community theater production of a living room WASPs embittered by too many cocktails drama. Hell, I thought, I could write a better play. I’d add a zombie in a blue blazer just like my brother. Back home I watched Night of the Living Dead for the first time in years which inspired me to write poems conflating my childhood family with the fictional world of the movie. Mashing up the two relieved me of the burden of autobiography to imagine scenes filled with dark humor and the twisted love that zombies express, albeit cannibalistic and insatiable.

The Zombie Gene

I see it in the way my brother drives 45
on the highway, a company messenger
despite his master’s degree. Entering rooms,
he no longer turns on the lights, just sits
in the dusk furrowing his brow. The winter
our mother died he walked at the beach
& pronounced himself cured. I wish

I could drive a tire iron through his forehead,
puncture his lethargy, release his ambition.
Instead, he still lives with Dad & nags him
over TV dinners to take blood pressure pills.
Late night in the den where we first watched
Night of the Living Dead, they now revere
Charlie Rose interviews. They don’t understand;

in their back yard, deafening crickets mask
the slobbering chewing of a zombie
still wearing her old tennis dress for gardening.
I feed her my heart she never stops eating.

Everyone loves zombies, or so it seemed from my audiences’ reactions. Invoking Night of the Living Dead, even for those who hadn’t seen the movie, gave them a cultural reference point outside of my own personal universe. I learned what promoters, marketers, and other artists have always know: the public loves to see the familiar upturned. Many of the greats have been wantonly borrowing from the culture forever, it seems. Shakespeare didn’t think up his own stories. Bob Dylan’s early albums announced him as a songwriter unlike any other, yet his first five dozen songs can be traced back to earlier songs that he’d immersed himself in during his folk music apprenticeship. Copying no longer seemed like such a sin. I became enamored with the practices of borrowing and referencing that happened all around me, from collage to hip hop to the zombie revolution.

A prime example is Liz Phair’s double album from 1993, Exile in Guyville, done in reply to the Rolling Stones’s double album, Exile on Main Street. As she told an interviewer:

“What I did was go through [the Stones album] song by song. I took the same situation, placed myself in the question, and answered the question. ‘Rocks Off’–my answer to that is ‘Six Foot One.’ It’s taking the part of the woman that Mick’s run into on the street. ‘Let it Loose’–okay, that’s about this woman who comes into the bar, she’s got some new guy on her arm, Mick was in love with her. He’s watching this guy, ‘eh, just wait, she’s gonna knock you down.’ He’s talking, ‘let it loose,’ as if to be like, babe, what the hell happened, talk to me. So my answer was, ‘I want to be your…’ I put a song in there that lets it loose… [All the lyrics on the album] either had to be the equivalent from a female point of view or it had to be an answer kind of admonishment, to let me tell you my side of the story.”

When Mick Jagger sings in “Rocks Off:”

I’m always hearing voices on the street,
I want to shout, but I can’t hardly speak.
I was making love last night
to a dancer friend of mine.
I can’t seem to stay in step,
’cause she come ev’ry time that she pirouettes over me.
But I only get my rocks off while I’m dreaming,
I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping.
I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed.

Liz Phair replies in “6’1″:”

I bet you fall in bed too easily
With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave
And you sell yourself as a man to save
But all the money in the world is not enough

As Gina Arnold describes in her book, Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair released her album as an indie rocker from Chicago at the age of twenty-five. Instead of replying to the indie music geeks who surrounded her in their Wicker Park neighborhood, the guys who m she has described with “short, cropped hair, John Lennon glasses, flannel shirts,” and a possessive interest in “guy things–comic books with really disfigured, screwed-up people in them,” she tackled their heroes, the Rolling Stones, and lifted her imagination out of the self-absorption that can make our own lives seem so limiting.

In an aside in his book, My Dyslexia, the poet Philip Schultz describes a teaching technique:

“When I first started teaching college in the mid-seventies I noticed that nearly all of my poetry and fiction students were using the same autobiographical ‘I’ (or ‘me’) they used to write their diaries, journals, and letters. These narrators were stand-ins for themselves and allowed them little or no distance from their characters. Once they understood that writers like Salinger, Philip Roth, and Chekhov used invented narrators–with attitudes and dilemmas different from their own–there was a remarkable improvement in their work.

“When I discovered that my most persuasive narrators were the ones whose personal agendas and attitudes were most different from my own, I started ‘borrowing’ narrators from my favorite writers.” From Chekhov he took the voice of a “curiously self-obsessed busybody” to write about his own experiences of working in a welfare office to produce a poem that took flight, whereas hundreds of pages of previous efforts to write a novel and a play about this sad mad house in his own voice had fallen flat. His poem, “Balance,” begins:

Eight years gone & the welfare building is a parking ramp.
The attendant can’t recall where it went. Uptown somewhere, he thinks.
But ten thousand people filled those halls & only the ocean
is a carpet big enough to sweep so many under.

I was a clerk who read Chekhov & knew the fate of clerks….

Maybe copying others leads us to a more assured understanding of ourselves.

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