A Short History of Poetry in Woodstock, 1873-2008

(Published in the Woodstock Times, April 17, 2008)

By Michael Perkins

Part II

While much of the general population may prefer undergoing root canal work to attending a poetry reading, fortunately for local poets there are people who freely chose to show up at readings and cheer on their favorites. Woodstock loves benefits, and audiences at benefit readings are as generous as California audiences in their tolerance for limping lines and tired tropes; for sentiment and embarrassing revelations. But their patience is sometimes rewarded with shining moments.

The Woodstock Library has hosted regular readings since the early 1970s. Marguerite Harris, who also directed a poetry series at Dr. Generosity’s Bar in Manhattan, presented the Woodstock Poetry Festival at the Library until her death in 1978. Ed Sanders and Michael Perkins continued the series for a few years, and then, in 1986, Perkins founded the Woodstock Library Forum, which presents a dozen readings a year. Among the distinguished poets who have read at the library have been William Bronk, Robert Kelly, Thomas M. Disch, Diane Wakoski, Howard McCord and James Lasdun.

The Woodstock Guild held many readings in its Kleinert Arts Center and in the Green Room at the rear from 1985-1995. Michael Perkins hosted appearances by John Ashbery, Philip Whalen, Antler, and Etheridge Knight, while during the same period hosting Allen Ginsberg and Kenward Elmslie at the Guild’s Byrdcliffe Barn.

During the summers of 1974-1975, The Artists’ Cooperative on Parnassus Square (at the corner of Lower Byrdcliffe and Rock City Road) was the scene of lively poetry readings. One night, Manhattan poet Daniella Gioseffi drew an SRO crowd of over 200 to hear her recite her verses. (Part of the draw might have been that Ms. Gioseffi performed a belly dance as part of her presentation.) Gray Burr and John Fenton gave memorable readings.

Prior to the imposition of draconian DWI laws, the bar scene in Woodstock was lively, and poets were welcomed, and even paid in free drinks. One of the most exciting literary reading series of the 1970s was held at a watering hole on Rock City Road across from the cemetery known as Rosa’s Cantina. Poetry impresarios and ubiquitous servants of the muse Sanders and Perkins assembled six actors and poets one Sunday afternoon for a reading of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.” Another weekend, Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh trekked from Manhattan to wow an appreciative audience that included two of Woodstock’s finest painters, Phillip Guston and William Pachner. (Few knew that Musa McKim, Guston’s wife, was a fine poet herself.)

The final reading at Rosa’s was dramatic. It was billed as a group effort, but a tall, rasta-braided and bearded local poetaster named Robert DePew Reynolds took over the mike and wouldn’t relinquish it. The drunken Reynolds was a popular figure, but the howls of protest drove him out the door and across Rock City Road to the sidewalk at the edge of the cemetery. There he continued declaiming to a small claque. At Reynold’s funeral a few years later there was a parade from the Dutch Reformed Church to the same cemetery.

During the winter months in the early and mid 1970s, the Woodstocker Cafe (later the Three Penny, now the health food store in Bradley Meadows) was a weekly venue for readings by locals, as was Joshua’s Cafe. Jim Matteson hosted the Woodstocker readings, where a number of brave souls “lisped in numbers”: Marilyn Mohr, Pearl Bond, Jim Reed, John LeFever, Peter Blum, Richard Zarro, Jean Wrolsen, as well as Woodstock’s perennial performance poets Ed Sanders, Mikhail Horowitz and Janine Pommy Vega.

The Expresso Cafe (later known as the Tinker Street Cafe) held regular readings. Fifty poets gathered one night in July, 1987, on the Expresso’s second floor in a memorial reading for popular favorite George Montgomery—now the offices of the Center for Photography at Woodstock. Bob Dylan, the most famous figure in the history of poetry in Woodstock, had lived and worked there three decades earlier.

There are many who will grant that Bob Dylan was the best poet from Hibbing, Minnesota, ever to fall off a motorcycle between Ohayo and Mead’s Mountain; a vast majority, however, can hum one of the songs he wrote in those rooms, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Performance poetry, an attempt to return poetry to its beginnings in oral presentation, has been lifting poems from the page and bringing them to the stage for two decades. One of its most delightful practitioners in Woodstock is Mikhail Horowitz who explains that “the poet is in motion, generally (but not always) eschewing the page for the aid of other media…to make a mini- or maxi-theatrical spectacle of the poem…” Horowitz is the author of Big League Poets and Rafting Into The Afterlife. His performances draw SRO crowds.

Edward Sanders, legendary Fug and author of The Family, is the best known of the—in his words—“perf-po’s” in Woodstock, arriving here in 1975 to live in Carol Berge’s chicken coop (Berge was active in Woodstock in the early seventies), later buying a house on lower Meads Mountain Road and becoming involved in local politics.

The late Janine Pommy Vega’s passionate reading style and kinetic stage presence endeared her to her audiences. Vega was the author of Mad Dogs of Trieste and a dozen other books and CDs.

Janice King, a cowgirl from Oregon, performed the poems published in her book Taking Wing: Poems from the Oregon Outback to the Hudson Valley with breathtaking leonine charisma that was sorely missed when she returned to Oregon.

Other performance poets included, over the years, Nancy Rullo, Dan Propper, Alfie Robinson, and the inimitable Max Schwartz.

In the new century, the most prominent name in poetry in Woodstock is James Lasdun, author of Landscape With Chainsaw, and The Horned Man. Other poets who appear regularly at contemporary Woodstock readings include Bob Wright, for many years director of the Woodstock Poetry Society, operating in Town Hall, until he passed the open mic to Phillip Levine; Sparrow; Will Nixon, author of When I Had It Made; Iris Litt; Shirley Powell; Roberta Gould; Donald Lev; Susan Hoover; and Shiv Mirabito, who hosts large poetry fests and jams at the Colony Cafe and Joshua’s Cafe.

Without a doubt the most important event in the history of Woodstock was the Woodstock Poetry Festival, which ran for three summers, 2001—2003. Founded by Laurie Ylvisaker, the Festival brought many of the great names in American poets to Woodstock. Assisted by Michael Perkins and a committee of volunteers and advisers that included the late Larry Berke, Tom Fletcher, the late Saul Bennett, Tad Richards, Nancy Butler, Barry Samuels, Bob Wright, Phillip Levine, Susan Sindall and dozens of others, Ylvisaker created a world-class event.

The 2001 Festival presented in many venues from the Bearsville Theater to the Byrdcliffe Theater, area poets Cassia Berman, Mathew J. Spireng, J.J. Blickstein, Dennis Bressack, Andy Clausen, Simone Felice, Jim Donnelly, Paul McMahon, Val Paradize, Cheryl Rice, Richard Rizzi and Pauline Uchmanowicz. The featured poets were Robert Bly; Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States; Robert Creeley; Stephen Dunn, that year’s Pulitzer Prize winner; and Patricia Goedicke.

The line-up for 2002 brought back Billy Collins; Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Li-Young Lee; Michael McClure; Sharon Olds; and Anne Waldman. And in 2003, John Ashbery; Natalie Goldberg; Paul Muldoon, Naomi Shihab Nye; and too many others to avoid the embarrassment of overlooking someone.

It is, indeed, an embarrassment of riches that the view from Overlook offers us. From the perspective of the Poet’s Rock, the dream of Woodstock as a Colony of the Arts seems real enough you might even hear, borne on the breezes that envelop the summit, the faint cry of the Leni Lanape praise singer.

(Michael Perkins is the author of Carpe Diem: New and Selected Poems and the co-author of Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town.)

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