As recently as fifteen years ago, the idea that I could become seriously involved with poetry would have been very remote to me. I’d been a minor poetry consumer all my life, but I’d never become very interested in writing it, until a series of nightmares changed everything.

When I was quite young, I wrote some verse. I remember that a narrative verse I wrote about the second century Jewish hero Bar Kokhba won a writing prize for students offered by my synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, and was printed in the synagogue newsletter. I would have been about twelve then. I was definitely eleven when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series, beating the hated Yankees in 1955. I wrote a verse about that event, and I even remember a few lines of it:

Traffic jams. Loud horns all night.
Policemen smiled, saying, “It’s all right.
It’s just Brooklyn celebrating
after fifty years of waiting.”

Not too bad for a little kid, but not exactly an indicator of great talent!

In junior high school, I won an elocution contest for reciting an old piece of comic verse, “The Owl-Critic” by James Thomas Fields. My prize was an anthology of English language poetry, which I still have. But I didn’t read most of it. In high school I took a poetry class, mostly because the teacher, Harold Zlotnik, was a friend of my father’s. Harold, whom I’ve reconnected with in recent years, is now in his late 90s. I was impressed that his poetry was frequently published in the New York Times, which used to run poems on its editorial page. In Harold’s class I read Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” which began a lifelong love for that particular poet. He took his class to the 92nd Street Y to hear readings by Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. So I was at least exposed to good stuff.

During my junior high and high school years I was intensely involved with science fiction fandom, although I never wrote any science fiction myself. I ran into a phenomenon called “filk songs,” folk songs rewritten with humorous lyrics. I wrote a few of those which were moderately successful, getting some practice in creating rhymed lines for an audience.

At Brooklyn College I studied poetry in literature classes. I earned an honors degree in Creative Writing (which I never used for any purpose), but my interest then was in writing fiction. I wrote a parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (which I didn’t like) called “The Fallow Men,” and as I recall it had a few clever lines in it. (I also wrote a parody of Kafka’s “The Trial,” which I admired tremendously.)

My interest in poetry remained relatively mild. My first date with my first wife was a memorial to Theodore Roethke, but I think I was mostly trying to impress her. In the late Sixties I had some correspondence with Roethke’s widow Beatrice Lushington about publishing a reading of his on my Parnassus LP label. Just before we were ready to go to print, she finally heard from Caedmon that they were interested in the recording, so I told her to go with them since they would sell a lot more copies.

From time to time through my adult life, some poetry or other would catch my attention. I wasn’t closed to it. But it wasn’t a major pursuit of mine.

The disastrous close of a brief toxic romance in 1983 got me started writing songs. I was still playing the piano in those days and I started performing them, along with favorites by other songwriters like Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, and Little Richard. I wrote a lot of song lyrics over a period of a few years, more than a hundred of them. But song lyrics aren’t poems.

In 1997, I moved from my long term rental of “Big Pink” in Saugerties to another house nearby which I was able to buy. Not long after I moved into the new house, I started having terrible nightmares about death. They happened only in that house, not when I stayed at Tara’s, and usually during midday naps rather than at night. But they were really frightening. Eventually, I hired a psychic I knew slightly. She told me I was being haunted by the spirit of a child who had been killed on my property, probably several hundred years earlier, and she did something to set the child’s spirit free. I didn’t believe in any of this, but the little ceremony she performed set something free in my psyche and the nightmares stopped.

During the nightmare period, though, I started writing poems. They were all about death and dying. As I read them now, they don’t seem particularly bad work for a novice poet, although I wouldn’t want most of them exposed. My favorite was one I wrote after a walk through an ancient cemetery near my parents’ house on Cape Cod. I saw several tombstones that were no longer legible at all, and I sat down on a bench and wrote:

I have been dead so long
even the stone cannot remember my name.
You think I wait beneath the earth
to feel your footfall,
but it is not so. I fly above my grave
where I can smell the salt and hear the waves
and watch you, looking down,
fearing when you will join me.

Shortly before the nightmare period, I had become interested in another poet, J.J. Clarke. The Woodstock Times, for which I wrote music reviews (and still do), used to run work by local poets, and Clarke’s poems knocked me out. He used to read once a year at the old Woodstock Poetry Society, back in its glory days when Bob Wright was running it. I went to hear him, which proved a great but intimidating experience. The poems were wonderful, and his reading was the most powerful I’d ever heard.

After the reading I bought a chapbook, and had James inscribe it for me. He recognized my name immediately, and it turned out that he had been a regular listener to my radio program in the 1980s. He asked me if I wrote poems, and I told him I had just started but they weren’t much good. He invited me to send me some. Apparently, he saw more talent in them than I did, because he sent them back with comments and suggestions and invited me to send more.

This was the beginning of a mentoring relationship which went on for several years. James was an experienced teacher–he taught poetry at Ulster County Community College for 25 years–and his comments were extremely useful. I also got a lot of useful feedback from my wife Tara, who had read much more poetry than I had and had already written some wonderful poems herself, most of which she never showed to anyone.

So, I kept writing. I found a lot of stimulation in the monthly meetings of the Woodstock Poetry Society, and started reading some of my own work in the open mike sections. After a few years, Bob Wright invited me to be one of his featured readers, my first time as a feature. The Woodstock Poetry Festival, a marvelous although quixotic enterprise, brought a number of major poets to Woodstock for a couple of years. Hearing people who had been only names on a page, like Sharon Olds and Billy Collins, turned out to be inspiring.

One of our best Ulster County poets, Cheryl A. Rice, invited me to a poetry salon she had decided to host. We had only two meetings, but I found those sessions tremendously useful, not only for the feedback I got on my work but also for the way it focused my attention on what was happening in other poets’ work. When Cheryl told me she hadn’t continued the salons because she didn’t want to be stuck cleaning her house on schedule, I invited her to start the meetings up again at my house, since I had a paid house cleaner. Because my house was on Goat Hill Road, we became the Goat Hill Poets, and we still are even though we now meet at Tara’s house in Woodstock.

I was intrigued when I learned that Sharon Olds, one of the poets I most admire, was teaching workshops at Omega Institute in nearby Rhinebeck. Attendance at these workshops was by invitation only, and the first two times I submitted work I wasn’t invited. The third time, though, in 2007, I was invited as an alternate, and someone dropped out. I got to work for a long weekend with Sharon Olds in a small group, ten of us. I thought everyone else wrote better than I did. But for the final session, I wrote a snidely satiric poem about Omega itself. Seeing the whole group, including Sharon, laughing heartily at my work gave me a sense of poet power that I’d never had before.

The following summer I got to work with Sharon and nine others for a full week. It was an incomparably nourishing experience. At the next to last session, she challenged us to write something that was difficult to write. I wrote a poem about my wife Tara and our experiences together, and “My Love” won a prize in the Prime Time Cape Cod poetry contest. It was just honorable mention, but it was $50 cash and a $25 gift certificate to Borders, a lot more than most poets receive for published work.

Unfortunately for me, Sharon has decided to limit her teaching and concentrate more on her own work, so she doesn’t teach at Omega anymore. Last summer, Omega had a very different type of event, a “Celebration of Poetry” hosted by the wonderful Marie Howe, with half-day visits from Mark Doty, Patricia Smith, and Billy Collins. With 91 people in attendance, I wasn’t expecting much. But I was surprised by the excellent experience it turned out to be. Collins, answering a question, said that he could recognize a talented poet by a gift for rhythm and a gift for metaphor. I’ve been surprised over the years to discover that I have both of those.

I’ve been a slacker about submitting my poetry for publication. But I have had a couple of poems published in Home Planet News, a long running poetry paper edited by Donald Lev. My father got to see the first one shortly before he died. I’ve had a few poems published elsewhere, including the Goat Hill Poets anthology issued in 2010 and in an article on the Goat Hill Poets published by Ulster Magazine. Aside from reading with the Goats, I’ve done various features in and around Woodstock, most recently July 4, 2011 at Harmony. (The link leads you to an audio recording.) On February 3, I was one of the featured poets at the excellent Calling All Poets Series in Beacon. A recording of that reading will shortly be available on the series website.

I’m still writing poetry. Unlike some of the really good poets I know, I don’t set aside regular time for writing. The ideas have to force themselves into my awareness for me to pay attention to them. But I’ve learned always to have a pad and pen with me.

(Top photo:  Leslie reading in Kingston. Photo by Dan Wilcox.)

2 Responses to “How I Became a Poet”

  1. Richard Says:

    I have found this poem very inspiring… this is why we do not write on schedule… it takes an Owl Pellett.

    THE OWL PELLET

    by Ann Deagon

    At tree level owl and professor blink
    yellow noon, doze in the musty
    hollow of tree and office, ruffle
    dreaming of things furry astir by dark.
    Below on Founders’ steps two boys
    dissect the pellet from the owl’s late hunt,
    catalogue the indigestible
    debris of bone, claw, fur, one perfect skull
    its jaw askew, recognizably rat.

    Young friends, you are on the track: classify,
    enumerate, set down in your tablets
    THE OWL HAS MADE A POEM, THE GREY PROFESSOR
    HAS VOMITED HER HUNT. I will analyze
    my latest for you: this image, students,
    is carved from Gloria Spoletti’s thighbone
    unforgettable for twenty years;
    here juts the profile of a blind black boy
    seen from a passing streetcar, there the hump
    of my old crippled fencing-master, rotten
    with all unanswered letters. When the greedy
    guzzle of living sates us and the bones
    stick in our craw – we cough up a poem.
    It clears our throat if not our consciences.

    So go, boys, and do you likewise.
    Learn the wisdom of the owl professor:
    FLY OPEN-GULLET INTO THE DARK,
    BOLT DOWN WHATEVER SCURRIES.
    Noontime’s time enough to cull
    the skeleton from the feast.

    from her book CARBON 14, 1974, U. of Mass. Press

  2. Leslie Gerber Says:

    Hi, Richard. Do I know you? Interesting poem, and indeed representative of how I work.

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