In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I used to make regular trips from Woodstock to Boston. My girlfriend’s son Greg was attending the New England Conservatory of Music; he’s now a professional guitarist and teacher. I would use his trips to and from Boston as occasions to make buying trips for my classical LP business.

There were many used record stores in Boston, the ultimate college town. (I believe it still has the largest undergraduate population of any city in the U.S.) I got to know most of them, and I set up priorities. Typically, Greg and I would travel up to Boston together. I would drop him off at N.E.C., book a motel room, and go to work.

I would plan my store visits based on the likelihood of finding worthwhile records and on the stores’ schedules, usually ending at one (Zoundz, as I remember) which was open until midnight. Then I’d get some sleep, be at some store when it opened the following morning, shop until I ran out of stores or time, and head for home. When Greg was heading home, I would take off from Woodstock early, shop all day and the following morning and afternoon, and then pick him up.

Some vivid experiences from those days remain with me. When I had available time, for example, I would have dinner at the No Name Restaurant, on the Fish Pier in Boston. In those days it served fabulous seafood in unpretentious surroundings at very low prices. When I didn’t have time for that, there was another good seafood restaurant in Cambridge, the name of which I don’t remember, which was on the same block as a used record store I frequented. Parking around Boston is difficult so making two stops with only one parking spot to find was a bonus. Occasionally I even had time to hear music, once a Boston Symphony concert.

I remember following the histories of some of the record stores. Sometimes they would become more popular, start increasing their prices, and fail. In one case I wound up buying out the classical stock of a store which followed that progression. Others failed because they failed to date and weed their stock, a procedure I learned and followed when I opened my own used LP department in a local used book store. An Internet search reveals that two of the stores I visited regularly, Cheapo Records and Looney Tunes, are still in business.

For some reason, when I think of trips to Boston, my outstanding memory is of the Claverack Diner. Boston to Woodstock is a 200 mile trip, and when I left Boston by myself at 10 p.m. or later I had a hard time getting home in one piece. There was always coffee available at all the rest stops on the Massachusetts Turnpike and the New York Thruway, but driving those roads was so unchallenging that I was always afraid of falling asleep near the end of the trip. So, nearing the end of the trip, I would leave the Mass Pike, cut south on the Taconic Parkway, and then head west on Route 23, meeting up with the Thruway only about 30 miles from my exit at Saugerties.

The Claverack Diner was at a location on Route 23 which was hardly a major traffic crossroads. Yet it was open 24 hours. As I drove my last hour on the Mass Pike, I would be thinking of the Claverack Diner, its harsh-tasting hot coffee, and its fresh-baked pies. A big shot of sugar and caffeine would propel me homeward for the rest of the trip, feeling better than I had most of the way. As diners go, I don’t think there was anything special about the Claverack Diner. But it was an occasional haven for me and I was always grateful to see it.

These days I travel Route 23 occasionally, heading for the Rodgers Book Barn in Hillsdale or for Tanglewood. When I pass by the building that once housed the Claverack Diner, I feel a little pang. The Diner closed down many years ago. The last time I saw the building in use it was a flower shop, and I think that’s closed now also. So is the business I was feeding when I stopped at the Diner.

To me, it was a straightforward enough encounter. The man I was facing had been menacing and stalking a friend of mine. Now he was menacing me. But I didn’t hit him.

I learned only recently that a poet who has become a friend of mine–I’ll call her V–had been the victim of a drunken and demented man who was trying to force his way into her life. He had been calling her repeatedly in the middle of the night, showing up in her neighborhood, and in a variety of ways carrying out the traditional perversions we’ve come to label stalking. Since he is such a dodgy character I’ll call him Dodge.

Although this had been going on for months, V told me about it only recently, and didn’t want to tell the whole story. She didn’t know at that point about my experience, for almost two decades, as a volunteer with the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. During that time I had spent too many hours assisting and consoling women who had been victims of domestic violence and rape.

That experience had given me some limited special expertise in dealing with characters like her stalker. It had also trained me not to be domineering. When a woman is dealing with a man who is attempting to take her power away from her, the last thing you want to do is try to force your decisions on her, which also takes her power away. It doesn’t matter whether I like her choices or not. At least she is making them herself. I made some suggestions and didn’t press the matter.

Before long, V decided to go to the police. They are now actively investigating the case. I am hopeful there will be legal action soon. But Dodge continued to show up at the regular Monday night poetry readings at Club Harmony in Woodstock. Last month, he read a poem which included V’s name. At that point I didn’t know the stalker’s identity. “Did I just find out something I’d rather not know?” I asked V. She nodded.

A week ago, V was absent from the regular reading. I called to find out if she was OK. She was, she said, but she had her grand-daughter visiting and didn’t want to expose her to Dodge. I discussed this issue with several of the male poets who are regulars at these readings, and we decided to form a posse and tell Dodge to get the hell out and not come back.

Last night, Dodge showed up. Michael, who runs the reading, asked him to come outside to talk with us. Two more of us joined them. Michael told Dodge, very politely I thought, that his presence had become a detriment to our gatherings and that he shouldn’t come anymore. “Oh, that’s nothing,” said Dodge belligerently. “This is my last week here anyway.” I realized he was trying to take control of the situation, pretending that he was in charge. So I stepped in with my own belligerence and told him that we didn’t want him to show his face again, and why. I wasn’t polite but I didn’t threaten anything.

Dodge raised the ante. “What are you going to do about it, you fat little fuck?” he shouted at me, walking right up to me and executing the traditional threatening chest bump. “I can wipe the floor with you,” he continued.

It was the chance of a lifetime. I realized instantly that he had put himself in a very vulnerable  position. The others were already moving to pull him off me, but I could have executed a quick knee to the balls and disabled Dodge immediately. And I would have had witnesses that he had assaulted me first. (That’s what assault means, by the way. The phrase “assault and battery” isn’t redundant, as I once thought. The assault part is menacing, battery actually striking.)

But I remembered V’s request that there be no violence. I let the others pull Dodge away and did nothing further.

When the reading started, he got up first (he had signed up first) and read a ranting, shouting diatribe about love. Then he left. I sat at my table, eating ice cream,  my hand shaking so badly I had trouble controlling the spoon.

I’m sure I’ll always regret missing the opportunity to strike out against this awful excuse for a human being. Instead, my worst attack was verbal: “See you in jail.” I guess I did the right thing. Being a Guy, though, I’m still kind of sorry.

Photo by Judith Kerman, at Inquiring Minds, Saugerties

The Woodstock-Mayapple Poets’ Retreat took place during the first week of August. I was invited to participate. It turned out to be a life-transforming experience, one I’ll never forget.

When I went to college I earned an honors major in Creative Writing, and when I started my studies I was hoping to make my living writing fiction. By the time I got my degree, though, I had taken a major detour in my life, marrying a woman with three children and leaving school to earn a living for my new family. I finished school at night while working, but the degree seemed irrelevant by then and I’ve never used it. Twenty years ago I wrote a novel, just to see if I could do it. When I was finished I was proud of myself for completing the task, but the typescript is still sitting in my filing cabinet. I’ve written professionally through my adult life, but most of that has been music criticism and articles. My greatest creative writing “sale” was $5 for a short story I wrote in college.

In a previous article I wrote how a series of bad dreams in 1999 propelled me towards poetry, which I had never written seriously before. Starting a new means of expression in my mid-50s was exciting, but it also left me feeling seriously “behind” and in need of help. I’ve gotten some wonderful assistance with my work. My wife, and a poet named J.J. Clarke, both provided me with much advice and criticism in my early days. My first formal poetry instruction represented “starting at the top,” two workshops at Omega Institute with Sharon Olds. She is a wonderful teacher as well as a great poet, and I wish I could have continued studying with her. But after the second workshop, in 2009, she discontinued her summer workshops at Omega. When I ran into her at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2010, she told me she had decided to reduce her teaching as much as possible, to concentrate on her own work. Even I couldn’t argue with that.

Last summer Omega offered a “Celebration of Poetry,” led by Marie Howe, with guests Patricia Smith, Mark Doty, and Billy Collins. It turned out to be very stimulating, but it was very different from Olds’s workshops, which were limited to ten selected participants. There were 91 attendees at the “Celebration of Poetry.” And for some reason Omega didn’t repeat the program this summer.

For several years, I have been meeting monthly with a group of fellow poets from my own area. We call ourselves the Goat Hill Poets, from the address of my former home where we started meeting. I’ve gotten tremendous help from my fellow Goats, who have done a lot to help me sharpen my game. (We’ve also become an occasional performing group, having great fun with our readings. The next one is in Woodstock on August 22.) Recently I started a second monthly meeting with two other poets, Jay Wenk and Judith Kerman, where I’ve been getting even more help.

Judy moved to Woodstock relatively recently. She is not only a widely published poet but also a publisher, running the Mayapple Press, with over 100 titles. A decade ago, when she was still teaching in Michigan, Judy started what she called the “Rustbelt Roethke” poets’ retreat (because it met in Roethke’s home town, Saginaw). Rather than meeting with someone of elevated status, a teacher, Judy’s retreat gathered equals, all successful, published poets, who met in small groups to workshop their poems. After moving to Woodstock, Judy decided to bring the workshop with her and re-titled it to include the magic name Woodstock.

When Judy first suggested that I attend this summer’s retreat, I was very hesitant. Although I know I’ve made a lot of progress since I started writing poetry, I wasn’t at all sure I would fit in with a group of professionals like these. “Oh, don’t worry,” she told me. “You’ll hold your own.” I was a little skeptical, but I decided to give it a try.

The retreat began on Tuesday evening with a picnic meal at the site, the Villetta Inn, a large summer “hotel” which was built as part of the famous Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock. We then had two hour sessions for the next four mornings with two or three other poets who would be our working group. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we also had readings of our work in various locales. I was scheduled for Saturday afternoon at a bookstore in Saugerties.

My two working partners were both people who intimidated me at first, Geraldine Connolly and Robert McDonough. Both are college professors and long-time poets with numerous prestigious publications to their credit. Both brought poems to work on which impressed me a great deal. I had brought problems, poems that seemed to me failures but which had enough I cared about in them so that I wanted to rescue them. Very quickly I discovered that Judy had been right. Listening in the focused way that develops in a workshop situation, I was able to come up with useful suggestions for both Gerry and Bob. They took my work seriously and gave me some excellent help.

In one case, for example, a sort of travelogue poem I’d written about a visit to Killarney, they helped me amputate about half of what I’d written by noticing–as I hadn’t–that the essential matter of the poem is about my experiences of music there. Some other aspects of the visit brought up in the poem might have been interesting, but they detracted from its focus. I was left with something that worked.

At the readings, too, I felt my work was appropriate and that I fit in. I got very good comments from others after my little feature in Saugerties. Best of all, I’ve heard from a couple of the people in the retreat, and I’m hoping to continue and maintain some new friendships. I had met only two of the others, Judy and one other commuter, before.

Perhaps the most inspiring person I met at the Woodstock-Mayapple Poets’ Retreat was a Chinese-American man named Li C. Tien. Li moved to America about 15 years ago, when he was already in his fifties. Since then he has mastered the use of written English so well that he has been writing poems in English for ten years and has had numerous poems published in fine magazines. I may think of myself has having gotten a late start, but Li will be an ongoing inspiration to me.

I’ll never be able to thank Judy and the other poets for the experience I shared with them. During this week I have come to take my own writing more seriously and I’ve become more ambitious. The Goat Hill group had decided collectively to push each other towards submitting more work, and I’ve already had a very nice acceptance from a magazine called Blue Unicorn (which has also published Li C. Tien). But I’ll definitely be doing more of that in coming weeks and months. And I am writing this blogpost, intended as a tribute and a gesture of thanks towards my fellow poets.

Right Words

With fragrance of honeysuckle in the air,
water pumped over one hand,
a word spelled into the other
by her teacher, suddenly
Helen Keller connected

what she felt with its name,
and wanted to know
the word for the next thing she touched.
Then, the next and the next.
Her sullen face lit up.

Struggling to connect my words
with the world, the universe,
I remember the scene at the well.
–Li C. Tien
Blue Unicorn, 2012

This morning my wife Tara woke up crying, as usual. I asked her what is wrong. Some mornings she says, “I’m so mad at myself.” Others, like this morning, she just says, “I’m having a hard time.”

I know what to do at this point. I put my arm around her. I reminded her that we set out her clothing last night, and I promised that I would help her get dressed. This usually calms her down, as it did this morning. But she wanted to jump out of bed and get started immediately, so I couldn’t indulge my inclination to lounge around in bed a bit and wake up gradually.

I soon discovered that after we had set her clothing out last night, she had taken her necklaces–an essential part of the wardrobe–off the night table where they usually spend the night and put them on top of a skirt. I had to put the necklaces back on the night table so they wouldn’t be dropped or scrambled. Next I reminded her to take off her nightshirt before putting on the nice pink tee shirt I had selected for her last night. Usually it’s an undershirt but today we are expecting a high of 84 so it will be her only shirt.

Next I reminded her to take off her night pants, pyjama bottoms I got for her when she began to refuse to take off her underpants at night. I figured it for a security issue and the pyjama bottoms do keep her content at night. After they were off, I gave her underpants, quietly grabbing the extra pair she had set out on the large dog crate which she uses as her staging area for clothing. One of the dogs used to spend most of his nights in the crate, but he has since shifted to the bed.

I had left only the dress Tara wore yesterday on the crate, but while I was getting undressed in my room upstairs she got out two skirts and left them on the crate. I’ve learned that if I take extra skirts and put them away at night she gets very angry with me, so I had left them there. This morning I helped her select one of the skirts, then put away the other one and the dress despite her protests that she needed them. I assured her she didn’t.

Next we got the necklaces to put on, and I reminded her to put on her shoes and socks. Because she started last year putting her fresh socks inside her shoes, I do the same thing. Putting on shoes and socks isn’t usually a problem, but this morning she tried to cram her feet into the shoes with the socks still inside them. I had to show her how to take the socks out of the shoes, put them onto her feet–surprisingly, I had to do this once for each sock–and then she put on the shoes.

Recently she has been putting her foot into the shoe and then raising her foot, guiding the foot into the shoe with her hand and making sure the back of the shoe doesn’t get stuffed down inside. I first discovered this could be a problem about a year ago. One night she was getting undressed and when she took off one sock I could see her heel had been bleeding. Apparently she never noticed the discomfort. Sometimes I try to guide her into pulling the backs of the shoes back up, but this morning I didn’t want to be bothered so I just did that job myself.

After all this was finished, and during just a few seconds when I took my eye off her, Tara took her nightshirt and put it back on over her day clothing. She resisted taking it off, saying she needed it, but I managed to persuade her gently that it didn’t go with the rest of her outfit.

Tara and I walked into the kitchen, where she usually waits for me to get dressed and where I grab my small cup of coffee to sip while I’m dressing. (I set up the automatic coffee maker every night if I remember.) She called the dogs to follow her but, as usual, they didn’t come. I assured her they would come when we were ready to go out, and I went upstairs to my room where I usually get dressed while watching a few minutes of “Morning Joe.”

When I got back downstairs, the dogs had come out from the bedroom and were keeping Tara company in the kitchen. She had taken their collars out of the breadbox where we keep them, but she hadn’t put them on the dogs. Sometimes I lead her through this process but this morning I did it myself. Next she took the two dog leashes and asked if she should put them on the dogs. I told her we didn’t use them on neighborhood walks except at night, but that she should bring one with us in case Fluffy decided, as she sometimes does, to just sit down halfway through the walk. I also sprayed both of us with bug repellent, Tara complaining as always. I’ve stopped trying to explain to her about mosquito bites because she doesn’t understand what they are although she does scratch at them.

Our walk was uneventful, and so was breakfast. As always I fed the dogs first, then got to work making our breakfast, this morning turkey breakfast sausage and scrambled eggs. I put on our morning music, usually in recent days boogie-woogie, which Tara likes very much these days, but this morning Haydn Piano Sonatas. While I was cooking a friend called. We talked while I was cooking.

After breakfast we did the dishes. This includes Tara’s only remaining household chore, wiping the dishes and putting them away. Until about six months ago she did very well at this, remembering where to put a high proportion of what she wiped. These days, though, the proportion is down under 50% so I keep having to interrupt myself to show her where things go, and, once, to remind her to wipe a dish instead of putting it away still wet.

When we got near the end of the job, I washed and handed her a pancake flipper I had used in making the sausage and eggs. I showed her where it went into the lazy susan, but she couldn’t get it in because she was holding it with the handle up. I showed her it had to be put in handle down, and she said, “Shut up,” sounding very angry. I must have been more keyed up than I realized because I had a surge of anger and yelled at her. I’ve been warned by a couple of psychologists that this anger is inevitable in dealing with dementia patients, who are angry themselves much of the time. But I was sorry.

We had almost an hour left before Tara’s Friday caregiver Susan showed up to take her out on her day’s excursions. Susan takes her driving, for lunch, and to the movies most Fridays. I get time off to handle what’s left of my business, to speak with friends (lunch today), and to write things like this.