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

One Response to “The Woodstock-Mayapple Poets’ Retreat”

  1. Leslie Gerber Says:

    Mr. Tien informs me that I got some of his information wrong. He has actually been in the U.S. for 50 years, not 15. I remain impressed by the quality of his work.