The story of my last decade is mostly the story of my wife Tara’s illness. In 2003, after a couple of months of mysterious symptoms, Tara was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had a hysterectomy. The cancer was very early, stage 1C, and the surgeon told us that many doctors would not have recommended any follow-up treatment. He strongly advocated chemotherapy and talked us into it.
Halfway through her course of chemo, which lasted 4 months, Tara started having trouble writing (her profession for almost 50 years!) and with short-term memory. About that time the surgeon left his position at the hospital and Tara was sent to another hospital to complete her chemo, where she received no supervision and almost no attention. When she complained about the memory problems, she was told she probably had chemo-brain and it would eventually go away by itself.
It didn’t go away. After five years of attempted treatments and diagnoses, we finally wound up at Columbia-Presbyterian in New York, where a neurologist specializing in memory disorders sent her for some high-tech tests. When he showed us the results, they demonstrated extensive brain damage. He theorized it had been caused by an opportunistic infection suffered while the chemo was suppressing her immune system. There was no possible cure or treatment, he said.
She was still able to care for herself to some extent, and when my father was dying in February 2008 I was able to travel to Albuquerque for a few days. But her continuing difficulties forced me to close down my mail order business in October, 2008, and to sell the house I was using to run the business out of. I’ve only been able to do small amounts of part-time work since then. I still publish a few CDs (one DVD), sell some used CDs through Amazon, and do a little writing including my Woodstock Times column, now ongoing for more than 35 years.
During 2008, I learned of a treatment called neurofeedback which was offered by Dr. Steve Larsen in Tillson. I took Tara to him twice weekly for eight months, and she had a brief period of serious improvement. A neurologist she saw both before and after the treatments started said he had never seen such remarkable improvement in someone with her condition in so short a time. But by the end of the year the treatments had stopped working and we ended them.
We had another try with Larsen in 2010 combined with a woman he recommended named Barbara Dean Schacker, who has developed some effective treatments for stroke recovery. We tried them because strokes cause similar damage to what Tara had suffered. They had some beneficial effects too. We also went for some months to a speech pathologist for something called cognitive therapy. Both of these caused some short-term minor improvements, but they each stopped having any effect. By the beginning of 2012, in consultation with all the therapists involved, I decided to stop all treatments, all of which Tara had come to dislike, and simply focus on her comfort.
I had started writing poetry in 1999, as a result of a series of nightmares. I’m still not sure why they inspired me to write poems, a completely new activity for me unless you count the song lyrics I wrote in the ’80s. (I don’t.) But I had some success, and a lot of encouragement from Tara and from a wonderful local poet named J.J. Clarke, who took me under his wing because he’d enjoyed my radio programs.
I worked on poetry as a kind of mildly gifted amateur for several years, but then got more serious about that activity after I got to take two brief workshops at Omega Institute with Sharon Olds, one of my poetic idols. Olds was very encouraging and advised me to get into the local poetry community, which I have succeeded in doing. I’m now a regular at most of the local open mics and often a feature. I belong to a working group we call the Goat Hill Poets, which meets monthly to critique each others’ work. We’ve performed as a group several times. I’ve had some publications, planning to submit a lot more work, and I now have a daily work schedule which I keep up most of the time. In July, I will be taking a 12 day workshop with Billy Collins, who is probably aside from Olds the poet I would most like to work with. (Olds isn’t doing workshops any more, alas.)
Caring for Tara, who has now deteriorated to the point where she can’t remember my name or tell you hers, has probably been the most difficult task of my life, despite my having cared for my two dying children decades ago. It’s a lot more exhausting than it is ennobling. But there is at least some satisfaction in knowing that I am providing for this splendid woman the care she needs after more than two decades of the way she glorified my life. And I’m arranging for more time to myself so that I can write and do other satisfying things.
The phone rings. It’s 2 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
A woman is on the line.
She left him three months ago.
Now he calls her all the time.
Tells her what she has to do.
One day she brought him their son
straight from the playground.
He complained the boy was dirty.
Told the mediator she was
not taking care of him.
He doesn’t want to pay. He curses.
He promises she cannot win this.
What can she do?
The phone rings. It’s 10 P.M.
It’s the answering service.
A woman is on the line.
She saw him again outside,
looking in the window.
She called the cops. She has an order.
The doors all locked. They did not come.
Her friends won’t visit. They’re afraid.
She won’t leave. It’s her fucking house!
The cops arrived two hours later.
They were sorry. Someone died.
She showed them her longest scars and
she played them some messages.
She won’t go to court again.
The judge got angry. She has no more
money for a lawyer.
What can she do?
Can I help her?
The phone rings. It’s 3 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
An emergency room call.
I meet my partner. She looks beat,
all gray, and blinking like a frog.
We go to meet our latest victim.
She is fat. Her face is wet.
She tells the cops she was asleep.
The window crashed and he was on her.
She tried to fight. He hit her hard.
The sun is rising on her cheek.
I hold her hand, then my partner’s
as they cry. I try not to.
The phone rings. It’s 2 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
Someone at the sheriff’s office.
I meet my partner. She looks angry.
She has heard part of the story.
I hear, she met him in Mobile.
He was handsome, nice clothes, suit.
He had money, took her dancing.
Didn’t even try to kiss her.
She was nineteen. Three weeks later
he sent her an airplane ticket.
Didn’t beat her for a month.
Then, she didn’t fold the clothes right,
supper late, one night she went out,
didn’t answer when he called.
He looked at the phone bill. Who’s that?
Some old Alabama boyfriend?
Don’t make calls when I’m not here!
That night he hit her, broke her cheek, then
took her to the hospital and
went out drinking, told her she should
take a cab home.
The phone rings. It’s 4 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
She is at the hospital.
I meet my partner. The room’s full
of doctors, cops, and mostly nurses
because she’s one of them and they
all love her.
Second marriage, nine months old.
Threatened her before. This is
the first time he has ever hit her.
It will be the last.
Her face is purple.
She won’t have to go to court.
The cops have everything. They have him.
She never wants to see him again.
The phone rings. It’s 3 P.M.
It’s the office.
The victim that we saw last week
went home. She’s dead.
The funeral is tomorrow.
The phone rings.
I wrote this poem as a result of my experiences for 19 years as a volunteer for the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. While the program helps victims of all kinds of crime, the volunteers respond to a hot line which serves victims of rape and domestic violence. Every two months, two volunteers go on call during the hours when the office isn’t open, 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. and all weekend. We went mostly to hospitals and police stations.
The hospital calls often occurred when rape victims were brought to the S.A.N.E. (Sexual Assault Nurse Examination) Unit. The S.A.N.E. procedures were originated by a group of hospital nurses in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1991. At that time, the District Attorney of Ulster County was a man named Frank Kavanaugh. He read about S.A.N.E. in a law enforcement magazine and decided that Ulster County had to have that program as soon as possible. Nurses from Ulster County went to Tulsa for training, and the Ulster County program began soon afterwards, the second one on the U.S. The program is now very widespread and provides humane treatment for rape victims along with useful evidence for prosecutions.
Since very strict confidentiality prevails in the CVAP, I’ve never shared any of my experiences as a volunteer without thoroughly disguising any potentially identifying details. That is true of the poem, which changes some details and uses composite characters. But it’s as true to my experience as I could make it.
I wrote the poem in 2008 at the beginning of a poetry workshop run by Sharon Olds at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. It was a response to a writing prompt Olds gave, and I was thinking only of that, and of my experiences, when I wrote it. We all read our poems after a lunch break, and it was only then that I realized that the other nine people in the workshop, all women, were hanging on my words to find out who I was. I felt a perceptible relaxation go around the room as I read, and we all got along fine after that.
It’s not often I run into one of the world’s greatest ballerinas in a parking lot and she calls me by name. But there is one such creature, and she figures prominently in what I call my “bullshit resume.” I danced with her!
I came up with the concept of the bullshit resume years ago, reading the potted biographies of musicians on concert programs. The bullshit resume item isn’t a lie. Pianist X has performed at Carnegie Hall, for example. But that credit can cover a wide variety of events, from giving a solo recital in the Stern Auditorium (the main hall at Carnegie) to hiring Weill Recital Hall (a much smaller theater). “Performed at Carnegie Hall” sounds as thought it indicates a high degree of success. But it doesn’t necessarily. I could play a recital at Weill myself, if I had the money to hire the place.
One often sees something like “has sung at Carnegie Hall” on a singer’s resume. Sure. Many choruses perform there every year, and all of those people sing at Carnegie Hall.
My mother performed at Carnegie Hall, as a soloist. She played the Grieg Piano Concerto with the All-City High School Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall, in front of a packed house (mostly, one supposes, friends and relatives of the kids in the orchestra). The conductor on that occasion was Jean Morel, a prominent conductor and conducting teacher. A couple of decades later, my mother and I went backstage to meet maestro Morel after he conducted a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. “You won’t remember me,” my mother said, “but I played the Grieg Concerto with you years ago.” “Of course I do,” Morel replied. “You’re Shirley Felberg” (my mother’s maiden name). But she never used the Carnegie Hall credit on her resume.
I once played two-thirds of a Beethoven Piano Sonata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, another apparently prestigious gig. I was actually the final–and therefore presumably most accomplished–performer on the annual recital of students of the Brooklyn Piano Teachers Guild, for which they hired the small upstairs hall at BAM. There were about 400 people in the audience, and I was nervous, but I did OK. I remember mostly that the piano was a huge old Steinway with a wonderful sound and almost no resistance left in the key action, which made it very difficult to play.
So, there’s one item in my personal bullshit resume. I played Beethoven at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. True, but essentially false. Bullshit.
Here are some other elements in my bullshit resume. My favorite musical one is not the BAM gig but that I sang as a paid soloist with a professional symphony orchestra. True, but false. I was narrated a performance of “Tubby the Tuba” with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at a children’s concert. Tubby has a little song, and I sang it. I was even in tune, as the tape proved. (I also narrated “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” at that same concert, which was considerably more difficult. If I hadn’t been able to read music I would have had a terrible time.)
As a bullshit poet, I can claim to be a student of Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Patricia Smith, and Billy Collins. The Olds credit is closest to the truth, since I was in two workshops of hers at Omega Institute, one of them five days, the other three. Enrollment was limited to ten people and we were chosen by submission. (I was accepted as an alternate, but someone couldn’t make it.) Howe, Doty, Smith and Collins were all involved as teachers in Omega’s “Celebration of Poetry” last summer. That event, though, had open enrollment, and although it turned out to be surprisingly worthwhile there were 91 of us. There’s a chance Olds might recognize my name, but none of the others would.
Incidentally, I have also read my work at the Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry event in all of North America. Yes, they have an open mic.
My favorite item on my bullshit resume is that I have danced with Martine van Hamel, one of the greatest of all American ballerinas. I’ve known Martine’s mother, Manette, and her late father, Dick, for decades. They were very much involved in the Woodstock arts scene and I ran into them many times and often visited their house. (My father almost wound up buying a violin Dick had made. The deal fell through at the last minute.) Martine, their daughter, was a lead ballerina at the American Ballet Theater, and I got to know her slightly from running into her when she was visiting her parents.
One New Year’s Eve, I attended a party at which all three of the van Hamels were present. Martine asked me to dance with her. I still remember how that felt: like an asteroid being orbited by a comet. So, we were never on stage together, thank goodness. I’m a pretty awkward dancer. But I danced with Martine van Hamel. I also interviewed her on my radio show once, when she was making a local appearance. And when I ran into her in the parking lot outside the Price Chopper supermarket in Saugerties, we had a very cordial hello.
A list of the music people I’ve interviewed for my long ago radio program, and for a few news articles since then, would be impressive, and legitimate, if that means anything to anyone. When my mother learned that I had interviewed Aaron Copland at his house, she gained a whole new level of respect for me. Others on my list are Isaac Stern, Virgil Thomson, Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Michael Tree (of the Guarneri Quartet), Ivan Moravec, and plenty of other music celebrities. But that’s a legitimate list. If I claimed to know any of them, that would be bullshit.
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.)