I had what is relatively my last poetry reading for a while at the Y on 63rd St. It was a small crowd but nice. I read with my friend Jeanne Beaumont. Jeanne and I both grew up near Philly and when we were young both went to Ocean City. Even more weird we were born in the same hospital. Fitzgerald Mercy in Darby PA. I met Jeanne at the Frost Place in Franconia NH where I go to think about poetry and poets every year.
I was going to write about my reading but I think I'll tell you about the Frost Place. My friend, Don Sheehan, was asked by the town of Franconia to help with a celebration of the house that Robert Frost lived in before he accepted the writers post at Amherst. He vacationed there afterwards for many years. It's a small white farm house with an expansive view of the White Mountains and a little barn. Don set up a writer in residence program and organized a writers festival around the barn and the house. I've been going there since 1981. That year my friend David suggested I attend so my other friend Mack and I drove up and stayed with my friends Abby and Killer in Bath and went each day to the Festival. What I saw and heard helped change me as a writer forever.
The Festival itself is a simple idea. In the morning a poet of some renown gives a talk about poetry or writing or whatever and then you eat lunch. In the afternoon the bulk of the people attending sit down in small groups to talk about their poems in classic "workshop" fashion. Then, in the evening, the poet of renown and one of the people who lead the small groups read their poems out loud in the barn. Later, the people attending the festival move out in various amorphous groups to drink and talk about life and poetry.
It's all kind of rote in a poetry conference way except that Don Sheehan had a unique way of structuring this week so that it felt like more than just a poetry conference. It felt and feels like a chance to really be a poet. To really hear and enjoy and talk and listen about poetry with people who love poetry. Almost without noticing you realized the value of what you do.
I would guess that 40% of the poems I've written have the stamp of that place on them. I remember one year coming home and telling my friend Suzy that I was the true Jack when I was there. That the person I was supposed to be was the person that walked the earth that week. She said that was bullshit. It wasn't.
One year Don came to Englewood, NJ to talk about Envy and the Arts. He gave a basically theological talk centered on Russian Orthodox teachings saying that Envy was "original sin". He said that the only cure for original sin was love. Not love of self but love of others.
A woman in the audience said she was sure she'd be a better writer if only she worked harder at it and that love had nothing to do with Envy. That once she was successful and published and acknowledged as the good writer she was she'd envy no one and besides how could you go through your life loving everyone? Don said, you know it's funny, once a year I invite 60 people to a small town in New Hampshire and ask them to love each other and they do.
That's the Frost Place. Once you're not involved in the bullshit of acceptance and validation and who's who and who knows who and you're just listening and talking about the thing you love it comes to you like a lost friend. Poetry.
One night I heard Hayden Carruth read. He'd been an asshole in the morning talk and was treating his wife like shit and I wasn't expecting anything of note. What could this asshole bring me? He brought me poems that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. That shook my core. At the end of this stunning reading a shooting star crossed the sky. Huge, big, and green. What a night!
I've been drunk with Bill Matthews and harangued Molly Peacock and embarassed myself with Tony Hoagland talking about the thing I love most. Poetry. When I'm there and for months after I'm the person I really am. A poet.
So, to get back to 63rd St...when my reading was done I realized for the second time in a week that I know what I'm doing. All this time spent writing hasn't been a waste. Poetry matters. For me and for the people who hear it and read it. Thank God.