Wednesday, December 02, 1998

From the Archives: Success at Columbia (Meeting Kenneth Koch, December 2, 1998)

This is part of my "From the Archives" series, which consists of texts from e-mails I sent to friends describing my experiences at poetry events. I may have taken some small editorial liberties with these texts, and I have included related pictures and hyperlinks, but these are all BBB (Before BillyBlog). Remember, for me readings are enjoyable for two separate reasons: the love of poetry, and the mania for collecting. I am who I am. Enjoy!

The following is an e-mail to Hubert, a friend and fellow book enthusiast in California.


Just had a nice little encounter with Kenneth Koch up at Columbia University.

Stopped by during his office hours and was very polite. He was quite surprised, "no one's ever come to my office before to get books signed."

He was meeting with a student when I arrived, so I waited. He poked his head out and called me into his office, would've loved to go through those books in there!

The person he was meeting with packed up as I stood around. Then he asked me to have a seat while he made a call to his barber to set up a haircut appointment (Friday 4:30). Then I handed him books, a couple I picked up today because [my friend] BGM advised not to go with just anthologies. Sound advice, indeed.

He inscribed Straits (poems, 1998) and Making Your Own Days; The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (1998, and a rather nice little nonfiction poetry book/anthology---check it out). He inscribed both "To Bill Cohen with best wishes Kenneth Koch New York 12/98"

Then I gave him the Lehman book [The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets] and above his portrait on the title he drew a balloon and inside it wrote "Hello, Bill Cohen" and signed it with NYC 12/98 just below the portait. Very cool. Very very cool.

Then he signed my Contemporary American Poets anthology which is looking more and more amazing (everyone on one page).

Then I asked him if he wouldn't mind signing his pages in my Best American Poetry anthologies, prefacing it with some poets object to doing so. He assented and signed on his page in 5 of those anthologies. He asked why some poets objected to signing them, and I kind of grunted and said "Because they think I'm a book dealer. Those guys ruin it for the rest of us who just enjoy getting autographs from poets we admire." That seemed to satisfy him. I will admit that since I started reading Lehman's book, my appreciation for both Koch and Ashbery has expanded greatly.

I thanked him profusely and then departed. He asked me if anyone was waiting for him in the hallway, I said "No," and he laughed and said "Thank God!" and started to pack.

Then, at the elevator, a young woman came up the stairs, saw me and stopped. She asked me if I was Professor Koch. Ha ha.......I wish.

Anyway, rather productive little jaunt....possibly seeing Ashbery on Saturday at a little dive in South Manhattan. Wish me luck!


Monday, September 28, 1998

From the Archives: Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, 1998

This is part of my "From the Archives" series, which consists of texts from e-mails I sent to friends describing my experiences at poetry events. I may have taken some small editorial liberties with these texts, and I have included related pictures and hyperlinks, but these are all BBB (Before BillyBlog). Remember, for me readings are enjoyable for two separate reasons: the love of poetry, and the mania for collecting. I am who I am.

[Note: It is interesting to contrast this e-mail from 1998, with my recap from the 2004 festival here. You can really sense a difference in the approach, as well as the experience from six years of signings. In 1998 I was much more taken by the surroundings whereas, in 2004, Duke Farms doesn't score much time in the description. The difference between being on the East Coast for only a year and a half and experiencing Autumn for the second time, and the same outlook six years later.]

Here's the e-mail from Monday, September 28, 1998:

Hi, this is a mass mailing for those interested. On Saturday, I attended Day Three of the four-day biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. The festival was featured in the Bill Moyers' PBS special The Language of Life several years ago.

On Saturday, I left the house at 6AM, and by 7:30 was on a bus to Stanhope, New Jersey and the tiny historic village of Waterloo. Arriving at 8:30, I ran over to the church and caught the last fifteen minutes of Marge Piercy.

Then I wandered. What an amazing place! The leaves are just beginning to turn. It was a mild day in the low 70s, and the hazy sunshine dissolved into brilliant blue skies by 2 pm.

I wandered around until 9:30, during which I ran into the poets Mark Doty and Jane Hirshfield, who was literally thrilled when I pulled a "Poetry In Motion" subway poster out of my bag for her to sign. She was quite lovely and kind. The poem on the poster, "The Groundfall Pear" in its entirety reads: "It is the one he chooses/Yellow, plump, a little bruised/on one side from falling./That place he takes first."

From there I attended a discussion entitled "Poetry and Politics" featuring Chilean Poet Marjorie Agosín, renowned Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao, Malaysian poet (and UCSB professor) Shirley Geok-lin Lim, supertranslator Eliot Weinberger, the marvelously gifted W.S. Merwin, and the reigning dean of American Poetry, the 93-year old Stanley Kunitz. 'Twas a fascinating discussion and I was the first audience member to ask a question. I had with me a copy of my friend Brian's book Poetry and Politics: An Anthology of Essays, which featured an essay crafted from a lecture Kunitz gave in 1970. I asked him if he still felt it was no longer possible for someone to be both "a reactionary and a poet". The moderator clarified for the audience by verifying with me, "So you're quoting Stanley Kunitz to Stanley Kunitz?" And Mr. Kunitz, responded well in kind, not only remembering the lecture, but quoting directly from it. Quite a marvelous panel!

Afterwards, I was sitting in a shaded area nearby and Ms. Lim approached me and we discussed more of what was said. We chatted for a good 15 minutes, and when we were talking about "reactionary" vs."revolutionary" poets, I brought up Bukowski, and Ms. Lim, not what you would expect in a Bukowski fan, showed me a poem in one of her books called "Romancing Bukowski".

Further wanderings allowed me to meet Lucille Clifton, Denise Duhamel, and Alicia Ostriker.

At 11:30 a.m., I sat down against a tree overlooking the scenic Braw Pond, complete with geese, and a breathtaking view of the Fall foliage. It was a bit secluded as I jotted in my journal as the acorns rained down with each breeze and a couple of curious chipmunks busied themselves nearby.

At noon, I heard New York poets, Denise Duhamel, William Wadsworth, and Samuel Menashe read their work. Quite fun.

Watch: Denise Duhamel reads
QT "Kinky" (excerpt) (1.5 MB)
(QuickTime required)

Samuel Menashe reads
QT "Salt and Pepper" (2.1 MB)

(QuickTime required)

More wanderings, more meetings. Karl Kirchwey, another New York poet, ventured to sign a couple of anthologies for me while his three-year old daughter climbed his legs and struggled to put a large rock in his jeans pocket.

At 1:30, Bei Dao read with Eliot Weinberger. Wonderful to hear the poetry of a foreign language in its true form.

Just before 2:00, I caught Amiri Baraka leaving the restaurant and chatted him up briefly. His reading was PHENOMENAL! The way he mixes music and poetry is earth-shattering and he received a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd. Always great to see a living legend in action. [This was four years before his controversial recitation of a post-9/11 poem at the Dodge Festival.]

Watch: Amiri Baraka reads
R "Wise, Why's Y's" (Africa section)
(Real Player required)

After a brief break with the Paul Winter Consort Musicians, Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds had "A Conversation in Poems" during which they movingly alternated reading theirs and others' work.

From there I went to an open reading and read my beloved own poem "My Ballet Class In Heaven":


is the title of the child’s drawing

above a co-worker’s desk.

It strikes me as odd.

My morbid mind runs amok

in the dense foliage

of twisted possibilities.

I picture a boulder crushing

a schoolbus

filled with screaming ballerinas.


St. Peter calls

and says, “The Big Guy

wants to be reminded

of the simple, joyful things

in life.

Can you spare a few hours

to do the Nutcracker

for all the Angels?


is it just

a bunch of kids

eating ice cream

from bottomless schooners

and grinning


chocolate-smeared smiles?

After reading that to a receptive crowd, I caught up with W.S. Merwin again. And then broke for dinner.

Then, I sat and watched Coleman Barks recite Rumi with Paul Winter et al. They were rehearsing for the reading later in the evening.

At 6:30, I saw Kurtis Lamkin performing with the kora, a twenty-one stringed West African harp-lute used by troubadours to accompany compositions.

Watch: Kurtis Lamkin performs
R "jump mama"

(Real Player Required)

[The photo on the right is not Lamkin, but does illustrate a musician playing the kora.]

At 7:00, Jane Hirshfield read, although she was a bit disappointing. Too serious, too intense, too homogenous in her reading. [I have since come to appreciate Ms. Hirshfield more, as indicated in my dispatch from the 2004 Dodge festival.]

Watch: Jane Hirshfield reads
R "The Poet"
(Real Player Required)

At 7:45, Galway Kinnell read superbly.

Watch: Galway Kinnell reads
R "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps"

(Real Player Required)

At 8:15, Adrienne Rich, wonderful to see her finally.

And at 8:45, Coleman Barks read some new Rumi, with the Winter Consortium.

Watch: Coleman Barks reads
R "New Year's Day Nap"
(Real Player Required)

At 9:30, the festival ended and everyone went to a wine and cheese reception. I ran into Samuel Menashe (who I heard at Noon). He was a bit drunk, but we chatted for a bit.

At 10:15, I wandered over to the Gazebo where there had been open readings all day. The bus back to the city left mysteriously at 11, instead of 10 or 10:30. I met a nice couple from Hoboken and two other poets, and we sat around, talking story, and at their request, read my controversial "Casual Sex Fridays" much to their delight. [Inappropriate poem for BillyBlog, but I will share with anyone who is interested, just e-mail me.]

The bus left at 11. I was exhausted. I arrived at Port Authority at 12:15 a.m. And the trains finally deposited me in Bay Ridge at about 1:30 A.M. What a day!

You all know I collect books and signatures, so it will not be a surprise if you learned I went with a few books. More precisely, 17 books in all (plus a poster). I did not think I'd get everyone to sign everything, so I was thrilled to succeed almost entirely. I had 13 anthologies with me,
which made it a bit easier. In all, I had items in which 16 poets appeared. All but one, Robert Pinsky, signed for me, and I accumulated a grand total of 43 signatures in all.

Yes, Mom, your Marge Piercy book was the first one signed.

Even without all the signing, the festival was sensational, and I will never forget it. I recommend to all who are interested to start saving now for the next one in September 2000. I know I'll be there.