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   Woodstock poetry reading
Friday, August 22 2003
The Woodstock Poetry Festival began today, and Gretchen was one of several people awarded a juried slot in the schedule. So we drove over to Woodstock around noon and staked out our seats in the Colony Café, a large Mission-style space near downtown Woodstock on Rock City Road.
Gretchen and I have not been the sort of people who go to poetry readings except in cases where the selection process has been ruthless. Today we were reminded why we are this way.
Mind you, the people reading at today's event were selected from a larger group of people who had submitted their work. But this is Woodstock, a small town in the Catskills. Sure, Woodstock has an international reputation as a gravitational center for things artsy and fartsy. But it still can't boast the attractive power of even a C-grade coffee shop in Manhattan. Gretchen was honored to have had her poetry selected, but, in retrospect, not really all that honored.
This particular event, being a not-especially-selective survey of regional poetic talent, proved to be something of a showcase of annoying personality traits. First there were the prima donnas, the people whose poetry has appeared in respected national magazines and who had been invited to attend (therefore bypassing the jury). In typical prima donna form, they'd re-arranged the schedule and moved their readings to the beginning of the event so they could leave without having to hear anyone else read.
One of these poets had been Gretchen's professor at Sarah Lawrence. Let's call her Meredith. Meredith is a charismatic woman with big hair who likes to write poems about things like kissing other girls back when she was a kid. Gretchen tells me that Meredith's professorial style is one of simple neglect; she's been published in the New Yorker so why should she have to fret about the educational needs of unfamous students? Truth be said, in the context of this particular reading, Meredith's poems were plenty enjoyable. Gretchen pointed out later that this was mostly the result of the manner with which Meredith read them. Simple enunciation and charisma (combined with mildly-shocking quasi-feminist childhood tales) can take you far in the poetry world.
In addition to people who were prima donnas when they should have been professors, there were people who should have been reading their poems but instead used their allotted time to act as professors. There was this one haiku poet who seemed like he'd eaten entirely too many pseudoephedrine tablets this morning, and instead of reading us his damn haikus, he chose instead to give us a survey course on haiku arcania. At that point I had to get up and walk down to Tinker Street to get some ice coffee. For some reason it was terribly hot in the Colony Café.
There were plenty of tormentors cloaked as poets: the unfamous beat poet who dropped several references to his good buddy Allen Ginsberg, the guy who used computer-generated anagrams as a basis for most of his work, and the woman who kept talking about the class she took from Billy Collins. Being trapped in a hot room as a captive audience member listening to these people and their mostly-dreadful poems was every bit as bad as you can imagine it would be. The only solace came after I scared up a pencil and Gretchen and I could pass notes back and forth. We wrote these in the margin of the program.

In this last one we see a depiction of D. Zimmerman being yanked off stage
by a shepherd's crook. Unfortunately, this was merely a fantasy.

Just before Gretchen's fifteen minutes, we were joined by Katie's mother, who had driven down from Saugerties.
I know I'm terribly biased, but Gretchen pretty much showed the others how this thing is done. She somehow managed to use the microphone as if it had a compressor on it, something no one else was able to do. She was loud and clear, and didn't junk up her time with stupid jokes, name dropping, and too much meta-talk. She did, however, have poems in her quiver to dedicate to both Katie's mother and to me. She'd written a poem about the suicide of Katie's brother-in-law and she'd written one for me called simply "Love." She also introduced more poems from a new manuscript she is working on, one that has an urban apartment building and cancer as its unifying themes.
As the event was wrapping up, the master of ceremonies announced other Poetry Festival events, including several "open mikes." Hearing this, Gretchen turned to me and stated matter-of-factly, "I'd sooner shoot myself in the head."

After our sentence was over, after Gretchen vowed never again to come to a local-talent poetry reading, Katie's mother took us out to lunch. We ended up at a fancy new French restaurant a little to the east of downtown Woodstock on 212. The only reason we went there was because Katie's sister Becka works there as a bartender. The story was that she hates the job - the place is too new and there are no customers, income or excitement. "I think this is her last day," her mother told us as we headed over.
It wasn't just that the place was dead, but the food was overpriced, the portions under-sized, and the flavors fatty and bland. These are all characteristics of French food, but it didn't seem like this was particularly good French food. Happily, though, the restaurant's point of sale network (a combination of Windows 95 dedicated POS terminals and a Windows 2000 server) was on the fritz, and it was possible, with a little help from the bartender, for us to all drink for free.
Other free things were obtained from the new Woodstock CVS as Gretchen and I were on our way home. While everyone else of conscience is boycotting CVS to protest its monopolistic downtown-destroying proclivities, Gretchen has found an even more proactive form of protest.

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