From late 1976 through 1979, I was involved with writers in Andover, Mass., who called themselves The Poets' Lab and later the Merrimack Valley Poets. Other than one creative writing workshop in poetry at the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) in 1975, I had no experience in a writers' group. I didn't know published writers or aspiring poets. There wasn't a poetry scene in Lowell. People in the city"doing" history generated the literary energy -- fueled by enthusiasm about the U.S. Bicentennial celebration and the prospect of a national park commemorating Lowell's role in the Industrial Revolution. The Lowell Historical Society published a new history of Lowell. Activist women at the university launched The New Lowell Offering, a magazine named in recognition of the well-regarded Lowell Offering written by women factory workers in the 1840s.
I had published poems in the university's student newspaper and in an alternative newspaper, The Communicator, and had been to one poetry reading at Keene State College in New Hampshire, featuring three poets, one of them a Native American woman. Michael Casey, from Lowell and also from my university (he was a physics major), won the Yale Younger Poets Award (1972) for his book about the war in Vietnam, Obscenities, which I owned. Mostly, my models were writers I knew from books or those I had heard on radio or seen on TV. The timing of this opportunity was good for me. I was 22 years old with a bachelor's degree in political science and had recently published a pamphlet or chapbook of my poems, working with Northern Printing in Dracut, Mass. I thought that was the thing to do, get my work out there. I had read a lot about early 20th-century poets and the little literary magazines and independent small presses where their work often appeared first. I liked the entrepreneurial attitude of self-publishing. Joining a new writing group seemed a smart next step.
What began as an informal workshop whose members met every other Wednesday evening at the public library evolved into a collective whose writers gave readings up and down the river valley from Haverhill, Lawrence, and North Andover to Dracut and Lowell. One of the spin-off projects was a broadside series called LOOM that was the root of my small publishing company, Loom Press. The Poets' Lab writers represented the full spectrum of development, ambition, and accomplishment. Esther Weisslitz, who often signed her poems E. F. Weisslitz, had published in The New Yorker in the 1960s and was on a first name basis with then-poetry editor Howard Moss while other members like Charlie Brunault had only ever written for themselves. (Esther was so generous that she sent a batch of my poems to Moss with a note urging him to consider them for The New Yorker. I never forgot that kind gesture.) Dozens of writers filtered through the workshop meetings, the attendance sometimes exceeding the capacity of our second floor conference room. Ken Skulski had put out the call for writers in the fall of 1976, using the regional library network as an organizing tool. News of the workshop spread after the first few gatherings, drawing writers from close by and an hour's drive away. Ten or twelve writers formed the core and stayed together for the duration. Some of the friendships endure to this day.
The Poets' Lab: Selected Journal Entries (1976-79)
October 13, 1976
Tonight I attended the first meeting of the Poets' Lab at the Andover, Mass., public library, Memorial Library, with 12 to 15 other writers representing a variety of ages and backgrounds. Several are good poets. One bubbly African American man, Rudy, is attuned to the sounds in poems. The moderator, Ken, is into audio poetry and reads dramatically. He's forceful, the leader there. He said he corresponds with poet James Dickey. Stephen, tall & bearded, about 15 years older than me, makes concrete poetry but also writes in traditional forms. A middle-aged man is highly opinionated and demonstrative. He's in love with poetry. There were several women, one with a British accent knitted during the meeting. Her poems are short but not strong. We had three or four college-aged men, one who works at a prison. They are energetic, sensitive, anxious. Four young women shared their poems. Their themes were not surprising. An older woman who had studied at Yale has aspired to publish for 30 years. Rudy is from Cambridge. The rest are from Andover and Greater Lawrence. I was the only one from my end of the river valley around Lowell. Many people seemed to be shy. As we went on the comfort level rose. Everyone read something. I said my poem "Meditation on Winter Trees" from memory.
October 28, 1976
The poetry group gathered again in Andover last night. I met Helen Allen, a poet in Lowell and director of the local YWCA. She liked my work and bought a copy of my chapbook, offering to take copies for the Y gift shop. When she reads her poems you feel a deep connection to her work. She's a passionate feminist. I got to know Tom better, an intense writer and archivist at Andover Town Hall, a former reference librarian. Cindy read two neat short poems. A lively discussion about poets and poetry arose with people talking about workshop groups, favorite poems, William Carlos Williams, the Beats, Gary Snyder, Yevtushenko, and more. It's fun being with folks who know something about poetry, like cooks talking food. Rudy has a fine sense of humor. He understands the subtleties in people's writing. Listening, he nods and says, "Yes," "Yeah," "Mmnn," and smiles a lot.
December 23, 1976
Last night I read "December Canticle" at the Poets' Lab, and Steve Perrin said it was the most positive thing he'd heard in a while. I introduced it as a kind of song, a hymn or chant, and after reading it said it is an affirmation that rides close to the Buddhist expression "Tat Tvam Asi," meaning "Thou Art That." A Portuguese priest-poet joined us. He has published books of sonnets in Portuguese. A professor of Romance Languages at Harvard University uses the books in his course. He's been told he's one of the most well-known Portuguese poets to come to the U.S. His recent book is called Sonnets from America. He read one in Portuguese, and then Ken said the English version in his marvelous way of speaking: "I hear your voice in the swallows on the wire."
Steve Perrin read several hard-hitting pieces written by children in a learning disabilities school where he teaches two writing classes. "I am a pistol that shoots off its mouth" began one poem. Another was by a girl who wrote that "a man in a white suit" gave her brain damage at birth, and that she wished her sisters would have brain damage too.
We had a man who teaches in Manchester, N.H., who read a narrative poem, "Hank and Alice" or something like that. In the poem a man chews razor blades to earn money to support his wife through the Great Depression and then gets hit by shrapnel in World War II, leaving the wife to run their restaurant alone and care for her broken husband. The poem was read in a matter-of-fact manner, reminding me of the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. We had fewer people than usual because Christmas is almost here.
January 6, 1977
A good meeting last night that spilled over into a beer-pumping joint, Shag's, in Andover center, and then overflowed to photographer Lynn's house. Good talk and much fact-finding. Tom Mofford's been a teacher in Spain, the West Indies, and Japan as well as in this country. He was born in the last year of the Herbert Hoover administration. His wife, Julie, is a writer also. Ken is dedicated to writing "sound poetry" and has been around. He "knows people" and is informed about "the avant-garde scene," wherever that is. He sits in the seat of abdication as he chairs meetings. A lot of personal talk tonight. Here I sit in judgement of the asteroids in this galaxy.
January 20, 1977
Exciting meeting in Andover last night. There's talk of doing a public reading. People experimented this week. The group is evolving and showing more depth of talent each time we gather.
February 3, 1977
We will read for the public at the Andover library on a Sunday in April. We may go on the road and do one reading each month. Last night, Annie Fleming from Chelmsford joined us. She read a poem called "Jamie with the Swaggers" with this line: "That Jamie he had sounds inside him." Wayne the night guard read two pieces that reminded me of my work, going deep into place and ethnic identity. Mary Lou showed her pen-and-ink drawings of the group members, interpretations of our personalities as animals. I was a raccoon. Some of the others: Tom/ram, Steve/lion, Ken/timber wolf, Florence/cockatoo, Mary Lou/do-do bird, Charlie/monkey, Cindy/deer, and others. Steve read some one-line poems like "Black holes suck." He also read a 15-page tiny, one sentence per page book called Time Is. We did a group poem, titling it "No Constraints." Ken enjoyed the hell out of the impromptu composition. Each of us added a line to the preceding one. Cindy later read some warmly erotic poems. Florence read a poem about the group and in another compared a cloud to a long duck. Afterwards, we rushed over to Shag's across the street to carry on with talk, music, and general give-and-take and beer.
February 17, 1977
Ken & Rudy last night presented a taped piece called "Rampages"-- the first part of a trilogy based on Baudelaire's statement that there are only three professions, the priest, the soldier, and the poet. This section was on the soldier, a bold weird work. Rudy improvised on guitar. Thirteen minutes long. Sounded like "A Season in Hell," madman philosopher ranting in stark images: "Luminous objects pregnant with heat." Tom also gave us a long work called "Odyssey Since We Last Met," a collage poem of what bombarded him and filtered into him in the last two weeks. He goes on rampages, too. Rudy later read a poem about a February day teasing with Spring: "Birds withdraw their boundary of flight at the smell of our shadow." Wayne read a fine, emotional poem about immigrant ancestors and their life on Laurel Hill, as well as the suburban life of the present generation. We also did a second group poem, "No Constraints II."
March 2, 1977
Doing the Beat poetry bit: Anne/Snyder, Tom/Ferlinghetti, Steve/Rexroth, Ken/Kerouac, me/Corso. Steve says to me, "You are so audial, you sound like a blind man reading."
March 17, 1977
St. Patrick's Day. An unpredictable meeting. Three new poets showed up, one, Esther, published in The New Yorker and The Nation in the 1960s; another, Paula, a near-psychiatrist, read richly worded persona poems about a carnival and Dancing Bear; and the third writer, a wacky talky woman calling herself the Erma Bombeck of poetry, jabbered at the podium and read a few things. Many of us went to Lynn's after the meeting, where we drew lots for the April reading: I will go 18th. Tom had all kinds of clippings and papers to show me. He is enthusiastic. A wild session.
May 1, 1977
To Tom Mofford, I wrote, "Saturday was a fine day. I said to Annie Fleming, 'I feel like an outlaw when I go into Cambridge like this.' We stopped to watch an inning of a pick-up softball game on the Common. Lilacs on residential streets. Tall walls of steel, blue steel & glass. Italian steeple, brown triple-decker tenement, Anglican church, white Episcopalians, full decks of apartments street by street. Thick sandwiches and chips, iced tea, at the Blue Parrot eatery. Because I don't go in often, the trip remains an adventure. I like being this type of cultural bandit. We went into Cambridge and got us some live Robert Lowell. An afternoon full house at Harvard. Lowell reading golden oldies and recent work. His over-the-counter furtive stare and understated mid-poem remarks. With his pushed-back white mane, he seemed aged and far away at the podium. He's some kind of world-class 'local poet' in this setting, almost like a family room but extra large. In the audience, wasn't it good to spot celebrities like one of our own, esteemed Andover poet Stephen G. Perrin, and that other important author, John Updike, with his ruddy mug? I keep seeing the remarkable colors of the day: beds of crayoned tulips, fat stars of Chinese cherry flowers, slippery dark cherry bark, pink crabapple blossoms. There was a woman in a silver space-cadet jacket and a known Irish scholar with manila curls wearing a slim red tie. Each sunny stained glass window in Sanders Theatre made a kaleidoscope. Thanks for introducing me to the Grolier Bookshop. Some men show younger men the way to cathouses or cheap whiskey, but you chose a gem of a poetry store." [Robert Lowell died on September 12, 1977, in New York City. The May reading at Harvard was his last appearance there.]
"All words with Z in them are suspect," Steve Perrin announced. When he was a kid he was taunted by this in the schoolyard: "Perrin is a Huguenot, Perrin is a Huguenot." Just kidding. Back to Z: Bozo, Oz, Cardozo, zed, zenith, syzygy, yazoo, Zorro, Lazarus, gazebo, garbanzo, Boz Scaggs, ozone, Zebu, Zulu. Tom Mofford at times approaches angelic, his face nearly beatific hovering over a pizza pie. At the same time, Tom is tactile like Doubting Thomas who needed to probe the wounds of Christ.
May 19, 1977
Great reading last night at the Parker Library in Dracut by the Poets’ Lab, nine of us. The audience numbered about 20. The poets read many very good new poems. We went out for pizza and beer @ the Walbrook restaurant after. I read “Smelling Like Childhood,” “Boys on Bicycles,” “Camille Flammarion,” and “Memorial Day Bridges.” For the intro to the reading I used e e cummings’ “Advice from a Poet” out of his biography by Charles Norman, which I had given to Steve to read in his class. Steve was written up in the Salem, Mass., newspaper—good recognition! He read a fine poem on “Responses.” Alice read a few moving grief poems based on nightmares and her husband’s death in London. Charlie read 4 pieces drawn from his anti-nuke stance and subsequent arrest and jailing in Seabrook, N.H. Cindy read a funny poem about eating out alone, reading a paperback. A marvelous reading all in all that went about 60 minutes. Tom made a flourishing finish. Too bad more people could not participate. When they hear it was so good, they’ll say, “Sorry we missed it.” That’s what the unicorns said to Noah as the Ark pulled out of the harbor.
October 5, 1977
Tom, Steve, Ken, Dave, Eric, Ruth, Cindy, Wayne, Eric, and three new people attended. Eric read his "Snadra Nad Our Pnats" poem. I don't know where he got the nutty idea of inverting the "n's" in this piece. But it's funny. Jersey Linder. Eric is from N.J. Cindy did a poem for me: "McDonald's & Marking Fresh Ice," referencing my second chapbook. Wayne read "Cromwell Road" with "history mines" and "brandied eyes." Gave Tom a letter on his poetry. 7:30 to 8 p.m. for business; 8 to 9 p.m. for poems.
November 3, 1977
Cindy said her computer dating poem will be published in a local magazine. Eric read "The Pearl You Spit Is Ancient Fishbone."
January 25, 1978
Alice Davis brought an anthology of Maine poets, Surf, Sand, Pine, which has her poem "Pink Trimline Telephone." A review of the book praises her writing as having "resonance." Alice also reported that she had poems accepted by North Shore Magazine and Dark Horse. Kathy Aponick had a poem accepted by Poet Lore magazine. Steve Perrin landed another poet-in-residence appointment at a school on the North Shore.
February 23, 1978
Alice shared her poem from a recent issue of Maine Times and then read a powerful sequence of 10-12 grief poems based on her experience after the sudden death of her husband in London in 1968. Wayne read a poem in the voice of a black soldier in the Civil War, saying it was written in response to Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead." Florence had a poem evoking California's "golden magnet" and luscious oranges, while Mary read her version, comically fractured, of the legend of Passaconaway, regional Native American leader of the 1600s. Nine people showed up last night.
March 15, 1978
I called Charles Simic to ask about the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He said to drive up to see him on March 28, Good Friday.
March 28, 1978
Charles Simic said, "For me, writing poetry is like breathing. I have to write or I would die. I happen to be teaching now, but I'd be writing poems even if I was a street cleaner, sweeping the streets." I needed to hear a poet I admire say that.
February 8, 1979
The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune reported on a reading by the Merrimack Valley Poets, formerly The Poets' Lab, planned for Valentine's Day at the Stevens Memorial Library in North Andover, Mass. According to the newspaper, "The group is the nucleus of a poetry revival in the Merrimack Valley, and nearly 50 poets have shared their works in the group setting since 1976....[T]he first major American poet, Anne Bradstreet, lived in North Andover, and John Greenleaf Whittier, famous for "Snowbound" and "Barefoot Boy," lived in Haverhill [and later in Amesbury] where he served as editor of a local newspaper....Robert Frost first plowed the literary earth in Lawrence....Lucy Larcom and Jack Kerouac of Lowell are part of that literary tradition....Members of the group include a social worker, a teacher, a bookstore owner, a computer programmer, and a gas station attendant....Their work has been published in books and in local and national magazines. The first edition of their own single-sheet publication called LOOM is available."
To be continued.