It was 1969 when the young lion, Axelrod, arrived on Long Island after wandering through years of grad school—a Johns Hopkins M.A. in poetry and an Iowa Writers’ Workshops M.F.A. I was hired to put creative writing into the curriculum of the local community college. Although Long Island is adjacent to liberal New York City, where the more famous literati dwelt, until well into the 70s much of Long Island, was still quite conservative, giving Richard Nixon the highest percentage of re-election votes in all of America. I was not so political as interested in finding a workable poetics and poetry community in which to work.
At Amherst College in 1962, I’d taken a class with Robert Frost, and when I asked him if he liked a poem I showed him, he told me, with a thick New England accent, “Ya don’t find ya voice until y’r fotty.” At Hopkins, the director, Elliott Coleman, reacted to the reams of poetry I kept handing him by telling me “You only have to write one immortal line and you’ll never be forgotten.” (I told him, “With my luck, it will be attributed to Anonymous.”)
At Iowa, the prevailing cant at the Workshops was exemplified by one poet who turned in the label of a Mr. Peanuts bar parsed out as poetry. I won’t mention his name, but his initials were Bob Grenier, and he became popular as one of the “Language Poets,” somewhat like the NY School that eschewed meaning and just fiddled with words. In Anselm Hollo’s workshop, which I attended, the group went all, “Like yeah man, like groovy, like,” which was about all most of the poets would say in response to poems. If you didn’t do “Hip,” you didn’t do well there at that time. In fact, if you didn’t fit into the prevailing style, you certainly didn’t get one of the big prizes Iowa controlled or a plumb job when you graduated.
Although deeply conservative and not likely to harbor liberal-leaning writers and painters, Suffolk county also encompassed the Hamptons, which is where I discovered a burgeoning community of poets.
Two poets I sought out to meet very early on were David Ignatow of the “The Bagel” fame, and Aaron Kramer who was one of America’s great sonneteers. Opposite as they seemed in their poetics, both were welcoming and paternal, instantly taking me in. Eventually, I could thank Dave Ignatow for talking me into completing my Ph. D., pointing out that York College always paid him too little because he lacked the proper advanced degree. Aaron Kramer convinced me that forms were good to keep in one’s toolbox.
The East End of L. I. featured so many poets, young and old, who were there to meet at readings and parties. David Ignatow when I met him was 65 and that seemed old. Who knew John Hall Wheelock was even still alive? He was 86, which to a fellow like me in my twenties was about as ancient as a mariner could be. He, among the elders, was likely to be at Canio’s Bookstore in Sag Harbor, where Canio himself opened his little stage to all levels of accomplishment.
A host of middle-aged poets were as likely to be at a little coffee house called The Long Island Potato as at the famous East Hampton Guild Hall for a reading: Phil Appleman, Si Perchik, Diana Chang, Richard Weber, Jerome Rothenberg, Harvey Shapiro. I’d been reading Diane Wakoski and it turned out she lived a couple blocks from me in Rocky Point—a blue-collar community I endeavored to turn into an arts community because it had ample, cheap summer cottages that could be winterized and a large community center we made a year-round venue.
There were so many other young lions to meet, sometimes to tangle with, some who treated poetry like a hunt for meat. They were writing prodigiously, performing regularly, some fighting for fame, others also glad to be of use: Martin Tucker of Confrontation; Anselm Parlatore (who escaped to L. I. from Maine after his magazine, Granite, was defunded by State Arts Council); George Wallace, progenitor of The Huntington Barn Poetry Series and founder of Long Island Quarterly and Poetrybay.
A fellow named John Jaques owned the Hansom House in Southampton, a bar he’d crafted replete with a gorgeous stained glass wall, an old coach he kept inside with a skeleton coachman on the buckboard, and lots of in-jokes cropping up to entertain customers. It, too, became a regular poetry haunt. Al Planz, poetry editor for The Nation, entertained and sometimes mystified our gatherings. Siv Cedering Fox was held in high regard. Dan Murray, schooled at Buffalo by John Logan and I brought out Starting from Paumanok: Five Long Island Poets, the first anthology of Long Island poets to be published that made the case that we had a “school” of our own.
At the new SUNY Stony Brook University, they hired Pulitzer Prize winner Louis Simpson, who made himself available for many of our readings. He publicly resisted the University offering an M.F.A., stating that “You can’t teach creativity.” In the late 60s, George Quasha published the ambitious, multi-cultural poetry magazine, Stony Brook, while he taught at the University. Young poet and translator (from Spanish) Jon Cohen made the effort to establish at least a poetry library and readings, but it took many years for folks like Cornelius Eady to bring a real poetry center to Stony Brook.
At the little-sister school down the road where I taught, Suffolk College, I invented the Suffolk, Long Island Poetry Festival which ran at least 15 years, and which I used to bring a hundred more nationally and internationally-known poets to feature: Bly, Stafford, Simic, Connellan, Kinnell, Nemerov. Yearly, I’d invite two aging docents to set up at my poetry festival. They came from an obscure little cottage that few knew of or visited—the Walt Whitman house in Huntington. I told them they could develop it into something special. It was, after all, the actual birthplace of the Good Grey Bard. They smiled sitting behind the little folding table I gave them where they kept a jar for donations together with some mimeographed handouts. I sold the Walt Whitman Savings Bank an ad campaign using a picture of young Whitman wearing a cocky straw hat. I think the bank donated to refurbishing that house.
As the years passed, I saw communities of poets forming groups all over Long Island, few of which seemed to care at all about the poetics and gossip of the New York City schools. Another poetry innovation was also tracking: Galen Williams’ Poets & Writers, organizing to list and fund authors who performed and taught workshops. Writers Unlimited Agency, the non-profit organization I founded, filed for and received what was, in fact, the first of what became “decentralization grants” given by the New York Council for the Arts (NYSCA) that fostered more equitably distribution of arts money outside NYC, allowing locals to decide what activities to fund.
In Nassau County there were Charlie Fishman and Charlie Fisher who helped establish the Long Island Poetry Collective and in Suffolk County, there were Kathy Werns and Barbara Reiher-Meyers who helped found the Great South Bay Poetry Society and Live Poets. Those groups led to Performance Poets with Cliff Bleidner and North Sea Poetry Group, and later the L. I. Poetry Archival Center with Tammy Nuzzo-Morgan.
We made Writers Unlimited Agency the aegis for our annual Westhampton Poetry Festival and turned that into a full-fledged Hamptons Writers Festival bringing in novelists and playwrights as well—Bud Schulberg, James Jones, John Knowles, Peter Mattheissen. The 70s were in the full flush of the Women’s’ Movement so we all hung out with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A matriarch among the writers was Claire Nicholas White, prolific author and founder of the magazine Oberon.
In 2003, George Wallace became Suffolk County’s first official Poet Laureate, a post I held from 2007 to 2009. In Nassau County, though the legislature played politics with the post and declined to officially appoint him, the poet and decorated Marine, Max Wheat, was elected to that position by Island poets’ popular acclimation.
We may not have formally established a Long Island school, but I can document what was done. The Associated Writers Programs was founded in 1967 but there were still only a handful of poetry M.F.A.s to be had. Our community of writers was built on gatherings in private homes, audiences at readings, and the reaction to poems in print in the many magazines that came and went across the years. I’m a child of the academy—thirteen years in colleges—but I learned more in the trenches than the classroom. Organizing and facilitating local poetry workshops, public events and alternative press publications can still teach more than any rarified classroom. Perhaps this is the greatest benefit of a regional affiliation of poets.
What I recall and miss most about the poetry scene in the four decades I spent on Long Island was the camaraderie. It grew from our deep kinship—as Walt Whitman’s children. It was imbued with the sea and surf that filled our imagistic poetry. It fostered dozens of literary venues and ventures. As surely as young lions hunt or lounge in the sun, Long Island poets could exhibit their fangs, but mostly their poems sunned themselves nicely along our hundreds of miles of local shores.
David B. Axelrod, was Suffolk County’s and is now Volusia County, Florida, Poet Laureate appointed for 2015-2023. He’s been published in hundreds of magazines, anthologies; twenty-two books of poetry—the newest, Mother Tongue. Read more about him at his website: www.poetrydoctor.org.