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Worcester: A Free People’s Workshop

Cheryl Savageau

In the late 1970s, when I was coming up as a poet, Worcester, Massachusetts, an oversize mill town, was the unlikely center of poetry in New England.

The Worcester County Poetry Association sponsored poetry readings, often two in a week—usually one poet with a first book out, and another, bigger name. Over the next several years I remember so many poets coming to town: Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, Tess Gallagher, Donald Hall, Sonia Sanchez, Galway Kinnell, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Czesław Miłosz. The WCPA held an annual contest and sent the winners and other local poets to do readings in libraries in the surrounding towns, and actually paid them, well, at a time when beginning poets were expected to read for free, or at best, pass the hat.

Then Etheridge Knight came to town, for a reading, for a woman, and before long, started the Worcester Free People’s Poets and Artists Workshop. I heard the story later—how Fran Quinn drove Etheridge around one night, looking for the right bar. He had very specific criteria: it must be a townie bar, not a college bar; it had to be on a bus line, so everyone could get to it. City Hall was the hub for all the buses, and the bar he chose was on Franklin Street next to the Common. Circe’s—a door or two down from Samson’s, a deli where I’d hung out after high school ten years earlier, one of us buying a burger so we could sit at the table, and the rest of us munching on pickles, next to the closed Capitol Theatre where I’d watched countless movies—one of those old, elegant theaters with balconies and chandeliers, and Ephraim’s on the corner—a maze of a bookstore with books piled high and no discernible aisles, just paths you could meander through, where science fiction might be next to books on philosophy, Shakespeare next to Watson and Crick. Was Ephraim’s still there when the workshop started? I can’t remember—but there was another newer, more orderly bookstore around the corner, and the library just a block away, so Franklin Street in my mind will always be connected to literature, movies, food, and drink.

Circe’s. The bar ran along the right side as you walked in, and tables filled the rest of the space. On Monday nights we pushed those tables together, twenty or thirty of us, sometimes more. The first time I walked in, the Lebanese American poet David Williams was standing, reading a new poem, his hand slapping the table, his voice musical and rhythmic. “The people I come from were thrown away.…” I still remember lines spoken aloud, the particular timbre and rhythm of those words in that place. Chris Gilbert, from “Saxophone:”

My bell is Charlie Parker’s
. . . . . . . . . .
I am bad from note to note…
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
… you must be-
hold enough to play.

Adelle Leiblein, “the air around a wild peach.” John Hodgen, from “For Mr. Grimes Who Tried to Teach Me Physics After My Father Died:”

He said that a boy
standing at the end of a moving train
could toss the red ball of his life
up into the heavy air
and catch it again.

And again, Williams, who articulated what we were all trying to do: “I need to join with everyone trying to say something true.”

There were only two rules: no weapons, and no screwing with someone else’s partner. There were no rules about how to workshop. You had to have a thick skin. Criticism was rigorous and not gentle. I remember going home angry and determined to make the poem better, to redeem myself the next week. An experience was not enough, it had to become art, it had to need to be a poem.

Etheridge encouraged us to write in the voices of our communities. Just because we were writing in English, didn’t mean we had to write Anglo. He modeled the connection between body and breath and the poem. “Kah doom / kah doom-doom… the heart, the heart beats.” His voice was deep, resonant, and filled the room. He made large pronouncements about poetry, but his interactions with writers personally were often very quiet and mostly private—on the way to the bar or on the sidewalk outside after closing.

People came with passion. We were deep into questions of poetics and argued late into the night about Levertov’s idea of organic form; jazz and the poetic process. For over two years I wouldn’t allow myself a single abstract word. For a while I wrote everything in two-beat lines. We didn’t edit or revise, we “revisioned” the poem, seeing it again.

We were contemptuous of poetry about nothing, poetry that pretended to be apolitical, as if there could be such a thing. The poetry of privilege. We would redefine the mainstream. Nobody told us our voices were wrong. If we wrote in a spiral structure, or with the music of other languages, or wrote about our mother’s first period. We knew we could say anything. We used down-to-earth language, because didn’t Mingus say that making the simple complicated was easy, but making the complicated simple—that’s creativity. No one got shut down.

One night someone brought in poems by Pound, and someone else said who gives a fuck, he was a fascist. We argued for weeks afterward—Can you separate the artist from the art? Maybe Pound, but what about Miles Davis? Kind of Blue—one of the great jazz albums? Do we give it up when we find out he is a wife beater? Are poets and artists in a state of grace when they do their art? Or is that a cop-out. And then someone would stand up at the bar, drink in hand, and recite a poem—“The Cremation of Sam McGee” or “The Raven,” maybe, and then tell us, “That’s real poetry.” And we would applaud and things would cool down.

And then one night the bar burned down. Some said for the insurance money. Worcester was a pretty nonviolent city, except for arson. I don’t remember what the reports said, just the loss. We moved to another bar, one with heads of animals on the walls—that didn’t last. Then someone got a key to an empty office in the Day Building—a tiny white room with noisy radiators. We were down to six diehards by then. And then to a community center, where people were very earnest. It was never the same. Etheridge was right—the bar mattered more than we knew.


About the author

Cheryl Savageau is the author of the poetry collections Mother/Land (Folio) and Dirt Road Home (Curbstone). She teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Her memoir, Out of the Crazywoods, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press.

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