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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 27, 2009

Voorheesville, seething with poets, to crown a laureate at Smitty’s Tavern

By Philippa Stasiuk

VOORHEESVILLE — In the pointed language of a poet, Dennis Sullivan uses one word to describe the poetry scene in Voorheesville: seething.

Sullivan is a founding member of Voorheesville’s monthly open microphone poetry reading, which begins its second year this September. Held at the Old Songs Music Hall every fourth Sunday, he and his co-founders style the venue to look like a living room, complete with a Persian rug and a vase of freshly cut flowers.

“It’s an opportunity for people to read poems dramatically, where people can feel at home,” he said. “I think there are poets in Berne, Knox, Guilderland, and Altamont who have their own poems or their parents’ poems but they might be intimidated to read publicly. It’s like every newspaper reporter has a novel in their top drawer.”

Mike Burke, another villager who has been writing poems for decades, says that, for him, the Sunday sessions are an opportunity to read a poem in its final form. “At open mic, the poem is polished,” he said. “I think it’s done and it sounds a lot different when I read it aloud as a polished poem.”

While the format for reading poetry aloud every fourth Sunday is open, there are a few ground rules. First, poets are encouraged to talk about the poem before they read it, explaining, for instance, their inspiration for writing it. Next, poets can read up to four poems and do so while standing on stage, almost like a performance. And last, after all the poets have read, they should strongly consider adjourning to Smitty’s for beer and further poetry discussion.

While both Sullivan and Burke read their finished poems at Old Songs, there is another time and place for the gritty task of editing poetry that is still in process. In the Voorheesville library’s community room every other Thursday, a group of poets, some of whom have been meeting for 18 years, get together to read and critique each others’ work.

This group has a different set of rules. Each person takes a turn reading a poem, which is then read aloud by another person. Feedback is then given in the form of suggestions for word choice, or any way in which the poem can be made either more powerful or brief. While this is happening, the poet is not allowed to defend his or her work until the peer discussion is complete.

Sullivan, a retired criminal justice professor at the University at Albany and the village historian, says the rules are in place “to keep the gloves off” and that the poetry group is “like a family that some therapists might say has issues and where everyone knows each other inside out.”

While the debates might get heated, Sullivan says there’s one thing that mollifies the tense process of the poetry workshop. “Everyone in the group, regardless of interest or abilities,” he said, “is expressing themselves with fundamental honesty and getting to a part of himself that hasn’t been explored before.”

The group’s motivation is “an honest struggle to make sense of the world,” says Sullivan and he readily admits his own aspirations as a poet. “I agree with Wallace Stevens —” says Sullivan as Burke laughs and interjects that Stevens is Sullivan’s favorite poet. Sullivan continues, “— who says poetic consciousness is an act of conscience. If you are being true to what you see before you and refuse to lie about it, you present to future generations a solid foundation on which to work.” 

Both Burke and Sullivan have been chosen by local publisher and poet Dr. Alan Casline (also known as “the bird”) to print books of their poems under the Benevolent Bird Press Label, located in Delmar. The small booklets, printed on heavy paper, have covers of, in Sullivan’s case, a wood blocked bird and, in Burke’s, ink and paint on wood of  man and his dog, painted by Casline.

For Sullivan, the idea of local publishing was so important to him that he wrote a defense of its value.

“Some people believe that, unless Knopf or St. Martin’s Press publishes the poems, that the value is minimal,” he said. “An argument had to be made for the poetic voice at its root. If a tree grows from that root, you can say what you want but that tree is vatic.” Vatic means seer or prophet.

And what is the culmination of the seething, synergistic local poetry scene? A contest for the title of poet laureate, of course, to be held at what Sullivan describes as Voorheesville’s version of the West Village’s White Horse Tavern: Smitty’s. On April 25, 2010, Smitty’s will host the contest in which four poetry lovers will judge poems. The winner will receive $100 and the title of poet laureate, which holds no other responsibilities except gracefully accepting the prize.

Sullivan and Burke say they are even hoping to convince the owners of Smitty’s that the competition will deserve an addition to the menu in the form of a poet laureate pizza. However, neither has yet decided what toppings such an illustrious pizza would entail.

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