Poet-O passed away earlier this summer. The first time that I met him was in the fall of 2001 and our subsequent dialogues and friendship developed over the following year. The following conversation took place in Poet-O’s room at the Woodstock Senior Citizen Hotel:
Q: How long have you been writing poetry?
O: Well it started when I was a little kid. I was in an institution for retarded children. And I mean retarded. I was there because I was tongue-tied and epileptic. I was twelve years old, or eleven years old, around there. They put me in this institution because I never lived with my mother and father. They were separate. Father went to Arizona. Phoenix, Arizona, to open up a tailor shop. Mama wouldn’t go to Arizona because she believed the American Indians scalped Jewish women’s hair. She had black hair, and she loved her hair. And she wouldn’t go to Arizona, so they split. I was in her belly. She had me in Central Park.
Q: She gave birth to you in Central Park?
O: Yes, in a shack. Mama had three babies, and me in the belly. I’m the youngest.
Q: And how old are you now?
O: Now I’m 81 years old. I’m born in Sheep Meadows Field. They have records.
Q: Where was the first institution that you lived in?
O: Well, I was in an institution in the Bronx. 251st street and Boston Post Road. When you eat your breakfast, first thing, the teacher holds a stick. Then the counselor, he’s a little older, maybe sixteen years old, then he holds the stick. Then little kids come in there. They wash their faces, clean up. Then they rush to the dining room. The bell rings. That means you can grab your food. You’re in an institution, and this tall, skinny guy—
[Poet-O makes a grabbing motion and sound effect]
—tries to take your food. Very quick. Tall and skinny. They’re the quickest ones. They get the most food because that’s the way it works. You fight. You fight with everybody.
Q: So that you can eat?
O: So you can eat. So you can eat your bread. You want your buns with butter, and your milk and whatever they give you there. The big guys get it all; not the fat ones, they’re too slow. The tall one’s are so quick, you know, and they steal everything, too. They tap you on the shoulder, you turn around, and they steal the food right out of your plate. These are the things you have to contend with when you’re raised up in a retarded institution.
Q: What year was this?
O: Eden Wall School for Boys and Girls. 1930-something. Around 1930. And this big guy gets all the food. I don’t know how he stays so skinny, you know. He’s so tall and so skinny, and he gets all the food. And you get nothing. And you can’t fight with him either because he’ll blind you. He’ll take his fingers and shove them right in your eyes.
Q: Like the Three Stooges?
O: Yeah, but he really does it. You gotta be careful of him. He’s even got the counselors bulldozed. This guy is very dangerous, but he’s retarded. What are you gonna do, lock him up? He’s retarded. You better stay away from him, so I went into the woods. We had about 300 acres of land in the old days, and now it’s a projectÉ full of projects. I had to get away from these people. They’re very dangerous to me. If they stick their finger in your eye, can you imagine what that would do to you? Blind you. So I walk in the woods, and then in the woods, stop, think, and I talk to God. I talk to spirits, I talk to anyone. Then the bell rings, dingaling, dingaling. That means come home for lunch. Two bells. One bell for breakfast, two bells for lunch, and three bells for supper.
Q: And I noticed that in one of your poems you ring your bell three times.
O: Yeah, I get these ideas and then I make it into poetry. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of poems here. Now the social workers want to take all my stuff out of my room and throw it out. But what can I do?