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 the sushi restaurant across the street from Poet-O’s residence, The Woodstock Senior Citizen House.
Q: Poet-O, you’ve been reciting your poetry in the streets for a long time, what was your most memorable performance?
O: If you can go back thirty years or more, I entertained at the Woodstock Festival. We did a darn good thing there.
Q: How did you end up performing there?
O: The word got out to go to Woodstock, that they’re doing the real thing up there, and if everyone shows up the cops won’t do nothing. I was doing my shtick in Washington Square Park when one of the famous poets came along. I think it was Ginsberg. Him and all these kids came in the park looking for me. They said they gotta take me with them, that they’re going to the Woodstock Festival and they gotta have me come along so I can recite some of my poems. But they said that I gotta keep it clean because the cops are there. So I said I’ll keep it clean. My poems are not dirty. They’re clean poems. Allen Ginsberg, he was alive then, he says ‘Yeah, we gotta take you up there. Get him in the truck!’
Q: Who else was with you?
O: We went in with about a hundred kids in a huge truck, all poets and musicians. And you had to pay to go on the truck ride. The guy who owns the truck made a lot of money from about a hundred guys, one on top of the other, including me, squashed in the truck.
Q: That must have been pretty uncomfortable.
O: Yeah, but they were young kids. They were screaming and hollering and going all the way up to Woodstock. It was fabulous. I was young and I was crazy and I was smoking pot and I was enjoying every minute of it. I was younger then. If I’m eighty-one now, how old was I in 1969?
Q: Thirty-four years ago, you were about forty-seven.
Q: Thirty-four years ago and even then they called me an old man. An old bugger. All these kids were coming and they says ’What’s the old man doing on the truck with us, is he a police informer?’ And another guy says ‘Naw, that ’s Poet-O. He’s a village poet. He goes around and recites poems for money. He’s okay, he’s clean. He’s a little daffy, but he entertains us in the village.’ So we got there and all the poets at Woodstock were just like the poets in New York City. They all seemed to know each other. They were all friends. Of course, they were all famous. I’m not famous like them, but I was accepted because I was considered a character, so they wanted me up there. We had five million boys and girls showing up. Fantastic music… Janis Jocklin…
Q: You mean Janis Joplin.
O: Yeah, Janis Jocklin. Name some of them…
Q: Jimi Hendrix.
O: Jimi Hendrix…
Q: Ritchie Havens, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone…
O: I couldn’t keep up with the famous musicians, but I think most of them are all dead now. There must be a few famous ones that are left, but I don’t know who they are. All I did was write the poems. And this is the poem that they chose. They said ‘Poet-O, we want to hear your Red Rose. The way you do it. Not the way Gertrude Stein does it. We want your poem, not Gertrude Stein’s Red Rose.’ And I says ‘But gentlemen, there are millions of poems written about roses. Millions. All right, I’ll do the best I can.’ Otherwise they won’t give me a drink.
Q: Did you drink a lot at Woodstock?
O: They wouldn’t give me a drink, the cheap bastards. I come all the way up to Woodstock just to go to the festival with them and they’re drinking and guzzling it all down and they won’t let me have a good drink
Q: Who wouldn’t give you a drink?
O: The musicians. They said ‘All right, all right, do you promise to do the poem for us? We took you all the way from Manhattan. We took you up here. We’re musicians, we’re not cheapskates. Give him a drink.’ I says ’That’s better. I need a good drink, not the junk. And don’t water it.’ It gets me going. If I’m gonna give them a poem, I gotta get a little high. They gotta give me a lift. They’re musicians, they’re entertaining millions of kids. The reason half of them are there is because they heard about me. Not them, me. Of course, no one remembers me anymore, but that’s the way life is. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. And this cookie has crumbled… Now… We’re at the Woodstock Festival and I’m giving a reading of my poem. Five million kids are listening to this poem even though half of them don’t appreciate good poetry. I’m gonna give it to them anyhow, because the bands gotta rest. The musicians gotta take time out. An hour’s rest. And I’m filling in for them while they’re taking a rest, you know. So I get up and I says ‘Whatever you do, don’t urinate on me. I know that you have to go to the bathroom and you can’t because there’s no toilets here. This is Woodstock. They ain’t got anything here. ’
Q: What did you do when you had to go to the bathroom?
O: I had to urinate on the ground. And you had to make a hole in the ground to do number two. They had no toilets. They didn’t expect that a million kids would show up. They thought maybe they’d have about fifty thousand at the most. They thought it would be just a few kids. Fifty thousand paid, but the others didn’t pay a penny. They all crept in there. They crept in and they overwhelmed the cops. And the cops up there, they’re pretty rough. You can’t get away with anything. But they had a million kids rushing up there overwhelming the cops, taking on the cops that lived up in Monticello and Woodstock, in that area called Sullivan County. It’s called Sullivan County. And millions of kids were coming in jalopies, in all kinds of cars and trucks, and all going to the concert. We’ve been up here for a couple of days and the trucks and the cars are blocking the road. Everybody was high on marijuana and hashis. What do they call it, hashis?
Q: No, it’s called hashish.
Q: Did you smoke hashish?
O: No, I was high on all the other stuff, all the good stuff.
Q: So what happened after you told them not to urinate on you?
O: One guy yells at me ‘Stop the bullshit and talk. Let’s hear that poem of yours. We don’t want to hear that bullshit. We want the poem.’
Q: So did you read your poem?
O: I got them worked up and I says ‘All right, that guy that ’s yelling at me, let him come up front. He ’s got a girl with him? Bring the girl too. Let them sit down in the front because he wants to hear my poem and not a lot of bullshit. All right, now I’m gonna give you the poem.’ And they all screamed ’It’s about time.’ One guy screamed ’It’s about time, motherfucker!’ And then he kept screaming his head off. A big guy got up there with muscles, half naked, not completely naked, and he’s flexing his muscles…
Q: What did he do?
O: He’s flexing his muscles, and he says ‘Let the old poet do his thing.’ You know, to them, I’m old, they’re young, you understand? They’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old. They borrowed their fathers’ cars and here they are. And I’m gonna entertain them.
Q: So did they let you do your thing?
O: Yeah, he says ‘Let the old poet do his thing.’ So I says ‘The poem is doing the talking. It is a red rose that’s talking. I’m not talking, it’s a red rose talking. You got that?’ And they scream ‘Yeah, yeah we got it.’ The red rose is talking even though I’m doing the talking in the poem. It’s the red rose:
a rose am I,
tall and beautiful
the morning dew wets my cute lips of blooming red
fragrant supreme is my natural perfume
praise galore greets me at every turn
the knowledge that I find most endearing
is that all other flowers notice my rare beauty
my rare beauty
see how they love me
I am their majesty… goddess…
goddess of all the flowers in my charming rock garden
my charming rock garden
Look! See how the little Ms. sniffs and gazes upon me
ah, isn’t she a dear
she states — I am the most beautiful
flower in the garden
but… dear me… what is that scissor doing in her dainty little hand?
surely, she dare not cut Poet-O and place me in a vase
(Poet-O repeatedly slaps his own hand)
No! No! No! No! No!
Give me your hand(Poet-O repeatedly slaps my hand)
No! No! No!
she dare not cut me
run away you beast of a school girl- ms!
and take thy horrible scissor with thee!
Oh! No! Please don’t cut Poet-O!
I am far too delicate to wilt, to wilt and die…
Last of the street poets. The very last of the street poets in this crazy America. I’m the last one doing this.
Q: How did they respond to your poem?
O: I passed the hat around, and they threw the money in. They threw the shekels in there and then they rang my bell. I haven’t got my bell now. If I knew I was gonna do the poem here, I would have brought the bell and the basket with me.
Q: I don’t know how well the bell would go over here, inside the restaurant.
O: Well, are they throwing us out, or what?