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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 7, 2011

Tavern hosts contest
The spirit of Hesiod and Homer lives on as poets vie for laurels

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

VOORHEESVILLE — Last week, Barbara Vink was in Florida, on vacation from her job at the Voorheesville Public Library. One night, she was up late.

“I was bummed, feeling sorry for myself, like I was the only person awake in Tampa,” she said. “It had been raining.”

She looked out her window at 3 a.m. and saw a little old man on a bicycle, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap. “It gave me a sense I wasn’t alone in the world. Here was a guy, just enjoying life.”

What did she do? Right then and there, she wrote a poem about the experience.

Vink is Voorheesville’s poet laureate. She won the title a year ago in the first Smith’s Tavern Poet Laureate Contest. She has the laurels to prove it. Although the hundred-dollar prize money is long gone, the laurel wreath still hangs on her living-room wall.

On April 17, she’ll be resting on her laurels rather than wearing them — she’ll serve as a judge for the second-annual contest. Vink thinks that, as a judge, she will be “pretty brutal.”

“There are so many awful poets out there,” she said.

The contest is the brainchild of Dennis Sullivan.  A retired criminal justice professor, he is the village historian. Sullivan hosts the event with fellow poets Edie Abrams and Michael Burke.

The trio also founded the Sunday Four Poets, an open mic session held the fourth Sunday of every month at the Old Songs center in Voorheesville.  At the last session, Sullivan read from a sixth-century B.C. Greek manuscript about an imagined contest between Homer and Hesiod.

“I think there’s a collegiality to it,” he said of holding a contest for poets. “It’s not dog-eat-dog competition. It’s a let-me-show-you-my-best sort of thing.”

In Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi, as translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, the Hellenes demanded Homer should win the contest but the king gave the crown to Hesiod, “declaring it was right that he who called upon men to follow peace and husbandry should have the prize rather than Homer who dwelt on war and slaughter.”

The judging in Voorheesville this year will be done not by a king but by a librarian, Suzanne Fisher, and three poets — Vink as an ex officio member of the panel, Paul Amidon, and Tim Verhaegen.

Amidon heads the panel; Sullivan described him as “a very astute reader of poetry and an insightful assessor of what people are saying; he pays attention to language.” Verhaegen is a poet with “a performance-oriented style,” said Sullivan. And Fisher “reflects the mores of the community,” he said, adding, “She reads all the time and loves literature.”

The first 25 poets to register by e-mail will compete. “We have 18 signed up already, with six or seven of the best poets in the area,” said Sullivan. He’s heard scores of local poets as he travels to various venues. “Many poets in the area are highly self-referential; it’s autobiography,” said Sullivan. “Being a poet means having a great commitment to language and the accuracy of the language.”

Sullivan founded a group several years ago that meets monthly to “dig deeper into poetic traditions.” The participants take turns meeting at each other’s homes as they make presentations on favorite poets. Sullivan is currently interested in the 19th-Century Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi. “He says anyone who writes poetry sees in things — a chicken, a house — there is a shadow world beyond,” Sullivan said.

Each poet in the laureate competition will read three rounds — first, poems of 25 or fewer lines, then of 35, and finally of 45 or fewer lines. The judges will assign 1 to 5 points for each poem in each of four categories — presentation, mechanics, depth of feeling, and overall impact.

“We ask the judges to be sensitive to diversity in the work of other people,” said Sullivan.

Not formal and fussy

While many modern poets are from academia and hold their readings on college campuses, Voorheesville’s laureate contest is purposely held in a tavern.

“We wanted to involve the town,” said Sullivan. “People can have a beer and pizza while listening to poetry. We don’t want to make it formal and fussy. This is a celebration.”

Last year, the tavern was packed. Family, friends, and other poets made up most of the audience. Anyone, from high school students to elderly citizens, is welcome.

“During the reading, everyone is listening; it’s like a library,” said Sullivan. There will be a 40-minute intermission between poetry rounds when the Barn Owl Blues will perform. The band features Brenda Fisher, who plays a stand-up bass, among other instruments, and Ron Whitford.

The owners of Smith’s Tavern, John McClelland and John Mellen, sponsor the event, paying for the band and putting up the prize money — $100 for the winner, $50 for the runner-up, and $25 for honorable mention.

All three winners’ names are engraved on a plaque at the base of a statue of William Shakespeare that stands year-round on the tavern’s mantle.

Sullivan said they had wanted a sizable statue of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, American poets, but couldn’t find one.

Smitty’s is a regular gathering place for those who read at the Sunday Four Poets open mic and for those who critique each other’s poetry at the Voorheesville library on Thursday nights.

Leading up to the contest, Smitty’s will use placemats that feature poets ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Edgar Allen Poe. The placemats also include a quiz, which can be entered in a drawing for free drinks.

A plaque at Smitty’s labels one part of the restaurant as the Poets’ Corner. And a new tradition started in March, when the work of a Poet of the Month is placed on a wall bracket so patrons can pick up copies of a poem and take them home.

The inaugural Poet of the Month was Sullivan. He chose a poem about his dear friend, Arthur Willis, who died in September at the age of 74. Willis, a poet and long-time Voorheesville teacher, was the head judge in last year’s laureate contest. Sullivan helped care for Willis as he was dying and wrote a poem called, “I Tucked My Friend in Bed Today.”

One sentence of the poem reads: “Here I stand far above/ That stench of rotting rill/ Waving waving fare-thee-well/ A child viewing a parade pass by/ Acknowledging that the real/ In a steady stream of non-sequiturs/ Is sent as a message from Fate/ To deliver by hand to you your death/ In proportions that cannot be helped.”

Sullivan was pleased when he walked into Smitty’s the other day and one of the patrons who had read the poem asked him what a “rill” is.

“We were reading your poem, the guys at the bar,” the man told Sullivan. “Nobody knew what a rill was.” Now they know it means a rivulet.

“Giving Voice to the Vatic”

Sullivan believes that too often self-publishing is seen as narcissistic and that local poetry is regarded as hogwash. He recalls Allen Ginsberg reading at the University at Albany in the 1990s, a few years before he died. “He said, ‘Publish your own if you have something to say.’”

Sullivan wrote a piece called “Giving Voice to the Vatic: The Poet and Locality,” that states, “The poetic is vatic, a tradition of vision and prophesy, and thus a practice of the body beginning with but not ending in death.”

He also wrote, “The publication of the poem then is not the poem (like you see in the store); the poem is the felt-expressed experience of new light, life, but the handing down of praise, chant, warning, ecstatic babble, is made sense of only with great difficulty. There are some who worry about the audience of a poem which is foolishness at its core because the poet is the audience, the taker-in of the experience; the written-down or orally-transmitted expression of that experience is the after-thought of the poetic-act or after-act of poetic-thought, if you like.”

Vink writes because, she said, she loves to relate to people through her poems. “I love it when I get up and read and someone says to me, ‘You spoke to me…I feel that way about my mother or my sister or my cat.’”

Vink is now 63; words have been important to her all of her life. As a child, she and her good friend, Michele Plummer, would have sleepovers during which they would read each other poems from the orange-bound set of Childcraft books. They learned the poems by heart, said Vink as she rattled off one. She went on to read Keats and Longfellow.

“When I got to college in the sixties, I wrote free verse,” said Vink. “Everyone was being a hippy and writing like Simon and Garfunkel.”

It wasn’t until decades later, though, that she shared her poems with others — at the Voorheesville library. “I’m a reader,” said Vink. “My grandfather started reading to me when I was 2.”

When she was 40, she answered an ad for a job at the Voorheesville circulation desk and has worked at the library ever since. When Voorheesville high school teachers were in a labor dispute two decades ago, she recalled, “They were doing a work to rule. The teachers couldn’t do after-school activities. Someone — maybe Art Willis — called the library. They needed someone to supervise the students doing creative writing.”

Vink volunteered. “It was thrust upon me and I stepped up to the plate,” she said.

 As she worked with the group, she found some adults were interested, too. The labor dispute ended; the students returned to their after-school program, but the adults stayed interested in the library group.

The Every Other Thursday Night Poets group was born. “Up until that point, I had never shared my poetry with anyone,” said Vink. She, along with a handful of others, has been a member of the group for 20 years; it currently has about two dozen members.

Vink has read her poetry in many venues. “Poetry in the Capital District is thriving,” she said. “I was the featured poet at the Caffe Lena. It was a thrill for me, knowing Bob Dylan had performed on that stage,” she said of the famous Saratoga Springs venue.

“Most delightsome”

Last year, Vink had to chose among thousands of poems to pick three to read in the laureate contest. “I never planned to win,” she said. “Two were hysterically funny. I had gotten a great response from the group,” she said of initially presenting those poems to the Every Other Thursday Night Poets.

The first poem, “Prelude to Love,” metaphorically describes a woman preparing for love-making as if she were preparing a salad: “Arranging her long white limbs invitingly over the rim of the bowl/ she said “dinner’s ready” and he answered/ Don’t you have any croutons?”

“It was personal,” Vink said of what inspired her to write the poem. “It was a feeling of rejection.” She turned the pain into humor.

“I think about what I want to say first and then how I want to see it on the page,” said Vink of how she composes poems. “I think about speaking it last.”

She never thinks about meter, she said, and she doesn’t usually re-work or re-shape a poem. “I don’t often go back and change anything,” she said.

Vink said she has discussed for years what makes a set of words a poem and still doesn’t have an answer.

Vink’s three poems along with those of runner-up Carolee Sherwood and honorable-mention poet Howard J. Kogan are printed in a booklet; Vink gave one to each of her eight grandchildren.

Her second laureate poem is called “It’s Spring.” The 19-line poem is less about the season than about onlookers’ perceptions. “It’s time to drag out the Kmart lawn chairs,/ tilt back on two white plastic legs,/ put our feet up on the porch railing and get/ stinking, roaring drunk,” the poem begins.

“It’s something that actually happened,” said Vink. “I did several porch poems that year,” she said of life from her perch on one of Voorheesville’s main streets. “I exaggerated a little because I don’t get drunk.”

The poem concludes, “It’s time to let our guard down and say/ what we’d never say/ sober and wink to the passers-by/ who are thinking, My God/ the people in that house are assholes.”

Her final poem, “Darfur,” is as serious as the first two are funny. It describes a starving child at its mother’s breast. “I get upset about Rwanda and little kids with flies in their eyes,” said Vink.

Her poem concludes: “His gaze fixed on the hot blue sky staring, staring and then/ the light slipped effortlessly/ into the still black of a stagnant pond/ And she spoke his Secret Name aloud/ And the Earth breathed all around him.”

“‘Darfur’ is my favorite poem that I ever wrote,” said Vink. “I wanted to show I could be serious as well as funny.”

Vink loved participating in the Smith’s Tavern contest. “Dennis had a great idea,” she said of Sullivan. “Having it in the atmosphere of the tavern was great…The place was packed…People from the bar — people who normally wouldn’t have an interest in poetry — would listen.”

In the ancient Greek account of the contest between Hesiod and Homer, Hesiod asked Homer, “What think you in your heart is most delightsome to men?”

“When mirth reigns throughout the town, and festers about the house, sitting in order, listen to a minstrel; when the tables beside them are laden with bread and meat, and a wine-bearer draws sweet drink from the mixing-bowl and fills the cups; this I think in my heart to be most delightsome.”


Voorheesville’s Poet Laureate Contest will be held at Smith’s Tavern at 112 Maple Ave. on April 17, starting at noon.

Poets who want to enter may e-mail dsullivan6@nycap.rr.com; eighteen have already entered so seven spots remain.

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