Leslie Gerber’s poetic impulse was a long time coming. After a career on radio (WDST), a long stint at mail-order classical music sales and an attempt to play piano, he began writing poems. “I came to it very late, when I was 55,” he says, describing how a series of nightmares prompted him to write poetry. “It started to feel interesting, and my wife encouraged me. That really meant something, because she was a professional writer, supporting herself entirely by writing, for years. When she said I had some promise, I said, ‘Okay.’ I used to send her poems by e-mail from work. She would write back and give me suggestions, and sometimes she’d write ‘needs work’ – which meant, ‘Throw it out.’”
Fortunately for lovers of poetry and the spoken word, Gerber kept at the writing. In addition to poems, he has written thousands of music reviews and articles, some for Almanac Weekly. But he says, “I don’t play anything anymore. I never developed the fluency that a professional musician has. My mother was a professional-level pianist. I could never do what she did. These days I say I’m glad I quit – not only because it was so frustrating, but also because it made room in my life to write poetry.”
He mentions his good luck in having met the poet J. J. Clarke, who was a highlight of the Woodstock poetry scene back then. “I would send him poems, and he’d make encouraging and helpful comments. That’s why my book is dedicated to those two people: Clarke and my wife Tara McCarthy.”
Gerber is referring to Lies of the Poets, a recently released collection of his work. He explains that the title poem is about made-up stories of famous poets: Whitman, Frost, Shakespeare and others. “I ran into Billy Collins – certainly one of my favorite poets – at Omega Institute,” he says. “I got into a discussion with him on the topic of exploitation films because of a poem he read about a couple of Siamese twins in vaudeville.” Gerber happened to have seen the film, plus another one that the twins were in, and subsequently loaned Collins a copy of the second one.
They corresponded back and forth, and Gerber sent Collins more movies in this strange genre, and included a copy of the poem “Lies of the Poets,” wherein Collins is mentioned. “He said he enjoyed the movies and wrote, ‘Your poem is clever and erudite enough to rescue your dubious reputation.’ Last year I took a writing workshop with him and asked permission to use that line as a blurb on my book. There it is. ‘Lies of the Poets’ had to be the title poem.”
Lies of the Poets, published by Post-Traumatic Press of Woodstock, will be celebrated at a book-launching party this Saturday afternoon at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, where Gerber and friends from Goat Hill Poets will read and copies of the book will be available for $8. “I’m also doing a reading on Friday, December 5 at the Calling All Poets Series at Howland Art Center in Beacon. And on Friday, December 12 at the Mezzaluna Writers Series at Café Mezzaluna in Saugerties (which I run), I’ll be the featured poet. I’ve sworn up and down that I would never feature myself, but figured I could make an exception for a book.”
Born in Brooklyn and schooled at Brooklyn College, Gerber moved to Ulster County in 1970, and has lived in Phoenicia and Saugerties and now resides in Woodstock.
Gerber has taken poetry workshops with Sharon Olds, among other notable poets. He co-founded (with Cheryl A. Rice) the local writers’ group Goat Hill Poets – so-called because he lived on Goat Hill Road at the time – on Olds’s advice. Seven poets meet every month to share work and give each helpful critique. “We have a wonderful synergy. Everyone is very supportive, and that doesn’t mean we won’t say, ‘Throw that one out.’”
When asked what other poets he enjoys reading, he says that he likes contemporary poets best. “Of course, Billy Collins – I liked him even before he wrote a blurb for me – and Sharon Olds. They read back-to-back at the Woodstock Poetry Festival one year. Most of the work in my book came after taking her workshops, her influence. I hugged her at the last Geraldine R. Dodge Festival in Newark and gave her a copy of the book.” He lists other favorites: Mark Doty, C. K. Williams, Marie Howe. “I love Marie Howe – and quite a number of local poets: Patricia Smith, Susan Sindall, Judith Kerman, Elizabeth Gordon, Gretchen Primack. I could go on forever.” Gerber will be teaching a class on Contemporary Poetry at the Center for Lifetime Studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, a volunteer senior citizens’ program where he has taught Music for 20 years.
How he got the blurbs for his new book is yet another story. “I have a local reputation, but in the outside literary world I don’t exist – certainly not yet. After I got permission from Billy Collins to use his blurb, I had the bright idea that if I have one big name like that, getting somebody else would multiply the effect. I wrote to every poet or prose writer I’ve ever had contact with, asked if I could send a sample of the poems and asked for blurbs. Some people said, ‘Sorry, don’t have the time.’ But I got letters from three other writers; it was astonishing to me. I thought if I got one of them, I’d be lucky.” He has four big-time writers lending their accolades on his back cover: not bad for a first book.
Leslie Gerber: Lies of the Poets book launch/reading, Saturday, November 15, 4 p.m., WAAM, 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock.