How does one describe the Woodstock Library Forum, now celebrating its 30th year?
Diana (Stern) Boggs, who worked at the library for 38 years and served as its director from 1981 to 2011, declared, “It’s a conversation everyone in the community is invited to. The library is a good place to have a conversation, whether it’s serious, amusing, or intellectual. And that’s what the Forum is.”
Michael Hunt, vice president of Friends of the Woodstock Library, which sponsors the Forum, jokes that it originated as “TED talks before there were TED talks.”
Michael Perkins, who founded the Forum in 1986 and continues to run it, explained, “The idea was simple — give Woodstockers a place to sound off and show off. The Forum allows people to talk to each other on public issues. It allows people to share their talents and knowledge. My goal from the start was to offer a platform to anyone who seemed relatively sane and who might draw ten people.”
Many of the presenters are writers or poets, but there have been artists, musicians, publishers, astronomers, architects, physicians, wilderness guides, theater troupes, and many other kinds of people. The first Forum featured concert pianist Daniel Abrams. Malachy McCourt spoke at one event that required use of the town hall; the audience packed the place.
“Michael does a great job,” said Boggs, “and he knows a lot of people.” The author of at least four novels, six poetry collections, plus criticism and essays, Perkins brings intelligence and broad knowledge to a task that has had its challenges.
“Keeping anything going for 30 years is not easy,” he observed. “Presenting over a thousand intelligent, articulate, and opinionated Woodstockers required angelic patience and acute diplomatic skills, both of which I acquired on the job. You have to like people in the particular, and I do — although humanity in the abstract brings out the misanthrope in me.”
One person who knows him well is poet Will Nixon, who co-authored a book with Perkins, Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town (Bushwhack Books, 2009). Nixon recalled that for years, Perkins refused to present his own writings at the Forum. “As host, he felt it would be self serving to give a poetry reading as part of his own series,” related Nixon. “So on the occasions when I gave a poetry reading at the forum, I would begin by a reading a poem by ‘the one poet who has never read at the library forum, Michael Perkins.’”
When Perkins’ poetry collection A Splendor Among Shadows was published in 2013, he finally decided to give a reading at the Forum. Because his Parkinson’s had advanced to the point where it was difficult for him to read aloud, he recruited several other poets to read for him. A week before the reading, he broke his hip in a freak accident. “Rather than making his debut at the Forum,” said Nixon, “he was stuck in the hospital while we all read on his behalf — to a packed house, I was thrilled to see. I joked with Michael, afterward, that the gods of fate had decided to smite him for having the temerity to feature himself at the forum. He laughed…sort of.”
As Woodstock has changed in 30 years, the Forum has perforce changed as well. Boggs noted, “Nowadays there’s less of popular culture and more of the serious topics, less of the fun and frivolous, like UFO’s and magic pyramids — those were very popular.”
Among the local luminaries coming up at this spring’s Forums, don’t miss the April 16 appearance of town historian Richard Heppner, speaking about his new book, Everyday History, together with town supervisor Jeremy Wilber discussing his novel Miles From Woodstock. On April 30, world-renowned composer Peter Schickele (a.k.a. PDQ Bach) will be joined by his wife, Susan Sindall, for a reading from Sindall’s memoir, plus musical entertainment. Other presenters will address the usual wide range of topics, from the juvenile justice system to the pros and cons of living in a tiny house. See highlighted box for more information or visit the library’s website, https://ulsterpub.staging.wpengine.org. For more on Michael Perkins, go to https://www.michaelperkins.us.