Woodstock evolved from a manufacturing town into an arts town — painters and craftspeople — as the 20th Century began. Musicians came in the Age of Dylan; presently film and writing are bringing in warm bodies with their conferences and festivals. If, as seems likely, Woodstock becomes known as a writer’s town, wannabe content providers will struggle harder to stay afloat as writers always have, but only the most successful scribblers will move into the spaces left by the artists. The rest may inhabit a new Bohemia, like the Maverick. Woodstock is becoming older, wealthier, and wordier.
Poor but happy Bohemians are part of Woodstock’s cultural history. Let Bohemian poets stand in for all writers, as in the following advice offered by an older poet in an attempt to dissuade the flaneur from tripping down the penurious path of poetry. Did it wise up the flaneur? Nope. But it’s worth pondering.
“To be a poet is to be no one. Your life will, most likely, pass unremarked, and your death unnoticed. Your poems will be forgotten. Worse, you will learn that no one likes poetry. Blame this on those who win prizes for boring us. Poetry has lost its standing with the educated.
“Nevertheless, you must continue to serve the muse, even as she looks for other ears to whisper into. You must continue to work despite neglect, despite illness, despite the nasty pinches of poverty…Then, and only then, you may get lucky and be blessed with a poem a few people of discernment will approve. With more luck and work you may please and comfort ordinary people. At last, looking back, you may say with Heinrich Heine, ‘I have done nothing in this lovely world — nothing but become a poet!’”
Perhaps the seeming paradox that everyone wants to be a writer, just as writers are facing a dramatic loss of income (a survey of writers undertaken recently by The Authors Guild shows their annual income has dropped below $20,000) may be explained by comparing the number of writers who teach with those afire with something to say, or stories to tell.
Since it is the flaneur’s firm belief that writing cannot be taught, and that writers’ programs are literary Ponzi schemes, he is regarded as a crank on this subject. He is, admittedly so, because he believes that the more writing is taught, the less good writing there is. Writing is not an equal opportunity employer. Disappointment is part of the job description.
There are perhaps a half-dozen writers in Woodstock of sufficient stature to draw the attention of other writers to Woodstock. Novelist Gail Godwin is a long time resident who has had five novels with literary heft on the New York Times bestseller list. James Lasdun earned the respect of top critics like James Wood for his novel The Horned Man; his new novel, The Fall Guy, bids fair to make the bestseller list. Marshall Karp made himself known to readers with a fat mystery, The Rabbit Factory. Since he began collaborating with bestseller king James Patterson, he has had five NYT bestsellers.
Other well known Woodstock writers are Edward Sanders, author of The Family, the Manson family murder saga; Sheila Isenberg; Peter Occhiogrosso; Elizabeth Thomas — to name but a few who may be somewhat recognizable nationally.
Notable writers with reps among what we used to call the avant garde, include Peter Lamborn Wilson, Michael Brownstein, and Raymond Foye. (The strangest writer who should be listed here wishes to remain anonymous, even though his sales exceed the total sales of all the authors listed .)
Then there’s the small matter of one-time Woodstocker Robert Zimmerman being handed the Nobel for Literature, a prize not won by Proust, Mann, or Joyce. Of course, if you are a Woodstocker, you take pride in a home town boy who has made good. In his reflected glory our town shines brighter. But Bob Dylan is not Dylan Thomas, few song lyrics are poetry, and the Nobel Prize Committee has made mistakes before.
The question remains: is Woodstock now a writer’s’ town, as it once was an artists’ colony? Will the various conferences, festivals, and readings draw “creatives” who will one day bring a renaissance? And if it does, what will it mean to our lives? Sometimes the flaneur thinks that the arts in Woodstock would benefit most from a good inexpensive outdoor cafe — like the old Expresso that nurtured our Nobelist.
Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.