Poetry in Harmony: Tuesday night readings are back

Andy Clausen (photo by Violet Snow)

After a hiatus of nearly a year, Tuesday evening poetry readings at Woodstock’s Harmony Café (52 Mill Hill Road, in the Wok n’ Roll restaurant) will resume on December 4 at 8 p.m. The first reading will be a book release party for Andy Clausen’s memoir and chronicle BEAT: The Latter Days of the Beat Generation, just out from Autonomedia. As always, an open mic will follow.

“We get some of the best readers in the Hudson Valley,” said organizer and MC Mike Platsky, “and some of the newer, more inexperienced writers in the community, and some of the street people on occasion. That’s why I have a firm five-minute limit on the open mic.” The series has twice been voted the best poetry reading in the Hudson Valley by readers of Ulster Magazine. “It could’ve been six people they polled,” said Platsky, “but I wasn’t one of them.”

Weekly poetry readings have been a fixture in Woodstock for about 50 years, according to Platsky. Hosts have included Max Schwartz, Dean Schambach, and Phillip Levine, who still runs a monthly Woodstock Poetry Society reading on second Saturday afternoons at the Golden Notebook bookstore. The weekly readings have bounced around a number of different places: the old Colony, the Tinker Street Café, the former Alchemy at the Bearsville Complex. It was at the Alchemy that the woman running the readings quit in the midst of an event because she didn’t know how to deal with a heckler. Platsky picked up the list of open mic readers and carried on. He was invited to host the following week, and soon he was in charge. Then the Alchemy went out of business, around the same time as the Colony temporarily closed. For a year, there were no readings.

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About eight years ago, Sha Wu, the owner of the Wok ‘n Roll restaurant on Mill Hill Road, decided to build a small stage in a side room, calling it the Harmony Café. Platsky ran into Schambach and Father John of Church on the Mount, talking outside the restaurant. Schambach thought the café would be a great place for weekly readings, said he wasn’t interested in running them, and suggested Platsky revive the series. When the owner appeared, said Platsky, “Dean told Sha Wu I would organize poetry readings and walked away. That’s how I ended up being the poetry host.”

A steady roster of poetry and music have kept the Harmony stage lively, including weekly performances by the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band (on Thursdays) and performances by other local musicians, most recently Dharma Bums, Journey Blue Heaven, the Salted Brothers, and Gus Mancini’s Sonic Soul Band. Last December, with ill health forcing him to scale back, Sha Wu canceled the Tuesday night readings. Now that he’s feeling better, poetry is once again on the schedule. 

Like Leslie Gerber, who ran a monthly reading series at New World Home Cooking until it closed, Platsky was unable to find another venue to use in the interim. “I must’ve checked a dozen places and didn’t feel comfortable in any of them,” said Platsky. “There was either a big bar scene we’d have to compete with, or food and drinks were overpriced, which wouldn’t work for the poets’ community.” Wok & Roll offers moderately priced Chinese food, and while alcohol is available, there’s not much of a bar to drown out the poetry.

Each week a featured reader receives all the money in the tip jar Platsky passes around. Usually poetry is read, but he’s making an exception for Clausen, a poet whose new book tells stories of the Beats. Clausen, who dived into the Beat poetry scene in 1965, has written about his friendships with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ray Bremser, Peter Orlovsky, and others of the Beat Generation. He has taught in various schools, including the Naropa Institute in Colorado. Like his partner, Janine Pommy Vega, he conducted poetry workshops in the New York State prison system. Since Vega’s death, he celebrates the annual Janine Pommy Vega Poetry Festival in Woodstock. Clausen was also scheduled to read from his new book at the Mothership gallery on Hillcrest Road on Thursday, November 29.

Platsky has lined up Olivia McGee, a young gay poet from the Albany area, as a future featured reader, but at press time the date of her appearance was not yet firmed up. “We’ve had people from Ireland who happened to be in area,” said Platsky, “and Judith Kerman from Mayapple Press reads once a year. We try to attract poets from a variety of styles.” People who are interested in being a featured reader may apply by contacting Platsky at michaelplatsky@yahoo.com. Open mic readers are invited to sign up on the night of the reading.

“I think at this particular point of American history,” Platsky said, “it’s important to give people a place to express themselves. Sha Wu has been incredibly supportive. ‘Harmony’ is the right name for that place.”

Harmony presents Andy Clausen reading from BEAT: The Latter Days of the Beat Generation on Tuesday, December 4, at 8 p.m., at Wok ‘n Roll, 52 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock. Sign-up for the open mic starts at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free. 

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