The Woodstock Flaneur

Cover illustration by Carol Zaloom

What defines a writer’s voice? 

Google’s quick answer (from a post dating back to 2015) is fourfold: Clarity of thought, a sense of dialogue with one’s reader, painting clear pictures, and having an underlying sense of rhythm.

Michael Perkins, whose latest book The Woodstock Flaneur: A Saunterer’s Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Famous Small Town gets celebrated with an Oriole9 reading 5 p.m.-7 p.m. next Thursday evening, December 13, featuring a quintet of topnotch readers, sums up his distinction with a flourish: “Stroller, dandy, saunterer, idler, man of the crowd: the flaneur is the collector of detail and its connoisseur. He is a sensibility more than an intelligence…The flaneur’s vocation is to pay attention to that which is overlooked. This includes the inspection of snowstorms, peering into shop windows, saying hello to strangers, and welcoming spring. Other things in his portfolio: remembering what things used to look like, memorializing citizens who have passed on, and wondering where the hell the time has gone.”

Adding luster and a certain poignant added charm to the sometimes brittle tone of Perkins’ prose is the fact that he can no longer read his own words aloud, and has been pushed by Parkinson’s Disease into a nursing home. But given the proven writerly and reading talents of those imparting what’s in The Woodstock Flaneur next Thursday — Brian Hollander, Mikhail Horowitz, Marshall Karp, James Lasdun and Abigail Thomas — there’s little doubt this unique man of Woodstock will be heard fully. 

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“In adolescence I began taking long walks as my own quiet protest against the hegemony of the infernal combustion engine. I hitchhiked a la Kerouac in high school and college, where I got serious about studying French,” Perkins emailed this week. “I studied French literature and met the flaneur in the pages of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. When the American novelist Edmund White published his book about being a flaneur in Paris, I thought here is a way to write about The Town I’ve spent my life in, and share some memories that may strike a chord in others.”

Woodstockers know Michael Perkins as a poet, writer of aphorisms, author of several books with his friend and fellow poet Will Nixon, and longtime organizer of the library’s Woodstock Forum series of monthly readings, talks and symposia on a wide variety of subjects, styles, and theories all related to the town and its diversified intelligence. He was the official and unofficial sexton of same library for decades, ensuring it has lasted and grown as well as it has. He was a member of its board at several points and a one-time owner of an influential art gallery that challenged the staid primacy of the Woodstock Artists Association by showing younger, more experimental talent. Perkins was a Program Director at the Woodstock Guild and organizer of the town’s 1987 Bicentennial bash. He’s been a resident taking careful stock of the many moods through which Woodstock has evolved, along with many of its more colorful characters, since he first landed off Tinker Street in 1972 (after having refused tickets and a ride to that other Woodstock thing that happened elsewhere in 1969).

Perkins’ writings, and all of this book, are familiar to Woodstock Times readers. His subject matter, seen from the sides of local roadways, the Village Green (or “Village Stone” as he cynically refers to it several times), and other resting spots around town, is the flavor of this place beyond its buffed (or tie-dyed) tourist appeal. Perkins captures the flow of seasons, and how longtime residents come to treasure late winter and early spring, and other “off” times when things quiet to a point where old-timers can remember back to a point where dogs could sleep in the middle of Tinker Street.

He brings to life a style of Woodstock party that involved long, witty conversations fueled by cheap wine or spiked homemade cider. Grand conversationalists from known figures to the likes of Ed Balmer, his old artist scion chum Aileen Cramer, Kennedy conspiracist extraordinaire Rush Harp,  painter Bill Pachner, actresses Sylvia Miles and Viveca Lindfors, Ron and Freya De Nitto (“the most beautiful woman in Woodstock,”), Marco Vassi, and many, many others. This isn’t so much the Woodstock of famous and near-famous musicians, but of struggling artists and writers seriously pursuing individualistic lives apart from mainstream existences elsewhere.

Yet this book is more than the sum of a series of essays, more than a man’s lists and timelines, more than remembrances and a veiled form of memoir. Perkins always stays close to his ideal as a flaneur, a subtly acidic chronicler of character flattening modernization. He’s always a writer aware of rich details.

“To take his mind off his stomach, he tried to imagine the scene he would encounter in the meadow. An orgiastic pagan feast from a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza came to mind, before he reflected that New Agers were too young to have seen sexy Biblical epics,” he writes of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence gathering at Magic Meadow, which he had some nominal charge of as Program Director at the Guild, which at that point owned the sacred property up past Meads Mountain House, near what’s now the KTD monastery. “He hopped across the brook that gurgles after a heavy rain and stood listening. It was almost quiet. Even the ubiquitous Rainbow tribe drums seemed muted. He had expected to encounter a wall of sound. He mounted the incline that led to the meadow and stood gaping at the encampment that filled his vision. It was neat, orderly: an impromptu tent city, built by people who knew what they were doing. People who respected themselves and their environment. He strolled slowly past campfires from which delicious smells wafted, aware that a wide smile that rose from his long-locked anarchist’s heart was taking possession of his face. His world was turned upside down, and something was released in him that felt like freedom.”

I remember that. But still thrill at what this writer has done to burrow deep into such memories to why they linger. That’s real voice.

Later, Michael Perkins speaks to the loss of his physical voice. He captures the stunned sensibility of his home town after the 2016 election, and his own thoughts about starting his own country, the Republic of Ashokan. He speaks of limited mobility and mortality…“His thoughts turned to the psychology of denial, and he dozed off. Wasn’t everyone ‘in denial’ — about death, for instance?”

“As for walking without walking, you can be on the streets without moving one step outside,” he answered my question in that email this week, from his nursing home. “The question is really about one’s passionate interest in the community we share.”

I turn to this sweet book’s final words, a testament to how the most local of writers, and voices, can sing loudly beyond whatever room that surrounds him to an entire world, to posterity.

“His cold feet awakened him. As he pulled on socks and boots he found himself looking for the fly, but his interlocutor had apparently buzzed off,” he writes, referring back to an element in the early paragraphs of this last essay. “The flaneur remembered that flies see through thousands of lens in their eyes. Could they see into the future? He looked out over the country he created, and hoped that it would last.”

Hail Republic of Ashokan and it (our) grand self-dubbed flaneur, Michael Perkins.

A reading of Michael Perkins’ The Woodstock Flaneur, featuring Brian Hollander, Mikhail Horowitz, Marshall Karp, James Lasdum and Abigail Thomas, will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. this Thursday, December 13 at Oriole9, at 17 Tinker Street, Woodstock, across from the Village Green. The book is available at local book stores.

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

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