March 2, 2018

Gerrit Lansing Memorial & Birthday Reading, February 24 & 25

Gerrit Lansing, October, 2010
The Gloucester Writers Center had sometime ago scheduled a birthday celebration for the poet Gerrit Lansing’s 90th birthday, to be held February 25 & I planned to be there. I had met Gerrit when he gave a reading at UAlbany in 1988, then would visit him each year at his Abraxas Bookshop on Main St. in Gloucester, MA -- an erudite, friendly poet who seemed to know hundreds of poets known & “unknown.” After the bookstore closed, over the years on visits to Gloucester, I would see Gerrit at events such as the Olson centennial in 2010 & readings at the Gloucester Writers Center, a veritable √©minence grise. Gerrit Lansing died on February 11, just shy of his 90th birthday.

A memorial service was held on Saturday, February 24 at Hammond Castle, a great crowd filling the huge, medieval-style room. Gerrit’s grand-nephews spoke, each remarking on the “Gerrit-shared community.” Then a string of local friends, young & old, made brief comments or read one of Gerrit’s poems; one woman read one of Diane DiPrima’s “Revolutionary Letters.” The M/C of the event was Amanda Cook who got the gathered to sing “Shenandoah.” There was mention of magic, the occult & the natural world. Someone said that Gerrit’s last recited poem was from Mother Goose, “Higgledy-Piddledy My Black Hen.” I wrote in my notes, perhaps a quote from someone, “the magic is in the poems.”

Afterwards, there was an equally grand gathering down the road at the Magnolia Library Center for a community pot-luck & a chance to hang out & talk with old friends, Peter Anastas, Don & Marge Byrd, Pierre Joris & Nicole Peyrafitte, & to meet new friends.

Amanda Cook
The next day, Saturday, February 25, the long-planned birthday reading was held in the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church. The M/C & organizer was again the indomitable Amanda Cook, who kept the long list of readers moving. The performances began with musicians accompanying the readings of Gerrit’s poem “The Castle of the Flowering Birds.” Some read poems of their owns, but most read a poem or 2 by Gerrit. Again, Diane DiPrima (who was too ill to make the trip) was represented, this time by Ammiel Alcalay who read from DiPrima’s Loba. Nicole Peyrafitte, Pierre Joris, Don Byrd & bassist Michael Bisio performed poems by Gerrit with Michael’s musical accompaniment. Nicole said that they wanted to perform together because they met in Albany, NY, which was Gerrit’s birthplace. Other readers included Joe Torra, Dave Rich, Michael Franco, Chuck Stein, George Quasha, Simon Pettet, Ruth Lepson & others (I didn’t always get the speaker’s name, either because they didn’t announce themselves, or when they did it wasn’t clear).

Nicole Peyrafitte, Pierre Joris, Don Byrd, Michael Bisio
A person who attended Gerrit in his last days & hours, Fang, a “death doula,” sang for us the song she sang as his heart was fluttering out, a song about going to the Western shore, a theme touched in some of the poems read. Carol Weston displayed 2 pieces of art she had made, one included a photo of Gerrit with his cat Hector, the other was a quote from Gerrit there is no inanimate thing. Other music included Ben Webster at the piano playing what he introduced as “Perpetual Motion run amok,” & Nathan Cohen on violin worked his way through J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, that Gerrit in his last days had insisted he play for him. Willie Alexander ended the afternoon at the piano with another musical version of Gerrit's poem “Song (The Autumn Festival)” that Nicole had performed, Willie’s a rocking 6/8 rhythm with the repeated line “All things go underground with glee”, then lead us all chanting at the end “Gerrit - Gerrit - Gerrit …” (Willie Alexander has recorded this song, which he titles “All Things Go” on his CD I’ll Be Goode (Fish Eye Records #6).

The best tribute a writer can have is for people to read their work. Similar to Whitman’s many editions of Leaves of Grass, Gerrit Lansing’s life work Heavenly Tree can be found in a variety of editions, many out of print, but the most recent & most complete edition is the 2009 North Atlantic Books edition Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth — order it from your local independent bookseller.

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