Each April in Princeton, National Poetry Month sees the launch of a new issue of U.S.1 Worksheets, the annual journal produced by U.S. 1 Poets’ Cooperative and celebrated with a gathering and reading at the Princeton Public Library. This year, the group has even more reason to party: its 40th anniversary.
For an informal group with no charter, no officers, no by-laws, and no real home for regular weekly meetings, four decades is quite an achievement. “The long life of U.S. 1 is thrilling to me,” says founding member Alicia Ostriker. “I think its longevity is a result of its wonderfully flexible structure and complete openness.”
Ostriker, who has been teaching English at Rutgers since 1972, was one of several poets who came together to form the U.S. 1 Poets’ Cooperative the following year, inspired by fond memories of the Berkeley Poets Cooperative. They adopted the name of the highway that parallels the East Coast from Florida to Canada, and while they share a name and the group is sometimes confused with this newspaper, that’s the sole connection.
Though based in Princeton, in many ways the cooperative has remained true to its free-spirited roots. “Many writing groups are gated communities, but not U.S. 1; nothing is required for membership except showing up and participating; meetings are neither fixed nor in a permanent location, and the whole atmosphere is welcoming to newcomers who really want to improve their writing by giving and receiving helpful critiques,” says Ostriker, who is aptly called “America’s most fiercely honest poet.”
Soon after the group was formed, a Worksheets journal in folded tabloid format with poems and drawings appeared. An outlet for work and a way to show it to others, it was also a means of bonding. “Poets are lonely creatures who need community, and community is what U.S.1 reliably provides,” says Ostriker.
While she rarely attends meetings these days, Ostriker recalls earlier experiences fondly. “No matter what was said about my writing at any given meeting, I’d go home psyched and energized and do some serious revising the next day.”
The format of those weekly sessions has varied little in four decades. It has been tried and tested and found to work. A typical meeting includes anywhere from three to 18 attendees. New faces are welcome, and there are always visitors, people who come to the area, stay a while, and move on. On Tuesday evenings, each poet reads one poem (more if the poems are short or in a form such as haiku) and then sits quietly listening to the comments made by others as the spirit moves.
Critiques are generally polite and always constructive, but responses can vary. While it is wonderful to hear a consensus (“this is done, send it out”), most poets bring works-in-progress to tap into the expertise of such accomplished poets as founding member Elizabeth Anne (Liz) Socolow; Jean Hollander, whose workshops at the Princeton YWCA encourage the creative writing juices; and Betty Lies, senior editor for U.S.1 Worksheets and a Dodge Poet for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
“The level of critique is excellent, Liz Socolow in particular,” says Nancy Scott, managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets since 2004. “Liz is a professional and masterful in her ability to analyze a poem, identify trouble spots, and suggest alternative lines or line placement. She really helped me with my first two books of poems. She has a generosity of spirit that I really admire.”
Common and supportive responses are more likely: “your verbs should be more active,” “try reordering your stanzas, thus…,” “cut your unnecessary opening lines and jump right in..,” or “shift from third to first person.” If you are receptive, your poem will emerge sleeker and more immediately accessible. This seasoned group has been together long enough to know which advice to follow and which to let go.
Wanda Praisner, a member since 1989, echoes the welcoming nature of the group. “We’d gather at Bob Welch’s, Carolyn Edelmann’s, or Ginny Lockwood’s, and the atmosphere was always warm and nurturing, a place to learn and grow.” Praisner, a poet-in-residence for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, served as a selecting editor for several issues of U.S. 1 Worksheets alongside Betty Lies, who also joined the group in 1989.
Even those who have moved out of state, like Arlene Weiner, now in Pittsburgh, and Norma Voorhees Sheard, in Deer Isle, Maine, still consider themselves members and regularly have poems in the journal.
Like many on their first approach, Sheard was not at all sure of how she would be received. “I was very apprehensive about attending a meeting of such high-caliber poets, but I did, and found that my work was treated with respect and received helpful criticism.”
As a member myself, I understand that initial hesitation. Writing in the privacy of your own head in your own private space is quite different from plunging into a critique session with seasoned and accomplished poets. In fact, had it not been for Nancy Scott, this particular novice might never have summoned up the courage to join.
Scott and I met in Jean Hollander’s class at the YWCA and were wondering how to go about breaking into the group, reluctant to just show up and knock on a stranger’s door. One day we looked at each other, and it was a case of: I will if you will. We held hands and plunged in. Since then Scott has become a mainstay. I have done my stint as a host of the weekly meetings and as a selecting editor for several issues of the journal.
U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative is run entirely by volunteers who host and schedule meetings and maintain a current address list. If the format of weekly workshops has not changed much over the years, the process of producing the annual journal has.
The first folded tabloids gave way to a stapled-at-the-corner collection of photocopied sheets and eventually to a staple-stitched journal. Today, it is professionally produced and perfect-bound with cover art by contemporary photographers. Fresh voices from across New Jersey (and increasingly from Bucks County and the Philadelphia region) and occasionally overseas add to those of the group’s regulars.
When Scott volunteered as managing editor, she says, she did not have a clue what she was doing. “Three days before the journal launch we got copies from the printer that were all butterflied open and wouldn’t stay shut no matter how much weight we put on top of them,” she says. “Imagine 300 copies. Apparently it takes some time for them to close. What did I know?” She swore she would never work with staple stitching again. The journal has been perfect bound ever since.
“There’s some issue every year,” laughs Scott. This year it was the cover, in color for the first time. The 40th anniversary issue sports one of Scott’s own original artwork collages, “Summer Nap.” Set against a black background the image gleams with color: rich reds, pinks, yellow, and greens frame a nude figure with cat.
But if getting the cover right can be a challenge, it is worth it. In recent years the covers have made the journal stand out. The accomplished local art photographer Frank Magalhaes, who created the journal’s layout for a number of years, donated work for two recent covers (issues 51 and 54), and photographers regularly offer their work at no cost to the journal.
Working on the journal is a “terrific way to connect with the community of poets,” says former managing editor Ellen Foos, founder and publisher of Ragged Sky Press and a production editor at Princeton University Press. “Not everyone is aware of what goes on behind the scenes, but they appreciate it when the publication arrives looking so splendid.”
“A kind of magic happens,” Scott says. “Even though a different group of volunteers is involved each year, there’s continuity of purpose and quality.” And it all culminates with the launch party. “Last year’s was standing room only, and we expect the same again this year,” she says. “Poems are read by their authors as the spirit moves, and there’s a real buzz when so many creative people get together.”
Members, like Sandy Heinlein, come to U.S. 1 by word of mouth. Just back from two years in Japan, where he had been studying on a fellowship from Amherst College, Heinlein had a self-published chapbook about life in Kyoto and was “casting about for people to rap with, about poetry, about Asia and the martial arts, about Vietnam, about Japan.” At his first meeting, he found a receptive audience. “The dozen or so members welcomed me, and I could feel relaxed and comfortable and enjoy the conversation after all the poems had been discussed,” said Heinlein, recalling the impact on him by the likes of late founding member Rod Tulloss, among others.
When Heinlein returned to Japan, he kept in touch with Tulloss, Ostriker, and others, and cites the group for helping him focus and structure his writing. His first book of essays and poems, “Wild Seeds,” was published in Japan in 1984. “Rod Tulloss turned me on to the work of Philip Whalen, and Bob Welch helped me to look at the world with more of a happy and curious mind, not to take things so seriously,” says Heinlein, who has had poems in issues of U.S. 1 Worksheets going back to 1985 and served as a selecting editor on three occasions.
Like Heinlein and others, numerous poets would single out Liz Socolow as a major positive influence. It is fitting that this 40th anniversary issue is dedicated to her.
“Liz is an exceptionally sympathetic reader and listener of other poets’ work and always gives the most constructive comments,” says Heinlein.
Says Ostriker: Socolow is “a woman of many gifts, all of which in one way or another find their way into her writing. Her sensitivity to others combined with her intelligent judgment, her rich knowledge of literature, and her amazing articulateness made her the unofficial mother-of-us-all.”
Besides U.S. 1 Worksheets, many U.S. 1 poets have published in local and national journals, too many to list here, and like Heinlein, many have collections.
The launch party serves as a gathering for members who may not attend every weekly workshop. As anniversaries tend to do, this year, members will no doubt recall the work of poets no longer with us: Ralph Copleman’s witty, sometimes oddball yet carefully crafted poems; Virginia Lockwood’s snappy, bright originality, her enthusiasm and poignancy, and her influence on so many local writers.
U.S. 1 Worksheets Volume 58 Launch Party, Princeton Public Library Community Room, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Sunday, April 7, 2 p.m. Free. Copies of the journal are $10. www.us1poets.com.