The Delaware and Raritan Canal meanders quietly behind the Lambertville home poet Gerald Stern shares with the poet and educator Anne Marie Macari, his companion of the last 16 years.
The Delaware River, swollen to a torrent after the recent springtime rains, courses relentlessly a good long stone’s throw from Stern’s driveway, which is off a quiet street lined with trees and brick-front and wood-frame homes.
Stern, at 89, may lack the river’s hydropower, but his output as one of America’s greatest living poets continues nonetheless. The former poet laureate of New Jersey and author of 18 books of poetry and several essay collections says that his next book of poetry, “Divine Nothingness,” will be published this fall by W.W. Norton. He adds that he is also working on a longer prose piece, but doesn’t know yet whether it will end up being a memoir or a novel.
He has been trying different things lately, such as writing short lyrical poems and creating a book of cartoons.
Yet he is also fond of his older poems, cherishing them like favorite children. When shown “Gert’s Gifts” from his 1998 book “This Time,” he pauses and says, “That’s a nice poem. I wrote that in Florida.” He says “American Sonnets,” from 2002, is his favorite among his books.
The recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry in 1998 and the Wallace Stevens Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Academy of American Poets in 2005, Stern became well-known over the years to those attending the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, where he frequently read his work.
On Saturday, May 31, at 7 p.m., he will be featured during the International Poets Festival at the New Hope Arts Center.
The New Hope event will also present four poets from New Zealand: Tusiata Avia, Richard Langston, Tourettes (Dominic Hoey), and Alice Anderson. In addition to Stern four local poets will also participate: Ryan Torres, Amanda Midkiff, Roy Smith, and Lorraine Henrie Lins, a former Bucks County poet laureate.
Stern is still writing, still getting published, and still keeping an eye on the world. His opinions on current events flow freely and are likely to end with the succinct assessment, “A plague on both their houses.”
Stern is a Pittsburgh native who is well versed in his Jewish ancestry from Ukraine and Eastern Poland and the way it shaped his youth. His parents and grandparents gravitated to an established enclave in Pittsburgh and made a living for themselves.
Stern’s early world was more working-class than academic or cultured — no books in the house, as he has told interviewers. His paternal grandfather was in the cigar business, and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi-like figure who made sure ancient laws were adhered to in preparing kosher foods. Stern’s father sold clothes; his mother tended to domestic life.
The poet’s childhood memories evoke the grittiness of pre-EPA Pittsburgh, where the steel industry made its mark in the skies, which precipitated soot that would collect in a stain around a man’s sweaty shirt collar in the summertime. Most of the workers at the mills were his family’s countrymen, who were underpaid, became resentful over the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, and took out their frustrations on amateur gridirons, which made the Pittsburgh area the football mecca that it remains today.
He says he became a poet in spite of Pittsburgh’s cultural isolation and cites two searing memories as contributing to his creative start as a teenager. “One was my sister’s death when she was nine, and I was eight. I was not allowed to share in the mourning. So I spent most of my life sharing that mourning. The other thing was the extreme anti-Semitism that surrounded me at the time. I was beaten up on my way to kindergarten once because I had killed someone named Christ,” he says.
As he talks he recalls the poem that W.H. Auden wrote in memory of the influential Irish poet William Butler Yeats and quotes his famous line,”Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”
Stern continues, “I drew when I was a kid, then I wrote poetry when I was about 14. Heroic poetry in the style of Kipling and Poe. When I was a freshman in college I started writing poetry. I was walking at the university one day, and I realized I was weird.” He then began looking for answers and was drawn to book stores and coffeehouses in different cities.
Stern served in the Army Air Corps, and after World War II he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s at Columbia in New York City. He did post-graduate work at the University of Paris and started to publish his poems.
When he returned to the United States, Stern taught at Temple University in Philadelphia, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, at New Jersey’s Raritan Valley Community College, the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.
“I met Anne Marie there,” he says of Sarah Lawrence. “She was a late-coming student. She was pursuing an MFA in poetry and was in my first class there.”
He says he helped start a low-residency program at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. Macari was hired to be the director and then was asked to be director of the low-residency program at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. She and Stern are still both on the adjunct faculty at Drew. Stern gives readings and teaches from time to time.
“I do what I want to, give readings, give talks, stuff like that,” he says “I decided I had done enough teaching in my life, but it’s what I still do. Anyone who comes within view I grab them and teach them.”
He is firmly rooted in the Northeast and refers to New York, Philadelphia, and Paris as “my cities” and the Delaware as “my river.” He finally settled down in Lambertville 15 years ago after frequently passing through on his way to visit a friend in Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania.
“My son’s an architect in Boston,” says Stern. “I dragged him all over the place. I wanted to get back to my river, and I knew this town.” He also has a daughter, a nutritionist in Huntsville, Alabama, from a prior marriage. Macari has three sons who live in Philadelphia and New York.
He and Macari also keep an apartment in New York City. “I’ve always had a place in New York,” he says. “I would just go there to work. I didn’t even have a phone.” He says he does most of his writing in Lambertville, where he refers to his home as “a seven-room study.”
He won’t have to go far from home on May 31 for the New Hope-New Zealand International Festival of Poets in New Hope.
Jennifer Fritsch helps run the New Hope Beat Poets, which meets the second Wednesday of the month at the Arts Center. She says the international event came about after some online outreach across the time zones by Roy Smith, one of the New Hope poets.
“We met (the New Zealand poets) through a mutual acquaintance online,” says Fritsch. “We’re bringing them over to create a bridge between New Zealand and New Hope. They’ve done these events all over the U.S. Roy Smith met the folks from New Zealand online and he got to know Jim Wilson and his wife, Kelly. They own a street art company in New Zealand that takes poetry and sells it around the world as street art.”
Stern, meanwhile, has not decided what to present at his part in New Hope’s trans-hemispheric festivities. He has a trove of works, including “The Pineys,” published by Rutgers University Press in 1969. At that time, he says, he was drawn to New Jersey’s Pinelands, a pristine, desolate place that has been a battleground between potential developers and preservationists for years. It has always been the home of spooky legends and a place that answered to its own laws.
It is also, Stern says, a place where someone could hide out or be hidden, if need be.
International Poetry Festival, New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope. Saturday, May 31, 7 p.m. $5 donation requested, free refreshments. www.newhopearts.org or 215-862-9606.