When you look at Ed Sanders, even his hair leans left. The asymmetrical frizz and bushy mustache have been trademarks for decades. In February 1967, Life magazine featured the owner of the Lower East Side’s Peace Eye Bookstore, publisher of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and co-founder of The Fugs on its cover (“Happenings: The Other Culture”). A few months later, Sanders led thousands of antiwar marchers in an attempt to exorcize and levitate the Pentagon.
Where is he now? In Woodstock, of course.
Sanders and his wife Miriam live in a modest house walking distance from the village green. A trio of preternaturally mellow deer grazes under a birdfeeder a few yards from their door. When the poet emerges, they glance up, unruffled. Behind them is a rushing brook with a small but tuneful waterfall.
“Negative ions,” gloats Sanders. He’s dressed in layered red and white shirts, black jeans, and black high-tops. On his jacket lapel, a button reads Imagine Peace.
Small as it is, the Sanders’ home burgeons with creative life. There are bookshelves everywhere, even above the windows. On top of the piano sit several more musical instruments, including a homemade lyre. There are birdcages, fish tanks, orchids from places as far-flung as China and Chile. There’s also a rainbow Peace flag, a few marble sculptures, and several framed prints, including a certificate with a linocut of a winged horse, declaring Sanders the Poet Laureate of Woodstock.
Any item in this lively assemblage may prompt a cluster of stories. A snapshot of a former pet duck named Jacques sets Sanders reminiscing about his kin, the first rescued by daughter Deirdre from a psych experiment at SUNY Albany. A later clutch of duck eggs hatched in a box on the floor, where the hatchlings imprinted on a row of tennis shoes. “They became seriously screwed-up ducks. They’d try to mount your shoe,” Sanders says, adding that a Scandinavian camera crew once filmed a duck humping his sneaker.
This may or may not be the reason he’s turned down 37 interview requests this year, mostly from European film crews. But today he seems eager to talk, settling onto a red settee at the room’s epicenter and resting his head on the back like an analysand, often staring upwards or closing his eyes as he speaks.
Foremost on his mind is his latest book and CD, Poems for New Orleans (North Atlantic Books; Paris Records). A magisterial suite of poems tracing the Crescent City from its founding in 1718 through the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, Poems for New Orleans is a vertical history in verse, recalling Charles Olson’s Gloucester and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson.
The project began in spring 2006 with an extraordinary offer from music producer Michael Minzer: He’d pay for Sanders to travel anywhere he wanted to research and record a CD of poems. Sanders’s first thought was Iraq, but “Miriam was not interested in going to the Green Zone. We’ve been married 47 years—she has shoot-down rights.” They considered the Egyptian pyramids, the Costa Rican rainforest, and other locales before choosing New Orleans. Sanders had given many readings there, and was already clipping news articles on the aftermath of Katrina and the grotesque failures of FEMA to allocate $8.3 billion in rebuilding funds. (“I’m Jack the Clipper,” he says.)
He also had extensive material in his historical database. The French, Spanish, and American colonists who displaced Choctaw Indians from the Mississippi Delta reminded him of local history. “It’s just like in Kingston—the Dutch took over the Esopus Indians’ cornfields in the late 1600s. Martha Washington bought wheat from what’s now Herzog’s Plaza.”
Listening to Sanders, you get the impression that everything interests him; there are no short answers. Describing the Battle of New Orleans, he notes that Andrew Jackson’s troops included “Dirty Shirts” toting long rifles (“a new super-weapon, the equivalent of an AK-47, only it’s 1814”); the “resplendent militia of New Orleans, all fancied up;” coastal pirates; and free Haitian people of color, radicalized by revolution. All fodder for poems.
Sanders created a Haitian family whose ancestry stretches from Jackson’s troops to Katrina survivor Grace Lebage to anchor his narrative. The Katrina poems range from the preflood tourist city he calls the “anarcho-bohemian-freedomistic Polis/where everyone tried their fastest licks/on the Carpe Diem guitar to the wake of the flood and beyond, to the fullest commixture/of everything that ever was in the Ever.”