Rick Sherburne, Julie Mofford, and Tom Mofford (photo courtesy of Rick Sherburne on Facebook)
We lost a poet today, Tom Mofford, husband of our occasional contributor Julie Mofford, both of them long-time friends of mine. Tom passed away this morning, I learned from Julie’s message to our mutual friend Rick Sherburne. She and Tom had been living in Bath, Maine, in recent years. The three of us worked for a time at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, US Dept. of the Interior.
Tom was one of the unforgettable people in my life. I met him when I was a young writer in 1976 through a regional writers’ group called The Poets’ Lab, which was based at the Memorial Library in Andover, Mass. The writers from around the Merrimack Valley met twice a month on Wednesday evenings. Afterwards, a bunch of us would often go for a beer or glass of wine at a local pub off Main Street.
Tom was a literary enthusiast. He was unfailingly encouraging to me, which meant a lot when I was trying to find my balance if not a direction as a writer. He was a teacher through and through and a voracious reader. I recall him saying that he had assembled and broken up four of five substantial personal libraries as he and his family moved around the world, from the Caribbean to Japan to New England. At the time it was so important for me to hear an older guy say, “My heroes are poets.” He always had another poem or poet to tell me about when we were together. A couple of times we went on poetry excursions to Harvard Square in Cambridge where we would visit the poetry shrine at the Grolier Book Shop on Plympton Street. He may or may not have been with me at a reading by Robert Lowell in a packed Sanders Theatre in 1977, which may have been Lowell’s final reading. I’d like to think Tom was there. He valued the poetry of the Beat writers, whom Julie has written about with great zest. Today is also the date of Jack Kerouac’s passing, so Tom is now linked there. And he wrote letters, some of which I saved and have filed somewhere. For about 20 years, I’ve been thinking of writing an essay about the Poets’ Lab. Maybe Tom’s passing is the push I need.
The members of the Poets’ Lab evolved from a workshop structure to a reading troupe. We read our poems up and down the river valley, from Haverhill to Lowell, from North Andover to Dracut. At our debut reading in Andover there were 75 people in the audience. One Saturday afternoon four of us went to read at a scheduled event in the Salem, N.H., public library, but nobody showed up to listen. That was OK. We went out for lunch. In 1978, a couple of us from the group decided it was time to do some independent publishing, so we launched a poetry broadside or poster series. We called the broadside series LOOM, starting with LOOM 1. By that time we were calling ourselves the Merrimack Valley Poets. We chose some poems, typed them on a 8.5 x 14 inch sheet of paper (two sheets for two sides), and made 200 copies at a local quick-print shop. We distributed them at no cost through libraries, bookstores, and art galleries in the area. Poetry wants to be free, to borrow a statement. I think there were 15 broadsides done over three or four years.
When I read the news about Tom’s passing tonight, I remembered that Tom had a poem in the series. This is from LOOM 2, April 1980. The title is from the title of a Carl Sandburg book-length poem in 1936. Tom was a people’s poet, which is why he enjoyed the Beats, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman. But he also favored Emily Dickinson and world poets in translation. Poetry was universal language for Tom. In this briefest of lyrics the speaker is in Athens, cradle of democracy, saluting a very democratic American poet.
The People, Yes
The day Carl Sandburg died
I found myself at a taverna in Athens
Reading the Herald Tribune.
“The People, Yes.”