Award-Winning Poet Finds Home in Jackson Heights' Growing Scene
JACKSON HEIGHTS — At a recent poetry open mic at Terazza 7 in Elmhurst, Norman Stock walked slowly past an audience of artsy 20- and 30-somethings there to read their own work, clutching two books as he shuffled toward the microphone.
Stock, a short, 72-year-old man wearing a tucked-in, button-down shirt with khakis and a pair of sneakers, adjusted his glasses and explained that he was going to read a poem about a particularly critical editor he once had.
The poem, entitled "At the Bottom of a Mountain," was a less-than-flattering look at the writer-editor relationship.
"The poetry editor fell off a mountain," Stock began, wryly. "He lay bleeding and half-alive on the rocks below, which is where I came upon him as I was writing this poem."
Through a series of poems that left the audience either laughing or in silent contemplation, Stock, a Jackson Heights resident of more than 20 years and a poet for nearly a half-century, showcased an irreverence he said he's come to be known for.
"I write the way I feel," Stock said of his work. "There's nothing new about this. I just express it in my own way."
His poems have won awards and appeared in the New Republic, a number of literary magazines and in two books: 1994's "Buying Breakfast for My Kamikaze Pilot" and 2010's "Pickled Dreams Naked."
But few people outside of the poetry world are aware of Stock's work, something the former librarian is acutely aware of.
"I'm sort of outside the MFA world," Stock said, referring to formally trained poets. "That is the real poetry world, the one I'm not in."
"I don't want to write like them," Stock clarified. "But I'd like the recognition."
Born in Coney Island, Stock was raised in a community of Yiddish writers and artists in the 40's. His father, Zvi Stock, was a Polish immigrant and Yiddish poet, and the younger Stock was introduced at a very young age to popular local writers at the time.
The constant exposure sparked his interest in writing.
"They put a high value on literature, my father and my mother," Stock said. "I just started doing it."
At 28, after graduating from Brooklyn College and receiving a masters degree in library service from Rutgers University and an M.A. in English from Hunter College, Stock attended a New York University writers workshop, where he met William Packard. Packard, who would go on to form the literary magazine New York Quarterly, was fond of Stock's work, and published a number of his first poems.
It wasn't until the 80's that Stock started winning awards for his work. In 1984, he received his first award, when he was 44 years old, from the Writer's Voice program at the West Side YMCA.
"Finally, look at this. I'm finally getting some recognition," Stock remembered thinking. "It stimulated me to write, too."
And so the poet kept on churning out verse: in 1985, he won a scholarship to the Bread Loaf writer's conference in Vermont; the following year, he won the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award, which sent him to Minnesota; and he began to get a number of his poems published in the academic magazine College English.
Fourteen of the poems published there would go on to form part of his first book.
Molly Peacock, president emerita of the Poetry Society of America and co-founder of the MTA's "Poetry in Motion" series, worked with Stock on the production of "Buying Breakfast for My Kamikaze Pilot" after they were introduced by another poet.
"Norman has a wonderfully droll and Kafkaesque sense of the language," Peacock said. "I immediately saw how talented he was."
Stock studied under Peacock for a time, she said, one of a series of informal bits of training he accumulated through the years. The lack of formal training is something that she admits may have kept him from breaking into some poetry circles.
But Stock's "quirky, highly individual" work, she says, has made him a poet that other poets know and respect.
"He's a poet's poet," Peacock said. "Norman's poetry is ginger, it's vinegar. It's sharp to the tongue."
"My poems are not all over the place," Stock said, comparing himself to more traditional poets. "They really do have a lot of form. It's just not that evident. It's more of an emotional form."
In 1990, four years before the release of "Buying Breakfast for My Kamikaze Pilot" and while working as a librarian, Stock and his wife, Lydia, moved from Fresh Meadows to Jackson Heights, where they remain to this day.
When he first moved to the neighborhood, it was nothing more than a place to live with his wife with a decent public transportation commute to the Montclair State University Library in New Jersey, where he worked as a librarian, he says.
Now, he's seen an influx of artists coming to the neighborhood, starting events like the Jackson Heights Poetry Festival, of which Stock is a frequent participant.
"I'd always gone to the city for poetry events," Stock said. "Lately there's more stuff happening in Queens."
But Stock is still looking for success out of local circles, he said. And slowly but surely, he said he's been progressing: the string of small successes in the 80's, the publication of his first book in 1994 and the publication of "Pickled Dreams Naked" in 2010.
A bit of success every 10 years or so, he notes with a laugh.
"I just gotta live," Stock said. "If I keep living, I'll do OK."