A veteran of New York state’s legendary folk scenes, published poet J. Barrett Wolf has made Binghamton his home base as he continues to embrace his switch from music to poetry.
Wolf has become one of the most prominent figures in Binghamton poetry, hosting monthly open mics for the past 14 years. Originally from Freeport, New York, Wolf has lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Ireland, spending nearly 40 years as a singer-songwriter. Wolf began his career in his early high school days.
“I like to say I was better than a living room player, but not as good as some of the folk people I hung out with,” he said.
In fact, Wolf was involved in some prominent circles; he frequented Speakeasy, a popular New York City folk club in the ‘80s, and also played as a part of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a collective led by musician Pete Seeger that began fundraising for Hudson River cleanups in 1969.
Shortly before putting out an album in 2003, Wolf was diagnosed with tonsil cancer, which left him unable to sing for eight months. In that time, he decided he was more drawn to writing than he was to playing, and he changed his direction permanently.
“The thing about music is you’re limited in terms of you can’t really write what you can’t play, and you’re structurally limited because for the most part people are trying to write rhyming constructions — and not everybody does that, obviously there are people like Joni Mitchell who could basically write anything and it was amazing — but I found that moving on to poetry allowed me the freedom to say the things I wanted to say without those limitations,” Wolf said.
Wolf has since published three full-length collections and has seen individual poems published in several anthologies.
One collection, “Baiku: On the Nature of Motorcycles,” is a book of motorcycle poetry in the tradition of writers like Hunter S. Thompson who have drawn literary inspiration from the biker lifestyle. In his time in Cape Cod, Wolf was a member of the Highway Poets Motorcycle Club, an international society of biker poets. Wolf’s chapter rode across the state of Massachusetts, organizing and performing at readings along the way.
“I’m technically still a member of the Highway Poets [Motorcycle Club],” he said. “There are very few of us left.”
Wolf’s more recent efforts have been in romantic poetry, a subject matter he said has captured him. His collection “The Moon is Always in Transit” is inspired specifically by the works of legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
“I read [Neruda]’s ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ 25 or so years ago, and my head exploded,” he said. “Essentially what I took from that is he gave me the permission I needed to write the way I wanted to write, his voice resonated with me and I said, ‘This is the direction I want to go in,’ sort of being allowed to be romantic and maybe wander into magical realism.”
Wolf’s next collection of what he dubs “intimate poetry” will be published by the Bundy Museum Press.
“I’m older and I’m single … and I think writing poetry is in some ways a wish list,” he said. “I write all these things about love and beauty and romance because these are things that I’d like to live in, and this is where I want my head to be, and not having someone in particular doesn’t stop me from having all those experiences and writing about them in a hopeful way. There is some understanding that comes with years of experience and there’s an acceptance that comes with getting older, looking at the world and saying ‘I may want certain things, but I accept that I am the person who created my life and therefore this life is the choice I made.’”
After a lifetime of moving around, Wolf decided he wanted to live in upstate New York while visiting a friend in Greene years ago. He lived in Harpursville for seven years before moving to Binghamton, where he’s lived for the past 14 years. A furniture refinisher and antiques aficionado hailing from modern Long Island, Wolf has taken an interest in the historic offerings of post-industrial areas like the Triple Cities.
“It’s radically different,” he said. “Long Island is newer and there, most of the things you couch in this area as historical are gone or the few left are treated like museums. There’s something fascinating about the old buildings and the literal history that comes with that. You stand on a hill here and you can see the old Ansco [Camera] Factory which is now apartments — there’s a lot of that here.”
While a few poems, like 2015’s “Main Street,” reflect this change in setting, Wolf says most of his work focuses on people as opposed to places.
“I’m not primarily influenced by geography because as someone who’s traveled quite a bit, the world is the world,” he said. “People are who they are wherever they are, so writing about people is not necessarily place-specific.”
As a Binghamton community member, Wolf has hosted weekly open mics, first at RiverRead Books, a now-closed bookstore once located on Court Street, and now at the Bundy Museum of History and Art. He said the poetry scene was already active when he first arrived in the city, and events continue to see participation from a solid community of poets.
“The arts scene in general in this area is pretty robust,” he said. “There’s a lot of arts activity here, which makes sense in this sort of post-industrial city. People are gathering to do art … I’m impressed with the connectedness and the commitment people have to being part of this.”
Wolf said he ultimately aims to allow people to share the vision he’s presenting in his poetry, and he often feels closest to achieving this goal during local events.
“One of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me happened here in Binghamton,” he said. “When I was regularly attending open mics, someone said to me, ‘I heard you read and I decided that I wanted to do poetry and you inspired me.’ One of the great pleasures of writing is to read a piece aloud or have someone read something and have them say, ‘Wow, I get it, I have that experience’ or ‘I want that experience.’ It’s a sense of connection and a sense of being heard.”