This month’s West Village Original is poet and writer George Held, born in White Plains, NY. He has published fifteen volumes of poetry, including a trilogy of chapbooks on nature themes, and his work has been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac.” A graduate of Brown, with a Ph.D. from Rutgers, he was a Fulbright lecturer and is a former long-time professor at Queens College, CUNY.
“I love the Village,” writer and long-time resident George Held admits. “I think it’s still a great place for a writer. There’s a sense of creativity going on all around. I love the literary history and I know where all the great writers lived. In fact, when I first moved here, Marianne Moore and I banked at the same place on Sixth Avenue!”
Growing up in Westchester, Held had his parents to thank for opening up the world of literature to him. “My parents read a lot themselves and they read to me when I was little,” he recalls. “I think they made me very partial to the printed word and I was a good student in English throughout school. I ended up majoring in English in college. My parents had a pretty good library as well, with a lot of books that became classics. They seemed to have an eye for buying a new book that was later regarded as having some substance.”
How did Held become a writer? “Well, I started out as a kind of academic writer doing literary criticism and I always found that a mixed blessing,” he says. “I enjoyed the research, less of the writing, and even less trying to get those essays published!” In the early 1980s, Held developed a condition called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and took a sabbatical during which time he was supposed to do academic writing but wasn’t feeling well enough to do so. “I started to write poetry because I thought it took less concentrated energy,” he says, laughing. “I started to send them around and getting them accepted. I was encouraged and I’ve continued to write creatively—poetry, fiction, translations, and books reviews—ever since. But I’m especially fond of poetry.”
“I really love to write,” Held continues. “I’ve always had a lively imagination. What usually happens is that I will think of, remember, or see something that creates images in my mind. Then the words come next. In the last few years I’ve been trying to write poetry that’s more spare than in the past. I write a lot of Haiku and teach it at workshops. I like to use word play and wit and I think that is also more conducive to a shorter form.”
Held moved into the West Village in 1967. “I came with my PhD in hand and my job at Queens College starting in the fall of that year,” he says. A year later he worked on Norman Mailer’s mayoral campaign. “Mailer was a Village habitué,” Held says. “You’d see him in bars and at the Village Voice office. There used to be a bowling alley above Sheridan Square and that’s where I folded envelopes for his campaign. He and Jimmy Breslin were running as Mayor and Lieutenant Mayor. Their slogan was ‘Throw the rascals out!’”
Held says there’s no two ways about the fact that the Village has gone way upscale since his arrival. “The people you see on the street in the morning going to work are well dressed and carrying briefcases now. When I first came here, people wore casual dress and they didn’t look very prosperous. They were here because the rents were affordable. Now it’s exactly the opposite. I suppose it’s just the way of the world. I know people love to gripe about it but I don’t see what we who love the old Village can do to keep our fingers in the dyke.”
For now, it’s an unusual arrangement that Held has with his wife that enables them to stay here. “My wife lives in a co-op a block away from me,” he says. “That’s because we kept our apartments when we married. We met in 1978 and married in 2002! We’ve known each other all those years and we just stayed put. We both love the Village and we feel the best way to enjoy it—and afford it—is to keep our own respective apartments.” There are perks to this arrangement as well. “I must say it’s the envy of a large number of our married friends,” he says, laughing heartily.
Photo of George Held by Maggie Berkvist.