Old poet, new playwright, I write to explore the underlying, often hidden patterns of everyday life, nature, and society.
In a lifetime of observation and travel, teaching and editing, but above all writing, I have created a raft of poems, as well as essays on social and political questions, an epistolary novel on the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. Now I may be about to launch a series of plays on aspects of the life of Elizabeth Bishop, one time U.S. poet laureate.
Born in Ossining, NY, ‘in the shadow of Sing-Sing,’ I grew up first on Mt. Airy Road in Croton-on-Hudson, my father taught at the progressive school, Hessian Hills and I was a student there. Next, I lived in Depression-Era Provincetown, followed by Manhattan and finally during World War II, Washington, D.C.; New York City, however, was the center of my universe. My mother was a native from the Gas House District, and my grandparents lived out their lives in the city. My mother married the artist, Jack Tworkov and lived with him in the Village. Later she and George F. Willison, my father, got together. “JoJo,” as I called him, was a non-academic ‘independent author,’ best-known for his book on the Pilgrims, was Saints & Strangers (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945). He was later National Editor for the WPA Writers Project’s State Guide Series, and then a speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee.
I graduated from high school in Saratoga Springs, NY, because my father’s best-seller, Saints & Strangers, gave my parents the money to purchase their first house, “South Hill,” the name given it by my parent’s friend, Katherine Anne Porter (Ship of Fools, Little, Brown, 1962), from whom they purchased the converted farmhouse in Saratoga County, New York. Living so close to the Writers’ Colony, Yaddo, a long list of writers came for dinner at South Hill, including a very young Truman Capote, who, afraid of a bat, sequestered himself in the coat closet one afternoon. Writer and activist Agnes Smedley (Daughter of Earth, Feminist Press, 1973) lived with us briefly after being cast out of Yaddo for her politics. KAP, as my parents called Katherine Anne (Porter), visited but could not stay—the dampness which had forced her to sell South Hill, worsened her asthma.
After high school, I attended Swarthmore and then Cornell for graduate work in sociology, anthropology, and Southeast Asian studies. I worked as a social research editor in NYC, and then taught at William & Mary, Princeton, Vassar, Union, Siena, and Tulane. I was a partner in a social science research firm, and also a manuscript editor for a long list of mostly academic books and articles, primarily in history and social science.
I’ve travelled, thanks especially to my wife, Martha K. Huggins, to all world continents except Antarctica, and lived for extended periods in the Netherlands, Brazil, and Japan. But the city with the greatest impact on my life, outside New York City, was New Orleans, where we lived before, during, and after hurricane Katrina (2005). Bubbling with life, music, art, and poetry, we grieved about leaving New Orleans after nine years, but we longed for our little place in Key West, Florida. There I stumbled on the house that Bishop had owned during the WWII era—it was just around the corner and could be seen from our shower window. In Brazil, I had been inside Elizabeth Bishop’s precarious historic hillside house that she had restored, located in the eighteenth century mining town, Ouro Preto. I followed Bishop’s trail back to her earlier house in Key West, where I began writing poems about the author herself and studied playwriting which led to my first short play, “A House of One’s Own.”