In the Wampanoag language, the word “noepe” means, according to one interpretation, a still place among the currents. The Wampanoag people gave the name Noepe to this Island to indicate that it was a piece of dry land among opposing tidal currents.
In downtown Edgartown, a still place exists at the intersection of three roads. It is a refuge of sorts, which has for years provided shelter and peace of mind to visiting artists.
Last Thursday evening, Island poet Justen Ahren announced the launch of a writing nonprofit called the Noepe Center for Literary Arts at this site, the former Point Way Inn building at 104 Main street. The Noepe Center will encompass the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency, summer writing workshops and eventually a year-round speaker series and educational programs for visitors and locals, including Island youth.
Since 2007 Mr. Ahren has directed the writers’ residency at the Point Way Inn during the shoulder seasons. This year he takes the helm of the entire building, reinventing it as a literary arts center. The center has a new board of directors, which includes several Island writers.
This summer’s programming features four writing workshops. The first, titled A Monastic Approach to Writing Creatively, will be taught by Mr. Ahren. The second, taught by Elizabeth Rosner, is designed for all genres and levels of accomplishment. The third is a poetry workshop. In August, Deb Dunn, literacy coordinator at the Charter School, will lead a weeklong retreat for children’s book writers. Workshop participants are invited to stay at the center for an additional charge.
The Noepe Center is also collaborating with Featherstone Center for the Arts to present four poetry readings at the Pathways Featherstone Noepe summer festival of poetry. The poets are Marie Howe, John Koethe, Billy Collins and Natalie Handal. On July 24, Noepe will host Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico, at their site in Edgartown. She will speak about her novel which is based on interviews with female victims of human trafficking.
The dining room and adjacent parlors of the inn are light-filled and decorated with Vineyard-themed artifacts and nautical art. During the day, residency writers often choose to hole up in their rooms, type at the dining room table or find a quiet spot amid the lush vegetation and sculptures. In the evenings, they discuss their craft over a potluck dinner and a “bottle or three of wine,” said residency writer, Jack Sonni.
“They all express how creative they are when they are here and how much they get done,” Mr. Ahren said. “I think that has a lot to do with what’s embodied in the place, a still place, between currents...” he said.
Anna Sequoia, who has attended three other writing residencies, said the atmosphere at Mr. Ahren’s is unusually supportive. “This is the one where I do the best work, I do the fastest work, and I have the most fun,” she said. “The environment is obviously lovely, Justen is so kind and so generous and such a visionary.”
At the Noepe Center, writers pay $200 a week for lodging and supply their own food. They are not pressured to produce anything.
“I am not concerned whether they write 100 pages or 20 or complete a manuscript while they are here,” Mr. Ahren said.
Mr. Ahren has been involved in residency programs where the “people running it are standoffish,” and enforce a two-tiered hierarchy, saying, “we are the professional writers, and you are here to learn,” he said. The publishing world is competitive enough, he added. “We don’t need the creative process to be that way. It should be joyous.”
Mr. Sonni arrived on the Vineyard with the hope of completing a memoir. He’s a cook, musician and writer, and he was living in Brooklyn, New York when he heard about the opportunity. “It was one of those things where I was like, I’ll never get in,” he recalled. Mr. Sonni has been living in the top attic room at the Center for a few months now, writing in the dining room and enjoying the company of the other writers, especially when they share their work with each other.
“The atmosphere here is just really wonderful, it’s incredible, it’s this little cocoon, a little oasis really,” he said. “The house itself has such a wonderful vibe.”
While some of the writers are “really accomplished, others are struggling to make it happen, like me,” Mr. Sonni said. “I almost don’t want to say come here because I always want to be able to come. It’s like giving away my secret surf spot . . . .”
Sara Goudarzi, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, will stay at the residency for two weeks. She is working on her first novel, which deals with fate and identity. “Justen has provided us with a fabulous gift,” she said. “I could never find the time or space like this where I live.
A line from a poem of hers was printed on a paper streamer hanging from a tree outside the inn, along with quotes from Island-affiliated writers past and present.
“Before the geraniums fainted, and the grapes raisined . . . I was a poet,” it read.
The Point Way Inn was built as a sea captain’s residence in 1851. By 1979 it had become a bed and breakfast. Claudia Miller, a sculptor and major supporter of the Island arts community, ran the Point Way as an inn between 1998 and 2004, at which point she began hosting artists free of charge during the summer months. Through her Artists Point the Way program she accommodated actors from the Playhouse, dancers with the Yard, and visual artists from Featherstone, as well as many others. Her vision for the center was not unlike Mr. Ahren’s. She described the visiting artists program to a Gazette reporter as an “old fashioned Paris cafe,” where creative types could come and exchange ideas.
Mr. Ahren’s mother, Deborah Brown, was manager of the Point Way Inn and subsequently, the Artists Point the Way program. She stepped down from that position last year, and Mr. Ahren saw an opportunity to reinvent it. Ms. Miller still owns the property, though she spends much of the year in Europe.
Mr. Ahren’s vision may be more specific to writing but it is still very ambitious. “I would like the Noepe Center to be known as one of the preeminent writing communities, workshops and residencies in the world,” he said.
An important piece of the mission of the organization is to inspire Island youth to embrace writing as a lifelong outlet for expression.
“It’s something they can do throughout their lives . . . writing is like jazz. It’s okay to be a jazz musician when you’re old,” he said.
In his courses, Mr. Ahren tries to dispel the notion that there is a right way to write, “as if it’s this magical form that’s really unattainable.” He said he finds high school writing to be “very inspiring and edgy,” and wants to make them feel part of a writing community.
Mr. Ahren enjoyed writing as a kid, but felt alone in this passion. “If I had known others were out there it would have been a lot easier,” he said. In bringing more writing programming to high-schoolers, he hopes to give them a community in which to belong.
The Island is a fitting community for a literary arts center because it appreciates artistic expression, he said. “People here tend to recognize what you do for your heart.”