Welcome to the parlor of Cleaveland House in West Tisbury. The room is small and cozy. There is a fireplace and three windows to let in the afternoon light. But there is more furniture than one might expect for such a small space: a chair, a bench, an armchair, a long couch, a rocking chair, a chair with a coordinating footstool.
And on a recent Wednesday, every seat is taken up by Island poets who have gathered to share their work. The poets bring along copies of their poems, some handwritten in perfect script, some typed. Some poems are sparse while others fill both sides of the paper. All are early drafts which will be read aloud twice, once by the author, and once by another member of the group so the writer can more effectively hear the rhythm of the language. The work will be discussed and shaped — “take out the ‘the’ in this stanza, tighten that thought, I love this line right here.” The discussion is frank and congenial, always with the same goal in mind: make the poems all that they can be.
“I was used to writing in a vacuum,” said William Waterway of Edgartown. Mr. Waterway joined the group 20 years ago at the urging of its founder, the late Dionis Coffin Riggs. He still remembers the heart-pounding feeling of sharing personal work for the first time at Cleaveland House, and the thrill of hearing fellow poets discuss his writing.
“The suggestions are just amazing. They see things in your poem that you didn’t,” he said.
“You have to consider that anything you do the first time is a rough draft, and then you rework it,” said Judith Neeld of Edgartown, a previous winner of the Emily Dickinson Prize. Mrs. Neeld has participated in the group since the early 1980s. But poetry has been discussed at Cleaveland House far longer. A new collection of poetry by the group, featuring 108 poems by 16 current members, celebrates 50 years of Cleaveland House gatherings. No other Island group of poets has met for so long, or so consistently. The group’s longevity is a testament to both its founder and to the importance of collaboration.
“Writing is a solitary occupation, and you need the atmosphere that gets stirred up by having other creative people around you,” said author Cynthia Riggs, Dionis’ daughter. Ms. Riggs provides the parlor setting (and mint tea in the summertime) and occasionally sits in on the meetings. Cleaveland House has been in the Riggs family for eight generations. Little has changed there since Ms. Riggs’ childhood, she said, aside from the electricity her parents installed in the 1950s.
Some time after the electricity was installed, Dionis founded the poetry group. Over the course of her life, Dionis would publish more than 1,000 poems in publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor and Kansas City Star to the Vineyard Gazette and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
“She was writing all the time,” Cynthia Riggs recalled.
Over the years the poetry group dwindled, and when Dionis died in 1997 there were only a handful of poets still coming to the weekly meetings. They weren’t sure whether to continue in the wake of the loss of their founder, but Cynthia Riggs encouraged moving forward.
“I said, Of course you should still meet,” she recalled. “It’s a tribute to my mother.”
Still, numbers remained low until Mr. Waterway embarked on a mission to fully revive Cleaveland House poetry gatherings. Today there are about 24 members.
“It’s still a quality organization,” Mrs. Neeld said.
The current book project was initially conceived as a follow-up to a 2009 publication, but it took on new meaning after a chance discovery by Mr. Waterway.
“We didn’t know [Cleaveland House poetry] was 50 years old,” Mr. Waterway said.
Until two weeks ago everybody thought the group’s true age was somewhere in the forty-year range. But while doing research for a separate project on the Gay Head Light, Mr. Waterway found an unassuming volume of poetry entitled Martha’s Vineyard on an auction website. He noticed the book featured Dionis Coffin Riggs and three other Cleaveland House poets, and decided to bid on it. The volume was printed in 1965, and Mr. Waterway had an epiphany: the poetry group must have been meeting for at least a few years prior to the publication date, which would make it far older than anyone considered.
The current book was already on its way to the printer so Mr. Waterway halted production and reworked the volume to celebrate the long history of Cleaveland House. The timing of his find was “eerie,” he said. “I got chills.”
The poems in Cleaveland House Poets, 50 Years were chosen more than two years ago, making the book a time capsule of sorts for each of the 16 authors.
“It’s so interesting [because] poetry is really about the moment of change,” said contributor Susan Puciul, reflecting back on the poems she chose to be included in the book. She has been with the group for four years. “In looking back I’m not so sure I would have picked those poems. I’m out of that skin.”
“What I chose was what was most immediate to me at the time,” she added.
There is no one type of poetry favored by the writers and the book reflects this anything goes attitude toward creativity, even to the point of inventing new words.
“You never know who’s going to say what when . . . there’s humor, there’s wit, there’s profundity,” said Mr. Waterway.
“You can do anything in poetry,” added Mrs. Neeld. “You do not have to follow the rules.”
The snow came gently, softly,
White and light as feathers
Slanting downward in the night.
Each alder twig, each tall, proud reed,
Bowed to the weight of whiteness;
The thin crisp ice was spread
With a coat of snow.
But all night long the swans
Had beaten strong white wings
Against the snow, against the ice
That clasped the edges of the pond.
The morning, calm and cool,
The swans were floating
In the clear blue water of their pool.
— Dionis Coffin Riggs
Your wall of stone
has stood strong all along,
your rocks carefully placed
to block out light and space.
You cannot fall and seldom chip,
your course cannot be changed.
I am beside you,
millions of years
I’m the unused mortar,
shaped by storms of tears,
impenetrable — as you are.
I am not needed.
I never was.
I can no longer fit
between your cracks.
Even if you let me,
I can not move your stones.
— Annette Sandrock
The House Is Sold
Come with your thin
Pointed shovel. I want you
To have the pink amaryllis
That blooms under
The east window.
Take the daphne
That grows by the kitchen door.
It needs care. Last year
When I went away
It nearly died.
The new people
Won’t know where to look
For fritillaria, but we must leave
Something beautiful for them
— Dionis Coffin Riggs