A mysterious stranger became the highlight of the poetry night at Che’s Lounge two weeks ago. Here’s how former West Tisbury poet laureate Dan Waters, one of the 70 or so people who crowded the Vineyard Haven cafe that evening, describes it:
“A tall, 90-year-old man walked in with a sheaf of poems — which happens all the time — and started reading. Every poem was preceded by an anecdote. They were humorous, and it was amazing.”
Linda Black, who with husband Michael West hosts the biweekly poetry nights at Che’s as part of their Island Voices series, adds: “His poetry was very cerebral and wry. We’d love to find him again.”
The Island Voices series is presented at a variety of venues, including the Vineyard Haven Public Library, Che’s and, now with this Sunday’s Poetry at the Yard event, at the performing arts theatre in Chilmark. The burgeoning program continues to reach out to diverse groups of Islanders; the Yard event will incorporate wire sculpture by Steve Lohman and a deejay dance party as well as poets Linda Black, Michael West, Justen Ahren, Samantha Barrow, Richard Skidmore and Ben Williams, with Rose Styron as the featured poet.
The Che’s Lounge readings, which will soon incorporate music and other performing arts, have proven to be a mixing board for traditional poets, emerging hip-hop lyricists, humorists, verse memoirists and everything in between.
Ms. Black has made it her mission to promote performance poetry on the Vineyard. She and Mr. West talk about the tradition upon which they are hoping to build: “There used to be world-class poetry events on the Island in the 50s and 60s,” she says. And, as a renaissance of the post-war phenomenon ushers in a new class of beat poets, the Vineyard, as it so often does, proves itself the perfect environment for a multi-generational synthesis of a popular trend, bringing together existing groups of writers Mr. Waters describes as “pockets of poetry” into a unified literary community.
Ms. Black, whose long and illustrious career as a poet includes a yearlong contract working with the United Nations on the Global Meeting of Generations Project 10 years ago, brought her coffeeshop formula from Canada when she moved here permanently in 1995. Starting out at the Wintertide, Ms. Black has hosted poetry events at a number of different local venues. Her collaboration with other poetic circles was firmly cemented when she married Mr. West, a very accomplished poet in his own right, and formed alliances with others who had their own established followings.
Although poetry might be considered a solitary secluded pursuit, the husband and wife team stresses that their approach steers towards performance and bringing writers together. Although his background is in literary magazines and other publications, Mr. West has moved on to promoting the spoken tradition. “I’m not that into publishing anymore,” he says. Ms. Black, who has released two compact discs of her work, reiterates the sentiment, saying, “I’m not a page poet. I’m strictly spoken word.”
Rose Styron has, for most of her career, been uniquely situated to observe the ebbs and flows of the international poetry scene. While in Paris, she and her husband, the late William Styron, counted among their friends and acquaintances many of the American beat poets. While in Rome in the fifties, the two forged an association with the circle of renowned Irish poets who were living and working in Italy at the time.
Explaining the phenomenon of greater acceptance of poetry in this country, Mrs. Styron comments, “I think there has been an explosion in poetry — in the interest in it, as well as the writing — since 9/11. I was very aware that poetry in this country had been lagging behind the rest of the world in popularity. Suddenly after 9/11, people felt the need for poetry.” She notes that she was called upon shortly after our American tragedy to write and participate in a number of readings in New York. “I think dramatic events create a need for poetry. In Russia and Eastern Europe, poetry had been seminal during the times of repression.
“For years poets in Russia and Latin America have been admired like rock stars,” she says, adding that America has caught up with rest of the world. ”There are now more poetry readings in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, which was not always true. We were in the backwater.”
Lifelong poet Fan Ogilvie, who recently had a book of her work published by Ex Libris, has hosted poetry events with Mrs. Styron for years. The two met while serving on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and in the eighties and early nineties they hosted parties on the Vineyard featuring world-class poets. “Once a year we hosted a major poet,” says Ms. Ogilvie. “My formula was to have a dinner for the poet and mix it with another art, either music or dance. We blended the arts.”
Now Ms. Ogilvie, encouraged by the response to a reading two years ago by the renowned Billy Collins, has established a summer poetry series at the Featherstone Center of the Arts. She remarks on her personal spoken, versus written, verse history: “I go from public to private pretty regularly. I do feel an obligation to make poetry available. I find that great poetry is the graduate school of life. To quote Walt Whitman, ‘To have great poetry we must have great audiences.’ I would add, to have great audiences, they must hear great poetry.”
And so, she will be hosting accomplished Islanders (such as Fanny Howe, July 16; Donald Nitchie and Honor Moore, August 20) as well as world renowned poets (Billy Collins returns August 2, Naomi Nye reads August 29) at the Oak Bluffs campus for the arts.
The solitary poet has emerged from nooks all over the Island. “Roll over a rock and you’re likely to find an accomplished poet,” says Mr. West, stressing: “Our mantra is inclusion.” Each Island Voices event is curated by an individual who chooses the participating artists, with the single caveat that the reading must be followed by an open mike.
The venues are ready, the poets are willing and the public is now able to participate, as increased community support has made it possible to forge a poetry society incorporating the old and the young, the professional and the formative, the hesitant as well as the extroverted.
Che’s owner P.J. Woodford says, “I think poetry has just been waiting for a venue. Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” And he’s thrilled that folks are turning out in large numbers to support the burgeoning scene. “The readings are free, but people are buying food and coffee. We’ve finally turned that corner where I can offer entertainment as a viable part of my business.” He adds, “It’s a growing, organized entity, nurtured by the performers, the audiences and the community at large.”
Partly because of the new focus at Che’s, which is to offer more sophisticated entertainment with wider age range appeal, Mr. Woodford sees a change in the ambience of the newly redecorated cafe, particularly during the poetry nights. “When the lights are low, the candles are lit and there’s a murmur of conversation in the background, for a minute — there’s magic.”
And you never know who might walk in the door, sheaf of poems in hand.
Poetry at the Yard with Rose Styron, Linda Black, Michael West, Justen Ahren, Samantha Barrow, Richard Skidmore and Ben Williams begins Sunday, July 5, at 7 p.m. at the Yard on Middle road in Chilmark. Tickets include wine bar, refreshments and a dance party with deejay David Kish in the tent following the reading. Cost is $15 for under-30 and seniors; $25 general seating, or $50 premium seating, available at the door or by calling 508-645-9662.