If you can follow the zigzag path of the second annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival, you could probably make it off the quixotic island featured in the television show Lost without breaking a sweat. It starts with readings in Amherst, roams through Berkshire County, Fall River . . . well, let’s not tax ourselves with geography; the relevant bit for Islanders is that the event touched down in Vineyard Haven last Thursday night, Oct. 15, at the Louisa Gould Gallery, and some of our key Vineyard poets participated with their usual élan.
Mixed media added to the sensuous, richly textured quality of the event. To the strains of William Waterway Marks’s Indian flutes (from which the writer / environmentalist / musician is able to summon sounds from some unfathomable celestial plane) the performing poets stood before a large oil painting by Deborah Colter, a mix of rich indigos, purples, and blues; despite having a certain metropolitan edge, the image shimmered in a deep sea.
The unifying theme of the event was Hard Times, but the range of the poets’ imaginations wafted those present from solar flares to sad sambas to red candle-light flowers. The ever-charming poet and master of ceremonies Mike West kicked off the evening by introducing landscaper-poet Justen Ahren, who first read a poem by one of his favorites, Hayden Carruth, then segued to a gem of his own about a sleepy village awakened by war: “A plume of black smoke rose in the northeast of the city / A woman, hair come loose, ran the streets / screaming about an army in beards lynching.”
Poet Linda Black, dark hair flowing down the front of her black coat, ever mesmerizing and partially singing, shared a poem that evolved from a dream of an old lady in a rocking chair. Next, poet laureate of West Tisbury Fan Ogilvie, her twiggy figure clad in black boots, jeans, a grey tweed jacket and a voluminous silver scarf, read one of her latest poems, entitled Waves.
Poet Niko Nousiopoulos, a young woman with dark brows, striking features, and straight blond hair falling to her shoulders read of the superstitions and the sorrows of her father’s now extinct Greek village.
Island icon, poet and printer Dan Waters revealed a hitherto unknown (to this reporter at least) dimension to his life: his years growing-up in Brazil. His bilingualism was on display during guitar-accompanied songs in two languages.
Next Island writer-poet Richard Skidmore, in his own inimitable, part-sardonic, part-twinkly manner, read a series of short poems, To Live We Must Kill, The Trees Die and one of three poems from his trilogy, 3 For Janis (the Janis, it turns out, was his old buddy, Janis Joplin.)
Mike West read his own punchy poem, Talkin’ Disillusion Blues, then introduced West Tisbury poet Lee McCormack who, according to the latter, had to be dragged from his hermitage by the former. Mr. McCormack’s poem Longing and Loss: A Fugue may have served as the breath-stopper of the evening, with such lines as “Can we survive, not by relieving/ pain and feeling, but by abiding totally, willingly / in the tangled shapes love makes when we let it take us into another’s unknown, despite our natural fear?”
From the current Martha’s Vineyard Residency program, writer Gladys Swan read a poem to honor her first visit to the Island after 40 years of summers on a lake in Maine. Edgartown writer Ellie Bates shared a poem about a fleeing 17-year-old girl in the midst of an Iraqi so-called honor killing. “The news [of the killing] was on page 12 [of the newspaper], the news of the war on page 1,” quoted Ms. Bates. At whose door, in other words, does the source of the violence reside?
A half-smile often played across Mr. West’s face during the recitations, as if he knew this group of self-described survivors have had enough real-life experience to take hard times mostly in stride.
The evening’s poetic treatment of hard times included the grit and rasp of pain and suffering in every aspect of the human condition, but also included echoes of hope and happiness.
In his simple biographical details, Lee McCormack put hard times in a relaxed perspective: “You can say I’m a writer / artist / cabinet and guitar-maker living a simple life as a hermit in the dank and mouldy woods of West Tisbury, and a year-round Island artist in residence the last 36 years. While I am so poor I can’t even pay attention, I love being alive, and my dog’s name is Mr. Beans. He loves being alive too!”