Last Friday afternoon, three poets laureate of the Vineyard gathered around a table at the Gazette office to reflect on their growth as poets, from a solitary practice to reaching beyond those boundaries in their respective communities. Steve Ewing traveled from Chappaquiddick where he was working at his day job as a dock builder, and Justen Ahren and Dan Waters drove from West Tisbury and their other lives as a landscaper and owner of Indian Hill Press, respectively.
Tonight, July 17, all three poets, joined by Fan Ogilvie, will read at the annual Pathways-Featherstone Summer Festival of Poetry at Featherstone Center for the Arts. The poets laureate are the first in a summer lineup that includes Carolyn Forche, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. All shows begin at 7 p.m.
“For me it’s a lot less about what I’m writing and more about how I’m living that really says to me whether I’m a poet or not,” Mr. Ahren said. “There’s a saying . . . about experiencing the awe of life and when you do that you have a life of wonder. For me poetry is putting down that experience of awe. We really are in this magical existence and if I can translate that at all, that’s what I try and do with my work now.”
For Mr. Ahren, finding the awe in life didn’t always translate to poetry. Sometimes it came to him in the form of music, and when he was 21 years old he “quit poetry” and focused on his music for several years.
“And then I read William Carlos Williams’ [poem] Paterson and there was that ah-ha moment,” he recalled. “He wrote a poem of history that encompassed American history, a city, people; it was everything in a poem, a long poem, it was a way I hadn’t thought before.”
Mr. Ahren noted an excerpt from another one of Mr. Williams’s poems, Asphadel, That Greeny Flower, that comments on the interplay between community and poetry.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” Mr. Ahren recited. “I like to think about what is it that we don’t have . . . what is it that poetry has, that we really have to go back to, that really makes us human?”
For Mr. Waters, what began as part of a job has turned into distinctive verse. Mr. Waters started writing poetry as a typesetter at the Gazette, penning short poems “to fill holes in the newspaper” after writer Joseph Chase Allen left the Gazette.
“I’m not a long [form] writer, brevity suits me. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t started working a form [Mr. Allen] had worked in so well. I would sit here in the attic of the Gazette or during summer I’d sit in the park somewhere and write whatever came to mind. Those are the rules — it has to be short and sweet and whatever comes to mind, and the subjects are the whole world.”
Mr. Allen used his initials J.C.A. and Mr. Waters thought it appropriate to use his, D.A.W.
“When people finally did meet me and discovered I was writing [the poems] they were shocked and would say, I thought you were a wise old woman,” he laughed.
Mr. Ewing said one of his greatest pleasures these days is meeting people who read his poems, people he grew up with and will likely grow old with, who approach him for the first time as a poet. Growing up on the Vineyard, Mr. Ewing began writing poetry at the Edgartown School. It was there he had teachers who encouraged him to keep writing, he said, no matter the quality of the prose. After living in New York city for some time where he worked renting rowboats in Central Park, Mr. Ewing returned to the Vineyard and took up dock building. But he never stopped writing.
“You get pigeon holed, I don’t know if you guys get pigeon holed as poets but I get pigeon holed as a dock builder. We don’t have a lot of brains necessarily . . . it’s when people I’ve grown up with . . . come up to me and say, great poem, that really captures this or that, that to me is nice. I like that. I didn’t write for that, I didn’t think of that necessarily, but there it is.”
Recently, Mr. Ewing read one of his poems on the town meeting floor of the Old Whaling Church, the only formal requirement of being a town’s poet laureate.
“For me it was really poignant because I used to light the candles in that church when I was a kid,” he said. “We’ve had funerals . . . that’s what started me writing, was funerals. I’ve written poems for my parents and my brothers when they died. I read them in that church. So to stand up in that church with an overflow crowd of people, and nobody died, was kind of cool for me.”
Mr. Ewing said he walked out of the church knowing he “nailed it.”
“It wasn’t a great poem necessarily but I think I presented it well, they could hear the words and you could have heard a pin drop the entire time,” he said. “It was copy of a poem I wrote for [President] Obama about the ship at sea kind of thing. I tried to give him an incentive to push forward. I sent it to [Vice President] Joe Biden because I met him at the gas station.”
Mr. Ewing claimed traces of his work can be found in Mr. Obama’s stump speeches, even his metaphor for moving forward harks back to Mr. Ewing’s stanzas.
“I’m not kidding you,” he said. “It sounds stupid, but it’s so funny and coincidental.”
Mr. Waters wasn’t surprised.
“Poetry is in the subconscious and can bubble up in somebody’s head,” he said.
While Mr. Ewing’s poetry may be playing an influence on national politics, Mr. Waters liked to use his role as poet laureate to bring local politics back down to earth. Mr. Waters was the West Tisbury poet laureate from 2006 until 2008. The requirements for writing a town meeting poem were quite different than his normal, shorter, four-lined poetry, he said.
“To write a poem for town meeting is a very specific task. You are writing a poem for perhaps 400 people who have gathered for a reason that has nothing to do with poetry. They are there to endorse a budget, or dogs or beaches or whatever happens to be the big thing at the moment, and here you are going to stand up and read a poem. It may be the only poem they’ve heard all year and it better be worth their while. It’s one of the most demanding things you can do.”
Town meeting is a sacred ritual, Mr. Waters said, but a ritual that requires humor.
“It’s very important to have humor, to be able to laugh at yourself, step back and see yourself in the scope of things. It’s not all about the moment,” he said.
When they’re not preparing for town meeting (Mr. Ahren will have his first chance come next April), the poets look to sources beyond their neighbors for inspiration. Mr. Waters and Mr. Ahren both look to their musical catalogues, and tonight they’ll perform a song or two together.
“I’ve been really into songwriting lately, part of it is the economy of it — songs can’t bare a lot of dense language, you really have to come to the point and ideally it’s a point that can be said twice,” Mr. Waters said.
Mr. Ahren said he looks for new voices in new music to help him with his poetry. “I’m always looking for different music that I can write across the line,” he said.
Mr. Ewing said he could relate from afar.
“I’m real tone deaf,” he said. “I wrote a prayer that my sister in law [Lizzy Bradley] turned into a song and it blew me away. Here’s this poem and all the sudden it got legs and left the room . . . I didn’t cry but I could have easily. It was so beautiful.”
But long before any work goes public, whether through song or spoken word, writing takes dedication, practice and the ability to self-reflect.
“[Poetry] makes you see things in a way you wouldn’t normally see because you already have a receptacle for that experience, it opens up another eye,” Mr. Waters said. “Suddenly you’re sensitized to life in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be. You have a place to put that, a way to process it, a place to process it and a reason to process it. That takes it deeper.”
Mr. Ahren used to wait for inspiration to strike but now sits down to write every morning at 9 a.m.
“What I’ve been thinking about now is that it’s a practice, in a way, that a monk might practice a devotion to a higher being, a higher power,” he said. “It takes that same sort of devotion. I don’t mean that in a serious way. It’s a ritual, a daily practice and way of forcing myself to see, to look, to stop, to slow down, to breathe.”
The Poets Laureate read tonight at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and sold on the day of the event beginning at 6 p.m. Carolyn Forche reads on July 29, Terrance Hayes on August 7 and Jorie Graham on August 14. For more information, visit featherstoneart.org.