Poets Michelson and Tannenbaum at Featherstone

Poets Michelson and Tannenbaum at Featherstone

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Nationally recognized poets Richard Michelson and Judith Tannenbaum will read from their work at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs on Thursday, August 19. The reading starts at 6:30 pm.

A gallery owner and children’s book author as well as a poet, Mr. Michelson summers at his home in Oak Bluffs. California-based Ms. Tannenbaum has written about her work leading workshops at San Quentin Prison, collaborated with prison poet Spoon Jackson on a memoir, as well as published six poetry collections.

Mr. Michelson will read from his most recent book of poetry, “Battles and Lullabies,” named one of the 12 Best Books of 2006 by ForeWord. He began writing verse as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, earned an MFA from Godard College, and built a reputation for historically and politically based narrative writing. His latest poem, “Dead Negro,” appears in the Harvard Review.

Founding R. Michelson Gallery in Northampton in 1979 helped underwrite his poetic endeavors. He began by representing well-known illustrator Barry Moser, then added Leonard Baskin, and eventually a host of children’s book writers and illustrators, including Jane Yolen and Julius Lester. Most recently, he has curated an exhibition of photography by Leonard Nimoy, showing at Michelson Gallery and at MassMOCA through October.

Early on, when Mr. Moser asked Mr. Michelson if he thought the artist should accept a request to illustrate the children’s story “Brer Rabbit,” Mr. Michelson told him it was a terrible idea. “What are you going to do, paint watercolor bunnies?” he said.

The project went forward anyway, and as Mr. Michelson investigated the world of children’s books, he discovered that the best of the art was equal to what he displayed in his gallery, and the writing often “as exquisite as a poem.”

He began writing children’s books himself and met with instant success. “Did You Say Ghosts,” with illustrations by Mr. Baskin, was named to the 10 Best Children’s Books of the Year by the New Yorker Magazine. A string of award-winning books have followed, including “As Good As Anybody,” “Animals That Ought to Be,” “A Is From Abraham” and, most recently, “Busing Brewster.”

“My reputation as a children’s book writer has very much eclipsed my reputation as a poet, because poetry does not sell as well,” he says. “But I still consider myself primarily a poet.”

Even in his children’s books, his first drafts are written as poetry. Then the editors reset it as prose. “I’ve never gotten used to that,” he says. “It’s probably one of the reasons reviewers talk about the rhythm and the beauty of the language.”

The Michelson Gallery became the first in the nation to treat illustration as fine art, carrying work by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Eric Carle, Mo Willems, and Jules Feiffer. “It’s kind of lovely,” he says. “We get people flying in from all over.”

Mr. Michelson is three-quarters done with a new poetry collection, in which he will further explore issues he’s become known for — race, heritage, and identity. His children’s book, “Lipman Pike: America’s First Homerun King,” will be published in February.

Other books coming out soon include one on the Martha’s Vineyard Ag Fair, to be illustrated by Caldecott medalist illustrator Mary Azarian. In addition to “Battles and Lullabies,” Mr. Michelson will read selections from his children’s books.

Judith Tannenbaum’s book, “Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin,” was a PEN American Center finalist in 2001. She has also written two books for teachers, “Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes, Writing Poetry in the Primary Grades,” and with Valerie Chow Bush, “Jump In! Creative Writing Exercises for Diverse Communities, Grades 6 to 12.”

In addition to teaching at San Quentin, she had led workshops at prisons in eight states. A resident of the San Francisco Bay area, her poetry publications include a book, four chapbooks, a portfolio of poems, and individual poems in more than five dozen periodicals and collections.

The Featherstone reading is funded in part by the Pathways Projects Institute of Marianne Goldberg.

Poetry Reading, 6:30–7:30 pm, Thursday, Aug. 19, Featherstone, Oak Bluffs. $5 suggested donation. 508-693-1850; featherstoneart.org.

Brooks Robards is a frequent contributor to The Times, who divides her time between Northampton and Oak Bluffs.