Martha’s Vineyard poets take part in statewide poetry reading

Poet Michael West leads a discussion with, from left, Christine Ferrone, Andrea Quigley (partially hidden), Holly Nadler, Judy Miller, and Ellie Bates on Tuesday, April 19.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Poet Michael West leads a discussion with, from left, Christine Ferrone, Andrea Quigley (partially hidden), Holly Nadler, Judy Miller, and Ellie Bates on Tuesday, April 19.

Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e.e. Cummings, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Sylvia Plath, and Edgar Allen Poe — a pretty impressive lineup of some of the giants in the world of poetry — were all raised and worked in Massachusetts (Longfellow was born in what is now known as Portland, Maine, which was then a district of Massachusetts).

And our home state continues to foster talented poets, seven of whom will be the featured authors of a series of poems to be read and discussed statewide in an event called Common Threads.

The Vineyard Haven Library is participating in the organized Poetry Month initiative with a goal of having 10,000 people throughout the state read and discuss seven poems during the month of April. On Tuesday, April 19, three of the chosen poems were read and discussed by a small group at the library and the remaining four poems will be featured next Wednesday, April 27.

Martha’s Vineyard itself boasts a number of talented, and in many cases, accomplished, poets, including Michael West, who led the group discussion Tuesday night.

Jane Brown, a long time member of the Cleaveland Group Poets, whose work was included in that group’s publication “Wednesday’s Poets,” died Tuesday, April 19, the day of the event, and was honored by two of her fellow Cleaveland Group members with a brief memorial presentation at Tuesday’s reading. William Waterway played one of his hand-carved Native American flutes, which he commented was Ms. Brown’s favorite of his collection, and Judith Neeld read two of the late poet’s works. A number of the other members of the group were in attendance and it was a lovely and appropriate eulogy.

Mr. West began the readings with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called “In the Waiting Room.” Prefacing the reading, Mr. West called the work a “very mysterious poem.” The most narrative and literal of the evening’s three poems, the group gathered at the library spent a good deal of time dissecting the work — a reflection on a childhood experience.

Ms. Neeld then read “Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky, and Holly Nadler read James Tate’s “The Lost Pilot.” A lively conversation followed each reading, with participants not only weighing in with opinion and conjecture, but also providing additional information. Andrea Quigley was well-informed on the backgrounds of the poets, and Mr. Waterway was able to share some information on Eastern mysticism that was helpful in comprehending the samurai philosophy. Ms. Neeld recommended another poem by Pinsky, which was published in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

Mr. West, who has taught poetry and fiction at American University and Northeastern University, did an excellent job at seeding the discussion and encouraging group participation. “I love reading other people’s work because it inspires me to understand and appreciate what others have seen and conveyed,” he said.

Mr. West has a talent for reading his own and others’ work, and he added a great deal to the evening by pointing out and explaining some of the techniques used by poets. His love of language and rhythm was evident and infectious.

Although a handbook with suggested questions was available to groups hosting Common Threads events, Betty Burton, the library’s events coordinator, opted instead to involve local poets and leave the discussions open-ended. She said, “We’re trying to expand our programming to include a number of participatory events. It’s so engaging for the audience.” She noted that the Great Decisions series, a PBS-sponsored program of moderated discussions that she presented earlier this year, was a huge success.

Mr. West, along with fellow poet Clark Myers, will be hosting the second part of the program next Wednesday, which will include works by Massachusetts poets Louise Glück, Alan Dugan, Suji Kwock Kim, and Kevin Young, with Dan Waters and other local poets among the readers.

Mr. Myers and Mr. West have been rallying for a library-hosted series of poetry-related events and Mr. West was pleased to have the opportunity to kick off an ongoing poetry initiative with the discussion evenings. Mr. West hopes to bring poetry readings, workshops, and further discussion events to the Vineyard Haven library, which he refers to as “a destination for the mind.”

Common Threads Poetry Discussion, Wednesday, April 27, 7 pm, Vineyard Haven Library. masspoetry.org/commonthreads. 508-696-4211.

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.