A problem arose shortly after 4 pm on Sunday afternoon, May 1, with this review of a poetry reading at the West Tisbury library.
Your correspondent suddenly realized during readings by Islander Lisa Vunk, Elizabeth Bradfield of Truro, and Nancy K. Pearson, who now lives in Wellfleet, that poetry readings, unlike poetry, can’t really be reviewed.
Turns out there were four aspects of the reading to be reviewed: The poems, performance of the work, the author’s in-the-flesh persona, and the reviewer’s mindset. Four things to handle at the same time.
The upshot was that I began listening to the poetry, rather than hearing it. When Ms. Bradfield read a wonderful poem written years ago about encountering trash and trashmakers in the Alaskan wilderness, I heard sadness. Not only about littering on a stunning piece of nature, I would expect that from Ms. Bradfield, who is also a well-traveled naturalist. I heard sadness about her life in the poem. Who was she then? What was going on, if anything was, in her life?
When Ms. Pearson read “Lullaby,” a poem that commingles the soothing quality of lullabies with raw images and memories, snippets of her life, images of the same ilk from my life quick-stepped past my eyes.
I’ve always thought of poets as fragile, ethereal beings. But these poets are not Emily Dickinson or the Lake Poets, endlessly dying of consumption and unrequited love. They are strong women who live in the sometimes-hard world. They look you straight in the eye.
Ms. Bradfield’s work is spare, often startling, sometimes profanely direct and funny. Ms. Pearson’s style is more evocative but her work similarly contrasts the soft and hard edges of life. Ms. Vunk is unflinching in her assessment that freedom is the reward for removing the need for social acceptance.
Both Ms. Pearson and Ms. Bradfield are fellowship alumnae of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. After their fellowship terms were up, they stayed on the Cape. They are accredited, award-winning and published poets.
None of them are rich poets. All of them do a variety of unpoetic jobs in order to be poets. “Waitressing, landscaping, a bunch of seasonal jobs, you know what it’s like on the Cape,” Ms. Pearson said. Her latest award-winning work, “Two Minutes of Light,” can be seen at perugiapress.com. Perugia Press is located in Florence, Mass.
Ms. Bradfield is an accomplished naturalist whose specialty is arctic regions so she gets gigs checking things out in cold places. Her latest book of poems is “Approaching Ice” from Persea Books. Ms. Bradfield’s work can be seen at ebradfield.com. She also works designing websites.
Ms. Vunk’s completed memoir, “Transcendance: Dawn,” was self-published. Two other books: “Transcendance: Peace” and “Transcendance: Awakening” are underway. She can be reached at facebook.com/funkyvunky.
In the Q and A, given the hard-scrabbling they have to do, the question arises: “Why do you do this?”
They have to.
“It’s an imperative, a feeling that I have to do it,” Ms. Bradfield says. “It’s a calling, though that sounds so fancy,” Ms. Pearson said, trying again. “There’s this compression of thoughts, even though I rewrite and rewrite,” she smiled. Ms. Vunk enjoys the process. “I feel as though I’m channeling, that if I get out of the way [the work] will come through me,” she said.
Poets are like wilderness guides to our own unexplored parts. Everyone should go to a poetry reading. You never know what might happen.
Jack Shea, of Vineyard Haven, is a frequent contributor to The Times.