Festival features four noted poets on Martha’s Vineyard

Marie Howe kicks off the Summer Festival of Poetry on July 18. — Photo courtesy of voca.arizona.edu

Four celebrated poets will travel to the Vineyard this summer to participate in the bi-annual Pathways – Featherstone – Noepe Summer Festival of Poetry.

In order to attract new audiences to the readings, the co-directors have chosen poets whose work is accessible, and they have added a reception with music and refreshments to precede each event. The readings will be held at the campus of the Featherstone Center for the Arts – the perfect setting for a summer evening’s entertainment.

While Billy Collins may be the only universally well-known of the invited poets, the other three have received acclaim from poetry fans and fellow poets and, according to festival founder Fan Ogilvie, should, like Mr. Collins, appeal to a broad range of listeners.

The festival, which kicks off on Thursday, July 18, is the fourth such celebration of poetry to be held since its inception in 2007. Ms. Ogilvie is especially pleased with the lineup this year.

A 1997 collection by Marie Howe, who will read Thursday, was praised by Publishers Weekly as one of the five best poetry collections of the year. John Koethe, who will read on Tuesday, July 23, was Milwaukee’s first ever poet laureate. His work is included in several anthologies, including “Best American Poetry.” On August 9, the famed poet Billy Collins will read under a tent at Featherstone for the third time, and the series concludes on August 27 with poet and playwright Nathalie Handal, who was featured on the PBS NewsHour in 2009.

Ms. Ogilvie, the former West Tisbury poet laureate, has been friends with Mr. Collins since “before he was Billy Collins,” as she puts it. His previous readings here drew standing room only crowds.

“Collins is the closest thing the poetry world has to a celebrity,” said Justen Ahren, former West Tisbury poet laureate. “We’ve brought some amazing poets that don’t have that kind of name recognition,” he added noting that at times he’s been disappointed at the turnout. “People don’t know what they’re missing. I’ve been very surprised at the repeat turnout once people come to a poetry reading. They’ll say, ‘I never knew poetry could be like that.’ When they hear it performed it’s a new experience.”

Ms. Ogilvie realizes that poetry can be a hard sell but believes that once one discovers a poet or poets that resonate with them, a rich and fulfilling world is opened up. “I think it’s always a great way to start thinking more and start perceiving the work in a richer way. It’s a counterpoint to all the technology that we have at our fingertips. It leads us into questioning and wonder and insight that we can’t get elsewhere.”

She added, “Trust that the poets the Pathways Featherstone team bring here are the best voices and will lead you to other great voices. It’s just like being introduced to any art form — whether it’s film or music or dance. You just have to start somewhere and find your bliss within that area.”

Marie Howe, the first reader, is the official New York State poet. She teaches at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and New York University. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Harvard Review. Her first book, “The Good Thief,” was selected by Margaret Atwood as the winner of the 1987 Open Competition of the National Poetry Series.

“Her book, ‘What the Living Do’ was hugely influential on me in writing my poetry,” said Mr. Ahren of her more recent work. “It deals with the death of her brother. The way she was able to talk about that served as a model for me in my writing.” Mr. Ahren will celebrate the publication of his first book of poems on August 6 with a launch party at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts in Edgartown.

John Koethe, who will read on Tuesday, July 23, is a poet and essayist who teaches poetry at the University of Wisconsin. “He’s one of the poets that’s under the radar but he’s really known by the writing community,” Ms. Ogilvie said. She described Mr. Koethe’s work as lyrical and said, “His work comes from his philosophy that our lives make some kind of sense.

“He’s challenging to read but not difficult like a language poet. You want to pay attention to him. He has a wonderful way in his poetry of leading you on. It’s fairly traditional in form and in composition.”

The festival is funded in large part by the Pathways Projects Institutes. This year, the newly launched Noepe Center came on board as a third sponsoring organization. On Friday, July 24, the Noepe Center hosts the president of PEN Mexico, Jennifer Clement. She will speak on the trafficking of women, the subject of her new novel, “Prayers for the Stolen.”

Pathways – Featherstone – Noepe Summer Festival of Poetry, Thursday, July 18: Marie Howe. July 23: John Koethe. August 9: Billy Collins. August 27: Nathalie Handal. All readings start with music and refreshments at 6 pm, readings at 7 pm in the Virginia Weston Besse Gallery, Featherstone, Oak Bluffs. $20 at the door. For more information, call 508-693-1850 or visit featherstoneart.org.