They pay me to write about literary matters around here so it’s been a concern for me in recent years to understand that I possess no ability to review poets or their poetry.
We are awash with both on Martha’s Vineyard, so not only do I feel inadequate but also that poets and their work are not getting a fair shake from me. Reading poetry on a printed page has been less problematic than listening to it read aloud.
I even attended a session of a poetry group a year or so ago run by Jennifer Tseng, a poet and literati at the West Tisbury Free Public Library. Figured that’s where I’ll get the grist for the reporting mill. Later, I spent a few hours reading notes, made a few gasping starts, then wrote…nothing. I had found no news to report.
Last Thursday night, the epiphany appeared at the Poetry Jam at Pathways Center at the Chilmark Tavern. My epiphanist was old hand poet and mentor Don Nitchie, one of the evening’s featured readers. By the way: This is a gorgeous space and Pathways conductor Marian Goldberg and host Scott Crawford send up perfect ambiance for the evening. Many of the poets, experienced with far grimmer environments, expressed their delight.
This reporter cornered Mr. Nitchie between the sparkling water and the cheese tray beforehand and put the questions to him: Where does this come from, what informs you, and finally, what is your voice? Describe it. He meditated a moment, seemingly on a whole-grain cracker on the tray to his right, then delivered the bad news: “I don’t think that’s a question for me to answer. It’s a question for you to answer.”
I do not like to take direction, but I figured that if I kept doing what I’ve been doing, I’ll keep getting what I got. So my notes for the evening became my reaction to what I was hearing and feeling from seven or eight poets who read, sang, and danced, to their verses. Like reporting on yourself. An uneasy feeling.
What I came away with was that: poets are outliers, scouts. They work alone, just outside the emotional and spiritual perimeters, and report on the contours and jagged edges of the human condition. Nomans Land for most of us. And because they publicly report their own findings, called poems, they work without a net, so to speak. And the pay sucks.
So I think poets are brave to do that, though some seem to do it because they have no choice. They have got to do it. That topic is covered in Advanced Poetry 202, not here. Regardless, I believe their reports benefit you and me if we can hear them.
Here’s what I heard:
I heard Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate Lee McCormack believe that we are becoming a continually more pitiless society, that we’re on the slippery slope and that ain’t chocolate ice cream at the bottom (not his metaphor).
I heard Don Nitchie say he missed his friend Ricky Vanderhoop, a beloved Island gearhead. “I wonder who’s driving you now. I wonder where you are going.” Ricky Vanderhoop passed six months ago after slugging it out with cancer for a long time. Mr. Nitchie’s words flashed me back to the “time” they had for Ricky in Aquinnah, his brother sobbing in the kitchen and how you could literally feel the community fiercing around that family.
I heard a woman tell her lover in some detail how she experienced him in their lovemaking. When she finished, she said: “As I reread this poem, the thought occurred to me that this was written for a woman. Maybe I wish he had written it for me?” Who admits stuff like that? Poets.
I heard good ole’ jocular Dan Waters choke up a little when he finished a song poem about Nancy Luce, West Tisbury poet and eccentric of note whose only good relationships were with her chickens and so she was shunned. Nancy Luce has been dead for more than 120 years. Who would still grieve? A poet.
And I learned that if you let go, you get who they are: Ellie Bates’s orderly rhythmics; Sian Williams, droll and whimsical but with a sharp point; William Waterway’s gymnastics in making himself the audience and the audience the performers; Cristina Montoya’s dance poem “I Got This Thing” celebrating womanhood, and its flip side, in our world; Martin Vogel’s hilarious and sad viewing of “The Story of O” with his mom.
After the Pathways event, possessed now of an expanded consciousness, I looked up how the pros handle poetry reviewing and instantly felt better. Sharp people, poetically-savvy people, at least, are all over the lot on the role of reviews and reviewers.
So here’s the deal for me. I learned how to listen a little on Thursday night and I liked it. Feels like you changed the air filter in your head. I’m going to listen to more poetry and if the spirits moves me, I’ll write it down.
Try some poetry yourself. I’m not kidding about the air filter.
Readings of new work by Fan Ogilvie and Justen Ahren, followed by an open Poetry Jam, Tuesday, April 8, 6:30–9 pm, Pathways, Chilmark Tavern. Free. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.