New poet laureate blends Vineyard with verse

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West Tisbury’s newly appointed poet laureate, Spencer Thurlow, will host the biannual Community Poetry Reading event. — Courtesy Studio Takahashi

This Sunday, April 22, the West Tisbury library will introduce the new town poet laureate to the public with its semiannual Community Poetry Reading. The hosting of the open readings — one in the spring and one in the fall — is one of the duties of the poet laureate, and this time, 29-year-old Spencer Thurlow will do the honors.

A new West Tisbury poet laureate is selected every three years from among people nominated by community members. Thurlow is uniquely qualified for the position since he was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, and many of his poems are informed by his experience growing up and working on the Island.

“A lot of my work revolves around the feeling of living in a place where there are 15,000 people in the winter and 100,000 during the summer,” says Thurlow. “The cyclical nature of being in a tourist community has really affected me. My poetry reflects my time on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Nature plays a big part in the poet’s work. He spent years working as a landscaper on the Vineyard, spending time immersed in nature, enjoying days of reflective solitude. “I really enjoy the outdoors,” says Thurlow. “It impacts me a lot. I got to spend time in some of the most beautiful private places on the Island. Landscaping, you’re often alone trimming shrubs, pruning trees, mowing. You have time to think about this place where we live. Who are the people who come here? Who am I in this picture?”

These thoughts are no doubt common to many in the year-round community, and Thurlow has a way of expressing a shared condition with simplicity and metaphor in the beautiful language of a poet.

Thurlow has been writing since the second grade, when he authored an adventure book. He studied English and creative writing at Goucher College before returning to the Island for a few years in his early 20s. While in college he started submitting poems and short stories to various publications. His work has appeared in the Worcester Review, the Comstock Review, and other journals. Although his home base has always been the Vineyard, Thurlow has traveled far from home in expanding his worldview. Right after college, he was awarded a grant to travel around Alaska, to see what tourism looks like in a very different setting.

In 2014, having developed an interest in Japanese literature, Thurlow moved to Japan, where he taught English and worked with a partner to translate the work of a Tokyo poet named Kiriu Minashita. His translation of a collection of her work, titled “Sonic Peace,” was published in December 2017. Thurlow read selections from the book at the West Tisbury library earlier this year.

Minashita’s work resonated with the young poet. “Her poetry is extremely relevant to what’s going on in the world right now. It’s very beautiful but also dystopian — not full of horrific images but rather commenting on how the world is being eroded aesthetically. With the news cycle and what we’re seeing in the world right now, her work rings true to me.”

There’s nothing at all negative about Thurlow’s poetry, but he writes from a questioning perspective — exploring issues such as man’s relationship with nature.

The young poet has found the Vineyard to be both inspiring and nurturing, and he has a unique perspective on the poetry community in general. “I love poets,” he says. “There’s no competition among us. In the world of literature — short story writers and novelists — there can be jealousy and backbiting, and people trying to hide their work from others. On the other hand, no one makes any money writing poetry — ever. Everyone is so helpful, sharing information and offering encouragement. We talk about how we can make each other more successful. There are no stakes.”

Thurlow expresses this view with a touch of humor, but he takes this philosophy of sharing and nurturing to heart. He plans to use his time as poet laureate to promote both the creation and the enjoyment of poetry during his three-year tenure. “There’s a huge wealth of poets on the Island,” he says. “That’s part of what makes the Vineyard so special. A tourist place is a tourist place anywhere, but there’s something very unique about the Island. I would like to get to know the other poets on a professional level, and help bring new events to West Tisbury and get people more involved in poetry.”

“There are people who might not even realize the value of poetry and may not know what a beautiful poem can do.”

Cutting Trees

My crown of sweat,
idle chain-saw in my hands,
standing with a quiet mind
as afternoon steeps to gold, almost done.
Looking at the tips of leaves,
way up — untouchable, till no
I cut the trunk away
it lists and breaks
like thunder, fleeting shadows paint my chest.
I grasp the chain-saw
and the great, still settling branches.

A version appeared in Pudding Magazine, 2014.

Community Poetry Reading hosted by Spencer Thurlow at the West Tisbury library, Sunday, April 22, from 3:30 to 4:30 pm. Community members are invited to read their own poems or the poems of others.