Poetry, jazz, food a great mix at Outerland

By Molly Hitchings - May 4, 2006

Fan Ogilvie was a featured poet at Outerland last week. Photos by Ralph Stewart

The Vineyard has plenty of swing and sway but a serious shortage of slink. Whether you are a lover of poetry, a jazz fan, or you just want to eat French fries in the dark, Outerland has answered that need with its Jazz/Live/Poetry nights.

A typical Thursday evening line-up will include a jazz ensemble, a pair of guest poets, readings by organizers Michael West and Linda Black, and open-mike opportunities. By night's end, the musicians might accompany the poets, or vice versa.

The concept behind Jazz/Live/Poetry is nothing new on the Island. Organizers Michael West and Linda Black have hosted many poetry events over the years, at venues like the Park Corner Bistro and Featherstone Center for the Arts, both in Oak Bluffs. They bring to their latest endeavor a varied family of poets from here and away. In league with Arthur and Barry Rosenthal, co-owners of Outerland, they're hoping these cozy, stimulating evenings will continue to lure creative sophisticates. And people who like to eat.

The thing is, the very mention of poetry gives a lot of people the wrong idea. It's true that pretensions and preciousness are always twin demons at any gathering for sensitive creator-types. But this isn't that kind of poetry. This is spoken song and life story, erotic and raw and funny, vital as blood and rousing as coffee. And let it be known: nobody will be turned away at the door for lack of a beret.

Poet Justen Ahren reads his work.

"The energy has been wonderful," says Michael West. "The surprise element is the audience. We're striking a chord with a different demographic."

With a red curtain enclosing the top floor, Outerland adopts an intimate feel for its scaled-down acts; patrons choose between a deep sofa, the tables along the railing, or the bar itself. Outerland's addition of a smaller stage, known as the Dock, has opened up possibilities for musical groups who will complement but never overwhelm your meal or your conversation.

Last week, that meant the All-Star Jazz & Brazilian Quartet, who were frankly a whole lot better than anything you'd expect to hear on a Thursday night in April on the Vineyard.

After another performer cancelled the gig, the buttery-voiced Rudy Babouder was suggested as a replacement. Born in Beirut and based in Boston, Rudy quickly cobbled together an ensemble of world-class musicians to bring the house down on Thursday night with jazz, bossa nova, and blues.

The ebullient keyboardist Matt Oestreicher has performed with the likes of Spyro Gyra, Chick Corea, and Michael Bolton. Bassist Craig Polasko was selected as one of the core instrumentalists for Julliard's First Jazz Orchestra and currently is touring with Michael Buble. Drummer Chris Lyons was a last-minute and much-appreciated addition.

Rudy Babouder (left) with Craig Palasko livened up the club in between readings.

After a 15-minute set, guest poets, Islanders Justen Ahren and Fan Ogilvie took the stage. Justen earned a masters in poetry at Emerson College; he teaches writing workshops at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. His current work is a study of things lost or forgotten; the striking poems he read last week ranged around the world, from a riverbank in China to rubble in the Balkans to his own snow-blanketed bedroom.

Fan Ogilvie also teaches writing at Featherstone. She has published two chapbooks, "The Other Side of the Hill" and "In a Certain Place," as well as a childhood memoir, "Knothole." Currently she is showing both paintings and poems at Featherstone.

As befit the evening, Fan mentioned the intermingling of the arts and how well it can work. Her poems dealt mostly with love, often a harsh and lonely kind, and were rich with myth and metaphor.

Linda Black has performed for a decade in Toronto, New York, Paris, and a UN General Assembly, to name a few. She has taught poetry all over the Northeast and ran Vineyard Haven's Wintertide Coffeehouse in its final season.

Linda's poems have to be heard aloud; a great part of their hypnotic magic comes from her voice, which sounds like honey rolling down a hill.

Keyboardist Matt Oestreicher.

Michael West is a California son who found the Vineyard in the 1970s, when he published "Island," a magazine of local arts, writing and culture. In the late nineties, he ran the National Writers Union Monthly Poetry Series in Santa Cruz, Calif. He has published a slew of books and now also teaches poetry at Featherstone.

Michael opened with Talkin' Disillusion Blues, an easy-going, roll-along biography reminiscent of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Whether they recall Robert Frost's snowy evening or the white curve of a woman, Michael West's poems are wonderfully accessible; that's meant as high praise.

And a word about the food. More people should be eating at Outerland, because the food is really good. The menu is small but varied, from a cheese platter to shrimp rolls to chocolate-covered strawberries. The caprese sandwich, a pesto-mozzarella-tomato combo on crisp focaccia, isn't unusual on the Island, but Outerland's is a highly evolved version. The trio of char-broiled mini-burgers with caramelized onions and Jack cheese are succulent, and the skinny, peppery fries are pretty poetic, too.

Molly Hitchings is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.