Worldly talent at Martha’s Vineyard writers’ residencies

Members of the Renaissance House writers met with author Jessica B. Harris (right) this past Monday night, Sept. 26. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Thanks to the existence of two residency programs currently operating on the Vineyard, Islanders will get the chance to hear some of the country’s up-and-coming writers read from their work this weekend, and throughout the next month.

During September and October, a total of 20 writers from all over will participate in the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency, a program that allows writers of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, and screenplays to enjoy uninterrupted time focusing on their latest projects.

And during the course of the residency, in which writers are housed at the Point Way Inn in Edgartown, the Vineyard community will have the opportunity to meet the diverse group of writers and hear them read from their work. The second in a fall series of author readings will take place Thursday, Sept. 29, at the West Tisbury Library and the readings will continue every Thursday throughout the month of October.

Meanwhile, a summer artist’s residency is wrapping up its season with a reading on Friday, Sept. 30, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, at which guests are invited to participate in an open mic after the scheduled authors. The Renaissance House Residency Program, based in Oak Bluffs, is run by Abigail McGrath whose mother, Helene West, and aunt, Dorothy West, were both Harlem Renaissance writers.

Renaissance House hosts writers as well as artists for one-week residencies from June to September and the attendees often participate in public readings. On Friday, three writers/performers will present their work – spoken word artist Storme Webber; solo performer, poet, and writer LeVan D. Hawkins; and poet and musician Dahlia Ross.

Justen Ahren, founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency, calls that enterprise “mutually beneficial” for the participants and the community. He says, “They’re [the residents] so grateful to be here and we’re so grateful to have them.”

Mr. Ahren, an accomplished poet, founded the M.V. Writers Residency in 2007. He was inspired by his own experience as part of a writer’s residency in Costa Rica in 2004. He says, “For me it was that unbroken time where I could live inside of my work 24 hours a day for 30 days. That was so helpful for my project.” Mr. Ahren was toying with the idea of establishing a Vineyard residency for about a year when, serendipitously, Claudia Miller, owner of the Point Way Inn, approached him. In 2005, Ms. Miller transformed the inn into a home for visiting artists. Actors, dancers, and others who perform during the Vineyard season were filling the inn during the summer months, but Ms. Miller wanted to expand the Artists Pointing the Way program into the shoulder season.

The first year the inn housed two writers during October. The next year there were five attendees and that number doubled in 2009. The program gained recognition during those formative years and now, Mr. Ahren notes, he receives hundreds of applications from all over the world. To accommodate the abundance of talent that has reached out to him, this year Mr. Ahren added a spring session and extended the fall residency into September. He says, “They can choose two weeks to a month. That’s a good amount of time to decompress from your life.”

Among those who have taken part in the residency are writers from Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, and India. The collective resume of the residency’s alums and current participants is impressive. There have been writers of bestselling novels – including one which was chosen as the Booklist Best Book of the Year, an award winning playwright, a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, and writers whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Mr. Ahren makes an effort to provide a mix for the public readings. Tonight’s featured writers will include Erin Kelley, a finalist for the Philippines most prestigious award for short fiction; Cara Hoffman, who just had her first novel published by Simon and Schuster this past spring; Sanderia Smith, whose first novel is about to be published; Ellen Goldstein, a poet whose work has been published in a number of publications and two anthologies; and Indian born Sweta Srivastava Vikram who covers many bases as a novelist, author, essayist, columnist, blogger, and two times Pushcart Prize nominated-poet.

Mr. Ahren has also been responsible for a number of other initiatives to bring visiting writers and poets to the Vineyard. Along with Fan Ogilvie, Mr. Ahren hosts the Summer Festival of Poetry at Featherstone, which has brought some of the most acclaimed poets in the country to Vineyard audiences. In March Mr. Ahren and Jennifer Tseng of the West Tisbury Library host a series of readings by members of the Fine Arts Work Center residency based in Provincetown. Says Mr. Ahren of the West Tisbury Library, which hosts a number of literary events throughout the year, “They’ve been very responsive to what we’re doing up there.”

Currently Featherstone sponsors the M.V. Writers Residency. Writers pay a nominal fee for the rooms at the inn. Mr. Ahren is in the process of attaining nonprofit status and hoping to eventually raise some scholarship money.

Mr. Ahren, who runs the program as an unpaid volunteer, is reaping other rewards from his efforts. He says of the residency, “I did this for selfish reasons. I wanted to have a community of writers but I never imagined I would get so much from it. I get to meet 20 really creative intelligent, amazing people.”

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.

Fall Reading Series with M.V. Writers Residency, Thursday, Sept. 29, 5:30 pm, West Tisbury Library. Continues Thursdays through Oct. 27.

Renaissance House Writers Reading, Friday, Sept. 30, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven.