Writers gather for Martha’s Vineyard retreats at Renaissance House

Beloved storyteller Susan Klein meets with Renaissance House writers every Monday night. — Photo by Gail Daman

Renaissance House at 31 Pennacook Avenue looks like the other late 19th-century cottages in Oak Bluffs close to Waban Park and Nantucket Sound. The difference is that its four bedrooms become temporary homes every summer to writers looking for the time and space to complete new work.

Writer/filmmaker Abigail McGrath and her husband, Tony McGrath, have welcomed and supported writers, artists, musicians, and other creative people at Renaissance House for 12 years. Ms. McGrath, who is the daughter of Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson and niece of the late novelist Dorothy West, formed a foundation to help artists in need in honor of her two writing relatives. She thought that it was a better idea than sending flowers. Writers have been spending one or two weeks on the Vineyard in the summer ever since.

“My mother and my aunt Dorothy worked nine to five every day and had to fit their writing in between,” Ms. McGrath says. “Writers need time to sit and stare into space and do nothing.” That’s the luxury retreats at Renaissance House provide. After breakfast is laid out on the porch, residents spend their time together in the living room working on their writing from 10 am to 1 pm. Ms. McGrath provides a boxed lunch, and in the afternoon her retreat guests are free to roam and draw inspiration for their writing from the Island.

The highlight of the day comes with the evening meal, where attendees gather around the long dining room table to enjoy lively discussion and Ms. McGrath’s bountiful home cooking. On one recent night, they enjoyed lobster bisque, shrimp-stuffed salmon, and numerous side dishes, followed by chocolate cake. The conversation ranged from writing matters to politics.

After dinner, a variety of activities take place. Every Monday night for the first time this summer, Vineyard storyteller Susan Klein holds a workshop for residents on memoir writing. On other nights writers such as poet and musician Dan Waters, a West Tisbury resident, or journalist and novelist Jill Nelson, an Oak Bluffs summer resident, share their work.

On this July 4, writers in residence met at Bend-in-the-Road Beach for a potluck picnic supper and a reading of the Frederick Douglass Speech, “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to a Negro?”

Although not limited to African American writers, a significant number have found their way to the program. Ms. McGrath, who authored the Indie movie “Au Pair Chocolat,” is African American, while her husband Tony is not. She favors individuals who have children, multiple jobs, or physical disadvantages and need the respite Renaissance House can provide.

Poet Mary Wheeler from Atlanta attended the first retreat and has come every summer since, working as second-in-command to Ms. McGrath, who calls her “my poster child.” Other success stories abound. Arleigh Prelow, who has written and made a film about African-American educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, recently graduated from Harvard after a stint at Renaissance House. San Francisco journalist Belva Davis finished her book, “Never in my Wildest Dreams,” at the Oak Bluffs retreat, and Afaa Michael Weaver, who just finished a residency in June, produced 13 poems there.

“I’m always surprised and flattered when it works,” says Ms. McGrath. This fall she will meet with Children’s Defense Fund librarian Theresa Venable to help the Alex Haley Estate set up a writer’s retreat similar to Renaissance House. Mr. Haley is best known for his book “Roots,” which was made into a TV mini-series. Ms. McGrath is hoping to rent a house with more bedrooms than the one on Pennacook Avenue so that the program can accept more people. “It feels terrible to turn people down,” she says.

Ms. West’s house in the Oak Bluffs Highlands was Renaissance House’s first home. Now on the Island’s African-American Heritage Trail, the Myrtle Avenue Dorothy West home was where Doubleday editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came on Wednesdays to help Ms. West work on her writing. Ms. West grew up summering in the family house near Our Market, but it burned down when actress Ethel Waters tossed a lit cigarette under the porch after she was caught smoking.

Ms. West moved to the Island permanently in the 1940s, writing a column for the Vineyard Gazette and establishing a scholarship at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Her niece, Ms. McGrath, grew up summers in the Highlands house owned by her mother, Ms. Johnson, and her Vineyard marriage provided the subject for Ms. West’s novel, “The Wedding.” Renaissance House was moved to Pennacook Avenue after Ms. West’s house changed hands.

Writers find their way to Renaissance House through a Poets and Writers Magazine listing and word of mouth. The cost of the program is $700 a week, and scholarships are available for returning writers. New this summer is a program for Vineyard writers, who attend from 7:30 am to 10:30 pm, and enjoy three meals a day but not sleeping privileges, for $200 a week.

Upcoming speakers at Renaissance House include Vineyard writer and humorist Holly Nadler, July 16; Vineyard mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, July 23; food historian and cookbook author Dr. Jessica Harris, July 30. The August, September, and October schedule will be announced at a later date.

For more information, contact Abigail McGrath at 917-747-0367 or email renaissancehse@aol.com.