Island poets, inspired by the surrounding sea, will read in Salem

The four poets will read their works at the Sixth Mass poetry festival this weekend.

Lambert's Cove Beach looking northeast towards Makonikey head. — Photo by Susan Safford

Four Martha’s Vineyard poets will travel to Salem this weekend to participate in the sixth annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Justen Ahren, Steven Ewing, Jennifer Tseng, and Rachel Baird will read poems underpinned by the theme of the ocean in a presentation named “Surrounded By Water.”

The Island presentation is one of many events spread out over more than a dozen venues in the Salem area that will feature readings, workshops, panels, and performances that are expected to attract more than 1,500 poetry lovers.

The festival is sponsored by Mass Poetry. The organization focuses on promoting poetry by creating new audiences, placing poets in schools, and facilitating connections between poets via their annual festival and an active blog on their website called Common Threads.The festival is open to the public. Poets wishing to actively participate must register and pay a modest entry fee.

Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Philip Levine and Scottish poet and playwright Carol Ann Duffy, poet laureate of Britain since 2009, are among the score of well-known and respected poets who will read at the festival in addition to dozens of poets participating in the various workshops focusing on specific topics.

Ms. Baird, who spends winters on the Vineyard and summers in Middlebury, Vermont, where she runs the Zonethree art gallery, organized the Vineyard group after she learned of the festival from a friend. “I know these poets and their work,” she told The Times. “I produced our panel of four based on the poets and poetry I thought would read well together and round out a good representation of the Island’s poetic voice.

“We had to submit an application presenting our concept, explaining our focus and presentation to a festival committee. The application went through several rounds of fine tuning before it was accepted.”

The group will read at 1:30 pm, Saturday in the library of the Hawthorne Hotel, 18 Washington Square, Salem.

Weekend events include poetry workshops, discussions, drop-in galleries around town, and children’s events at the Peabody Essex Museum. For more information, go to

Surrounded by Water


By M. R. Baird

The past, a solid lake of ice


Created order out of love and failure

Mixed with peptides, thunder but no sound

Translates rabbit terror into deep tracks

And standing frozen earth, a vacuum,

No air, all ether and memory left for gone.

How many windows ajar

And falling through to


Behind the last view seen

On the other side,

Held as snapshot spark,

All moveable and fluid

Frame out more questions than answers?

Through that open door

An even smaller island

Now shrinking into the distance,

Through that fallen window

The unknown river waits;

I am going there.

Rachel Baird grew up in San Francisco where her childhood affiliation with many of the beat poets was influential in her writing and her art.  She will publish a book, “Uplands,” soon.


By Justen Ahren

The ground is thawing. And now the sun

has reached an angle of amber

upon the bees. The field’s mud

is stirring. This afternoon the peepers

in the shallow pond in the woods, flooded

a hunger-making sound from their throats,

and I got down to the work of writing to you.

I got down and filled my hands

with the muddy words that sat, cold in the melt,

sat in the salt and cinders beside the path,

where the crocuses open their mouths skyward,

their yellow tongues of impatience,

their veined throats wondering at the pleated earth,

through which they’ve broken

too recent to understand their coming

and what they’ve brought:

words, those sweet fictions, solid enough  to reassemble

your footsteps, true enough

to serve as the bird calling to you, Love.

In my boots and jeans

With my gloves, and my shears in hand, the sun escalating,

I increase the claim my soul has staked, here

where the house throws down her shadow

upon the hours of my labor,

upon the stone wall and through the orchard —

a hundred ways this supplicant

has made appeal to the land.

The work is the prayer.

Justen Ahren is the West Tisbury poet laureate. He has published poems in numerous publications. A graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, he is founder and director of Noepe Center for Literary Arts and the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency. He teaches poetry and writing workshops on Martha’s Vineyard and in Labro, Italy.

To the Sea

By Jennifer Tseng

His life a lash on the horizon.

His eyes, two raindrops fallen at last to the sea,

have joined the others, the lost visions, lost waves.

Of all the dead, there is something in the sea,

if one could sip each drop discretely one would taste

prodigies riding on Ferris wheels, prisoners painting

estuaries in green, generals kneeling at the salt-soaked

feet of peasants, women making ardent love to women…

Part of every drowned desire, its indestructible source,

appears in the form of a stranger willing to change us.

He had been striving for years, he died desiring,

vexed to the end by strangers without, within.

Jennifer Tseng lives in West Tisbury and works in the town library. Her book “The Man With My Face” won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop National Poetry Manuscript Competition and a 2006 PEN American Open Book Award. This poem is from her latest book, which was recently translated into Chinese, “Red Flower, White Flower,” winner of the 2012 Marick Press Poetry Prize.


By Steve Ewing

I saw you anchored

in summer

just on the edge

outside the shoal

still shallow

off Shear Pen Pond

Oscar in waders

scratchin’ for hogs

I’ve seen your


in winter


while you towed

for scallops

dredges draining

on the rail

Oscar’s back

hunched over the board

culling the last haul


in Sou’west rain gear

The bay

it seemed

was made just for you

I followed

in my small

leaky skiff

towing drags


in your

broad shadow

I watched

your limit stowed

as you left

the pond

On windy days

how you’d head north

into the swell

toward Cape Cod

then turn

and slide

down the following sea

for the harbor

It seemed

you steered


while Oscar washed

you down

I sold him paint

each spring

to coat your bottom

Kirby red

from New Bedford

You looked so proud


fresh painted

your dog house hatch

top hat cocked


I saw Oscar

in the hospital

before he died

We chatted

he seemed


but then he drifted off

Steve Gentle

passed you on


and back afloat

with spars and sail

instead of drags

You looked so sharp

so new and light

It’s good to see you

got up in your summer rig

As if the wind

was made

to push you

right along

Edgartown, June, 2011

Steven Ewing, Edgartown poet laureate, is a 61-year-old self-employed dock builder who has lived his entire life on Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Ewing is a member of the Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard and is the presiding poet of the annual Robbie Burns Supper.