The Nightlife of Poets

Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate Arnie Reisman with his predecessor, Lee McCormack. —Photo by William Waterway

If you’re thinking that poets are a serious, grim lot, you’d have thought you were in the wrong place last Tuesday night when Arnie Reisman was crowned as the Island’s second Poet Laureate (PL) by the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

We learned at the event that poets laureate are emerging like pinkletinks in spring on the Cape and Islands and across our vast Commonwealth, but it’s not likely that many dress for the occasion to accept their title in a toga and laurel wreath as Mr. Reisman did to the delight of 70 in the audience. The event was sponsored by the Vineyard Haven Public Library.

To be honest, his toga was not of the wool, linen, or hemp favored by the Romans. More like 100 percent polyester. His crown was genuine plastic rather than fresh laurel leaves, but the effect was probably a lot more salutary than those received by the frowny-faces of antiquity.

Mr. Reisman, a nationally-known raconteur and wordsmith in a variety of media, succeeds Lee McCormack, the Island’s first PL and a poet of fame himself. The Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society is a group of about 370 Island poets and supporters who seek to enhance the presence of poetry on the Vineyard and throughout the world.

Following an introduction by library event coordinator Betty Burton, MVPS major-domo William Waterway described the group’s scrupulous selection process that has resulted in the elevations of Messrs. McCormack and Reisman.

“After we announced the plan for an Island wide poet laureate almost three years ago, 24 Island poets each submitted five poems to be read by ten judges,” Mr. Waterway said. “In all, they reviewed 1,008 pages of work.

“We used a double-blind process. The entrants did not know who the judges were. The poets were not identified but were assigned numbers. Lee McCormack was awarded the first title. Poet Number Five was second. I kept asking: who is Poet Number Five?

“As we came to the end of Lee’s two-year term, I found out Poet Number Five is a man named Arnie Reisman who I did not know. I had his telephone number. After offering him the title and spending time with him, I know him today as a man and as a talent.”

Mr. Waterway introduced a series of Island poets with brief readings of their work. Steve Ewing, self-described as “a local kid who likes to write,” has been named PL of Edgartown. He read a free-verse history of Edgartown as he experienced the town as a child 50 years ago. He also read a poem about his friend Tom Osmers, a beloved West Tisbury fisherman and naturalist.

Valerie Sonnenthal, Chris Legg, Mr. McCormack, and Mr. Reisman read from their work, including some sharp-edged whimsy on what might be the true meaning of the “Evacuation Route” sign on the Sagamore Bridge. When his designation was announced two weeks ago, Mr. Reisman said his goal was to make poetry accessible to everyone. For those of us who are iambic pentameter-challenged, his initial foray lived up to the promise.