As the Sunday morning sun warmed the wooden pews inside the Unitarian Universalist Society’s intimate parish hall, local poet and educator Ellie Bates spoke to a rapt and responsive audience of her life’s long journey of “Being A Poet” and the experiences which inspired the poems she has “left as milestones in the continued search to get it right.”
At the opening of Sunday’s service, following her instinct as a schoolteacher, Ms. Bates spoke directly to the young members of the congregation. “What does poetry mean to you?” she asked. She was met with the poignant answers of young poets:
“You put the words down on paper just the way you feel.”
“Sometimes it’s just an experience.”
“Sometimes it’s funny.”
For Ms. Bates, the creative urge came early. “My own writing career began in Ms. Swanson’s first grade classroom,” she said. Then, the honor of being displayed on the class bulletin board validated the bourgeoning writer and set her on a path of both writing and teaching. After an education consisting of “the masters: Frost, Twain, Dickinson, and Steinbeck,” Ms. Bates marinated in the inspiration of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell. She landed her first teaching job in “an all black school in Boston, where I knew I had to give the students the voices of Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes… I wanted them to know, writing takes courage, but it also has power.”
In her own poetry of the time, Ms. Bates dealt with themes of hope, renewal, and personal relationships. In one poem, she wrote: “Hope is not a thing of feathers/it is a rudder in the strangest Sea….”
Ms. Bates developed a strong conviction of the link between cultural identity, personal empowerment, and the impetus to express one’s own story through the literary arts. Identifying her own need to learn more about indigenous peoples and their rich oral traditions, Ms. Bates took part in a teacher’s workshop with the Navajo and Hopi on their reservations in the southwest, and earned a National Endowment for the Humanities research grant to further pursue Native American studies at the University of Texas. She became active in The Boston Writing Project, and later, in local community and educational writing cooperatives such as Pathways Arts Project, The Cleveland House Poets, and The Martha’s Vineyard Poets Collective.
On the Island, as The Edgartown School’s Reading Coordinator, Ms. Bates enhanced the curriculum by designing creative literacy initiatives which used reading, writing, and dramatic arts to expand students’ understanding of archeology, oral history, and indigenous cross-cultural studies.
Ann Hollister, a colleague at Edgartown School and a longtime friend, gave the introduction at Sunday’s service, saying, “Ellie brought with her the ideal that reluctant readers needed a community to thrive, and specialists to assist. We wrote and worked together for years in this spirit.”
While Ms. Bates was busy creating experiential learning projects crossing disciplinary mediums for her students, she worked consistently over the years on her own creative development, combing through intimate themes of infertility and, later, parenthood. “That’s perhaps why the poems about my children are so dear to me,” she said. She shared her poem “Daughter Leaving,” reading: “Like mist on the lagoon/You rise/ Breaking free from the night…” The poem garnered collective “ahhs” from the Vineyard Haven audience.
The Island landscape and the imagery of nature plays a leading role in Ms. Bates’s work. From her poem “Attachments,” “Like the life in the ocean/ I trust symbiotic relations/ A balance of silent actions” to the poem “Tsaile” from her time in the southwest, “Where does the water go when it flows from the canyon?/ Here at Tsaile it forms the crossroads of my life,” Ms. Bates has used the language of the environment to express her own life’s quandaries and triumphs. “I had to get out of my sorrowful self and be with the beauty of nature –– the power of nature renewed my faith in the moment,” she said.
Though Ms. Bates is not a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society herself, worship coordinator Peter Palches enthusiastically welcomed her as a guest to the congregation. “Each of us through our thoughts and feelings needs to work out our own religion –– we look around, we talk to each other, we ask questions, but we attend to our own spiritual path,” Mr. Palches said. “This is at the heart of being a poet, and this is why we have asked Ellie to be with us today.”
While Ms. Bates often spoke with a tremble of emotion in her voice, it was when she recited her poetry that an unmistakable strength and steadiness shone through. Whether teaching literature or weaving words herself, Ms. Bates has followed what seems central to her purpose as a poet and educator. “I want to turn away from darkness and turn towards the light,” she said. “And embrace a community which helps me see that light, and to write poems and speak them, which may help to heal others.”
“Being a Poet” by Ellie Bates was part of the on-going series on ‘Creativity’ offered by The Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard. For more information, visit uusmv.org or call 508-693-8982.
Keya Guimarães is a documentary filmmaker and screenwriter and a new Times correspondent. She moved to Martha’s Vineyard a year ago from Kauai and lives with her family in Chilmark.