Poet Justen Ahren presents a collaborative project this weekend

Island poet laureate Justen Ahren heads up a Pathways collaborative arts project at the Tisbury Waterworks this weekend. — Photo courtesy Justen Ahren


Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate Justen Ahren is expanding his horizons with a new project that will incorporate poetry, music, photography, and video. The collaborative multidisciplinary piece, which Mr. Ahren describes as a work in progress, will be presented at the Tisbury Waterworks on Sunday, Sept. 10, as part of the Pathways ARTS series.

The other participants include musicians Dana Edelman, Nina Violet, Siren Mayhew, and videographer Graham Smith. The title of the piece is “After the War for the Valley.” It examines the issues of displacement and migration. Each of the artists involved will interpret the theme or expand on Mr. Ahren’s poetry, songs, and photos, which are the basis of the piece.

Mr. Ahren has been working on the piece for about three years. In promotional material for the event, he describes the theme: “Violence, displacement, and memory are the experiences of a refugee in the aftermath of war. Surviving is not only about living, but remembering and telling about it.”

The poems are part of a series that Mr. Ahren started working on after the publication of his book “A Strange Catechism” in 2013. The black-and-white photos are images that he captured during trips to Italy, where he leads an annual writer’s workshop.

“Every year before or after I teach, I travel along the A1,” says Mr. Ahren. “I’ve been taking photos along the river and the railroad tracks. What I realized is that in doing this, I’m documenting the same route that the Syrian and Afghan refugees travel if they’re moving through, going to Germany and France. I realized that what I’m really working on is these ‘highways’ that refugees are using, the landscape they’re walking through. I’m trying to capture what someone in a hurry might be taking in — the places that people might be hiding.”

The title of the piece comes from the historical significance of the area where the photos were shot.

“During WWII, some of the heaviest bombing happened in that valley. It was bombed relentlessly. I tried to capture that too; the memories in that landscape that one might feel but not readily see.”

Though not necessarily intentional, Mr. Ahren discovered that his poetry and photography had a connection, and so he decided to incorporate the two media into something larger. “I’m trying to make my work more visual,” he says. “I feel like my poems are very visual. I wanted to do something that is more immediate. It’s such a visual world with Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media. I was looking for a more immediate delivery system.”

In linking the poems and photos into a work in progress, Mr. Ahren made the decision to expand on his vision: “I had been thinking that if I presented this, it needed to be presented like a piece of theater or performance art.”

Mr. Ahren wrote songs based on his poems, which he will perform himself. He invited other musicians whom he admired to create their own work around the theme, and asked Mr. Smith to create a visual piece from the photos.

What began as a solo project has expanded to a collaborative examination of a theme that has engaged Mr. Ahren for some time.

“I was looking for a way to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe,” Mr. Ahren says of his inspiration. “A way to respond to more than just the violence that the refugees are facing, but violence in America. Violence seems to be everywhere. This was a way for me to respond to violence in a private and intimate way. It just felt like I was numb to it after a while, and I didn’t think that was the way I wanted to be. Then I thought that I didn’t want it to just be my voice, my experience of what exile could feel like.”

This past March, Mr. Ahren, along with Mr. Edelman, presented an earlier version of the piece at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern. He has found that the Tisbury Waterworks building is an ideal setting for the work, which will have the audience moving through the historic structure.

“It’s like a set,” says Mr. Ahren of the location. “The building itself has so much character. It just seems like a natural fit for this piece.”

Pathways Arts Multi-Arts Evening at the Tisbury Waterworks, 400 W. Spring St., Sept. 10, at 6:30. Free. pathwaysmv.org.