Creative self-expression is a source of solace for many, especially in times of anxiety. This is the ideology followed by the Island’s own Featherstone Center for the Arts.
This past Thursday, June 18, the community art center held a virtual poetry reading over Zoom in collaboration with Noepe Center for Literary Arts and Pathways Arts. Bearing the name, “Poetry in the Time of Quarantine and Protest,” the event showcased the work of 15 Island poets. Each reader shared an admired work of their choosing, and afterward, a poem of their own.
Attendees were welcomed by Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone, who asked that all non-speakers disable their microphones and cameras. The audience became a mosaic of black boxes, giving each reader an opportunity to speak their piece in the spotlight.
Mathea Morais, director of Noepe Center for Literary Arts, gave background to the night’s event. “Normally at this time in the year, we do our summer solstice celebration, but Ann and I got on the phone, and we just felt like we needed to talk about something a little different than summer right now,” Morais said.
This year has been unlike any other, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the call for activism and protest against police brutality across the country. Morais acknowledged that poetry has played an integral role in getting both her and Smith through these difficult times. “It seemed to make sense that we turn to you, our poets, to find out how you’ve been thinking about all the ways the world is rocketing into change right now — some of it incredibly challenging, some of it incredibly powerful, and long overdue,” Morais said.
One after another, each poet shared the two pieces they’d selected. Participant Fan Ogilvie read Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” recalling that as a 10th grader, it was the first poem she was ever required to memorize.
Another participant, Margaret Emerson, chose to share a diary excerpt for her initial reading, rather than a poem. The entries were written by Henry Hagey, an artist living in Montgomery County, Pa., during the influenza epidemic of 1918. “It sounds poetic to me — that’s why I chose it,” Emerson said.
When it came to the participants’ own poetry, many pieces took on a personal tone. The poets explored their own experiences, unpacked their emotions, and reassembled them as verse.
Participant Clark Myers read his piece, “New Skills,” which he wrote early on in the pandemic. “We wash groceries and bags with disinfectant, the bottoms of shoes. And maintain six feet distant in a kitchen only five feet wide,” Myers read. His poem concluded with, “We learn to speak through masks and feel with latex fingers.”
Participant Ellie Bates shared a poem titled, “Back to the Garden.” “We couldn’t stop eating this fruit. With every bite red juice dripped from our mouths. It isn’t blood, we tell ourselves — we came to forget the stain left on city streets,” Bates read.
The readings were only interrupted by the occasional technological issue. Some participants began their readings while still muted, or struggled to make their image seen. Two poets, Donald Nitchie and Susan Puciul, dropped from the call during their readings due to a lost connection.
According to Smith, in-person events will return to Featherstone soon. “We’re going to take it slow; we don’t need to be the first ones out of the gate, but we’re definitely going to have some outdoor events as long as it’s safe to do so,” Smith said.
Despite minor complications, the event was successful in more ways than one. “My gosh, what an honor to see all of you,” participant Mark Alan Lovewell said before reading his piece. “It’s a wonderful thing to see you all without a mask on.”
Smith shared the final poem—a work of Ellen Martin Story’s, who couldn’t attend the event herself. The untitled poem, written in memory of James Baldwin, ended powerfully. “I am not a profile, pitiful or pitying, but I am. I am hacked, stolen, hijacked. No if’s, and’s or but’s. I am Black. I am. I am. Here, always,” Smith read.
As the evening came to a close, Smith thanked the attendees. “The written word and the spoken word that you give to this is very important to Featherstone, Noepe, and Pathways,” Smith said. “Thank you to our friends and guests for listening. That’s such an important action, and we really appreciate you taking the time this evening to be with us.”
“I want to end on a celebratory note,” Smith said. “DACA has been upheld, and there’s immigration protection. It’s been an incredible week in the Supreme Court; LGBTQ rights have been upheld.” The Featherstone executive director looked forward, with Juneteenth on the horizon and the summer solstice not far behind. “Here’s to brighter days ahead, and the best is yet to come,” Smith said.