For 58 years, the Cleaveland House Poets have been meeting to share their love for poetry and help each other grow as writers and thinkers.
Whether it’s in the parlor during the fall as cold rain pelts the windows, or outside on a hot day, with bees flying in lazy circles around nearby butterfly bushes — the meetings have always taken place at Cleaveland House, owned by Dionis Coffin Riggs, who was 98 years old when she died in 1997, and her husband.
A recently published anthology of work from 15 members of the group, titled “In the Company of Poets” illustrates the vast scale of passions, interests, and styles held by the poets, and how the time spent meeting and discussing their work made all the difference.
Now, Dionis’ youngest daughter, Cynthia, runs the nearly three-century-old house in West Tisbury as a bed and breakfast — often opening rooms up to artists, writers, and other Island creators.
Dionis was also the founder of the Cleaveland House Poets, and her motto during the meetings was to always provide encouragement, never discouragement, for people’s work.
“When [my mother] was little, she wrote a poem. She read it to her big sisters, and they had been kind of patronizing about it,” Cynthia said of her mother’s introduction to poetry. “She felt that, at 7 or 8 years old, only poets can write poetry, and she wasn’t a poet,” Cynthia said.
With that, Dionis didn’t write another poem until Cynthia was about 4 years old, because she had been so dissuaded by her older siblings’ reactions.
The first piece Dionis wrote during her reintroduction into the world of poetry was about Cynthia.
“It was a sonnet about me. She won a prize — I think it was about $5, and that sort of opened up the floodgates for her,” Cynthia explained. “She wrote more than 1,000 poems over her life, and got an obituary in the Sunday New York Times.”
Being New Englanders, Cynthia said, her family was never terribly demonstrative physically, but her mother always gave off a sense of caring, love, and compassion for her family and friends. “You could really see that in her writing. She often said in her poems that she had all these things inside of her, and she couldn’t show anyone or talk about it, but she could write about it,” Cynthia said.
The poetry group started in 1963, when Dionis decided to invite some friends to her home who were also interested in poetry. They met weekly on Wednesday afternoons, and eventually the group began to grow. As a central tenet of the Cleaveland House Poets, Dionis would stress that the group is meant to allow writers to grow, not dissuade them from writing more. With this, each individual poet can benefit from suggestions and discussions about their work, but it always comes back to the individual and their own development.
Although Cynthia, herself author of more than a dozen Martha’s Vineyard mysteries, was never inclined to poetry, she said she is aware of how much the group meant to her mother, and how much it means to so many on the Island. “I really don’t do anything other than be here and provide the setting for them to meet. Occasionally it will be a hot day, and I’ll think about bringing out some lemonade,” Cynthia laughed.
One member of the group, Valerie Sonnenthal, joined nearly 16 years ago immediately after moving here, and said it was one of her best decisions, both personally and for her writing.
“I was supposed to give Cynthia a book for my neighbor when I finally got to visit her. She was showing me around, and told me she had a poetry group,” Sonnenthal said. “I told her I had been writing poetry since I was 12 years old, and she said, ‘You have to come.’ So I ended up going, and I never left.”
Sonnenthal noted that the anthology is a perfect example of the varied and unique voices of each member in the group, and how the dynamic in the parlor or in the backyard of the Cleaveland House is one of laid-back enjoyment (far from critical literary review).
There was no editing process for what could or couldn’t be included in the anthology, Sonnenthal noted. Each writer was allotted seven pages for their work — some chose more conventionally structured styles, while others teetered toward the fantastical and surreal, with no meter or rhyme.
“Even within one person, there is sort of a broad range of how they write, which is another awesome thing about poetry — it’s not limiting you to have to be consistent or have a singular way of communicating,” Sonnenthal said.
Fan Ogilvie, the current facilitator for the Cleaveland House Poets, said she remembers when William Waterway asked her to join. “You are a little bit anxious when you enter for the first time. I thought there would be rules and a lot of literary analysis, and it was actually pretty free-for-all,” Ogilvie said. “This isn’t a school, as some call the New York School and the San Francisco Beat School; this is really an assemblage of Vineyard poets and people all with different voices, and I loved that.”
Ogilvie referred to a quote by Jane Brown, another poet and former facilitator of the group, who said, “Look, it’s your poem, and you’re the poet.”
“And that’s always been our motto, too,” Ogilvie said. “Whether it’s the right way or the wrong way, I have seen poets grow over the years because of what we do. I think it’s pretty rare and wonderful.”
With such a broad range of poetry included in the anthology, the question arises: What makes a poem?
Ogilvie said some might consider a poem “words in the right order, or words in the best order,” but the ones that are really considered to be great are those that have something to do with the common bond of language.
“I think we all are really in love with language. We may not recognize that lover, but we love that language comes to us, often unsummoned, just there, aligned — something clever, interesting, sad, whatever,” Ogilvie said. “Many times the arrangement you have made doesn’t work, but sometimes it does, and it does brilliantly.”
Group member Arnie Reisman said that for him, poetry happens when his mind is totally clear, and isn’t racing around to focus on different tasks. As a result, he said, around 50 percent of his poems come to him while he is sleeping.
“They wake me up at 4 am, and suddenly there are a couple lines that show up. Other times, I am just on a walk, my mind is clear, and … bingo,” Reisman said.
He never tries to force poetry, but sometimes there is an opening line or a theme that he sticks with. Sometimes his poetry is free verse and abstract, while other times it is formulaic with exacting detail.
“When I brought in my first poem nearly eight years ago, I thought I was going to be booted out, because without giving it a hell of a lot of thought, I brought in a comic reflection on the Crucifixion and Resurrection,” Reisman laughed. “I decided I had to let everybody know that I’m probably not like anyone else here. Now is this still going to work, or do you just want me to bus the tables and go back to the car?”
But his unique (and hilarious) form of expression was appreciated just as much by the rest of the group, and he immediately felt a sense of family and comfort. “We are a group that is incredibly supportive of each other and heavily embedded in camaraderie,” Reisman said.
Another Cleaveland House poet, Ellen Story, said she came to the group a few years ago through Sonnenthal.
She said Sonnenthal, she, and another member of the poetry group were at a Billy Collins poetry workshop, and Collins had just gotten done casting out the majority of the attending audiences’ poems as “not poetry,” which was demoralizing for Story and other poets.
“Valerie came over to me and asked if I would like to be a member of the Cleaveland House Poets. I said yes, and I was really nervous going in, but Valerie just told me that the group is very kind, accepting, and supportive, and no one will discourage you from writing,” Story said.
Story noted that none of the poems in the anthology are “forced poems,” and each piece is a direct expression of the individual artist untainted by nitpicking comments or negativity.
“The poems are very much from the person’s soul, from their heart. Readers may not like every poem or even understand every poem, but they are sincere poems from the interior of each poet,” Story said.