The late, great Arnie Reisman performed, joked, wrote, and smiled his way into the hearts of Islanders from all walks of life. One of Reisman’s greatest joys, particularly later on in life, was poetry — writing it, reading it, orating it to a crowd, listening to another poet recite their work. The art of the carefully chosen written word was always near and dear to Reisman. Now, local writers have come together to compile a video tribute to him, each person reading a poem chosen from the broad body of his work.
According to artistic and executive director of the Playhouse MJ Bruder Munafo, the video poetry recital is a sort of preview for what’s to come, and harks to the beloved poetry café that Reisman proudly hosted for so long.
In 2014, Reisman began hosting a poetry café at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse that eventually became a mainstay for poets and lovers of poetry on the Island. The folks at the Playhouse were able to work with Reisman to keep the café going through the pandemic, and the group was excited to get it started again in November 2021.
But when Reisman died in early October 2021, the plans had to change. “We are still processing the fact that he died so suddenly,” Bruder Munafo said. “When we lost him, I thought, ‘We have to continue the café,’ and the board decided to call it Arnie’s Poetry Cafe going forward.”
Although it was too soon to get the café up and running again, Bruder Munafo said she and other members of the Playhouse board thought a poetry tribute would be a good way to honor Reisman’s memory.
“Out of those conversations, the idea was born to have people read Arnie’s poems and just keep it really simple, and let Arnie’s words speak,” Bruder Munafo said.
In order to get the lineup of readers for the poetry recital, Bruder Munafo sent out emails to pretty much everyone who had ever read a poem at the poetry café. Many of the readers who participated were old friends of Reisman, some were fellow members of the Cleaveland House Poets, and others knew him from his many involvements in Island culture and creativity.
Watching the 25-minute video containing the 16 different readers made Bruder Munafo miss Reisman even more, she said, although it was touching for her to hear all the participants reading his words.
“It meant they were putting their words aside to focus purely on his — it was very somber, but also totally wonderful,” Bruder Munafo said, noting that each of the readers was visibly choked up by reading Reisman’s writing.
Coming up in the near future, Arnie’s Poetry Café will feature guest hosts each month, and Bruder Munafo said Reisman’s wife, Paula Lyons, has expressed interest in introducing the first café.
“There’s no replacing Arnie, but I think keeping the poetry café in his name is a good way to honor what an amazing person and writer he was,” Bruder Munafo said.
One member of the Cleaveland House Poets to read a selection of Reisman’s poems as tribute was Susan Puciul. She said she was always amazed by how easily Reisman transitioned into the Cleaveland House group, and how much passion and thought he put into everything they did while they met.
“He was respectful of everyone’s endeavors, and offered very precise, astute critiques,” Puciul said. “The brilliant poems that were workshopped by the group, as well as the more modest ones, all were worthy of his attention, his focus, his appreciation — he just had that way about him.”
In the video tribute, Puciul reads “If Souls Were Costumes” — a piece that speaks to the all-inclusiveness of Reisman’s humanity, and how expansive his respect and appreciation was for all things in life.
One particularly noteworthy element of Reisman’s character was his ability to be utterly hilarious, both in writing and in speech. His often humorous approach to writing allowed him to touch on subjects that were out of reach for many, although much of what Reisman wrote dealt with serious topics like trauma, the state of the world, and complex relationships with loved ones.
According to Puciul, Riesman’s poems often embodied two sides of the same coin. “Humor and darkness, love and loss — Arnie knew that you can’t have one without the other, which gave a certain depth and dimensionality to his work,” she said.
Reisman’s innate tools in his writer’s arsenal were odd connections between the seemingly unrelated, along with curious juxtapositions that make the reader stop at the end of a sentence, then retreat into their mind to reshuffle. “Allusions to anything from ancient Greece to 42nd Street. Really unique ways of looking at life that allowed Arnie to probe at the heart of the matter,” Puciul said.
Rich Michelson said he first got to know Reisman while attending his poetry cafe at the Playhouse. Whenever Michelson would go to the Playhouse to attend a show or be part of the poetry performance, Reisman would be there — an ever-gracious host.
“What a generous and lovely host he was. He always made me feel welcome there,” Michelson said. “He would always speak in between poems and make the audience laugh, and was just a cheerleader for poetry, which made him a perfect laureate for the Vineyard.”
One thing Michelson said he admired about Reisman was his stalwart dedication to getting poetry in the hands of everyone, and always supporting each reader who stepped on stage.
Michelson said the Playhouse performed one of his theater pieces, and Reisman was right there in the front row, laughing and clapping the whole time.
When Reisman passed away and Michelson got the email from Bruder Munafo about the poetry tribute, he knew he had to participate. “I felt that I needed to be there, because I knew Arnie would be there for me if things were reversed,” Michelson said.
Michelson read the poem “When Things Are Dry and Cut,” which subverts common phraseology to give the reader a new perspective on language. Reisman would often make these purposeful mixups in his writing that make you stop and think about the words in a more meaningful way.
“There’s peanut butter and jelly, but Arnie would turn it into jelly and peanut butter. He would show you how the simplest turnabout makes you look at words differently, and if you look at words differently, you look at life differently, and that was Arnie,” Michelson said.
Fan Ogilvie, another poet from the Cleaveland House Poets group, said she read the poem “On the 5:45 Out of Wedlock” where Reisman is being wry, but speaking on a topic that’s serious and close to his heart, all using the metaphor of a trip on the train.
Ogilvie said Reisman often took certain mundane life experiences, like hopping on the afternoon train, and flooded them with deeply relatable emotion and interesting takes on existence.
Toward the end of his life, Ogilvie said, Reisman was heavily involved with a number of initiatives, and did some of his greatest writing during that time.
“His later poems were really getting good — he was in the middle of so much, and had no intention of going,” Ogilvie said.
According to Ogilvie, Reisman’s wife and longtime co-host of the popular NPR radio show “Says You!” Paula Lyons, sent her a file with all the poems Reisman wrote up to that date, following the release of his most recent book. Ogilvie is working on compiling all the writing into a book that will eventually be published so all of Reisman’s friends, family, and fans can continue to revel in his witty, charming, and powerful words.
“He was so prolific. I think there are about a hundred or so poems after his last book, so we will have more Arnie coming down the pike soon,” Ogilvie said.
Additionally, Ogilvie said, Lyons has been collecting poems that Reisman wrote to her that illustrate a different side of Reisman — one that is more personal and less crafted for the public eye.
“Arnie was such a public man, and could always show you who he was and how he was. I think he had a bond and duty to make people laugh or to make people happy, so it’s interesting to find his more personal pieces,” Ogilvie said.
Going forward, Reisman and his life’s work will continue to be honored by the Martha’s Vineyard community, and his words will echo from writers, poets, and those who knew him. According to Ogilvie, his memory will live on through the guttural laughs and cerebral chin-scratching born of his one-of-a-kind wit and perspective.
“With Arnie, you always expected to laugh,” Ogilvie said. “But sometimes you didn’t laugh — sometimes you cried, sometimes you marveled at his wordplay, but you always walked away with a new way of looking at things.”