This installment of Second Acts started out as a profile on Steve Ewing, dockbuilder-poet. If ever there was a Vineyarder finding his “other self,” it’s Steve, a man who drives 20-foot pilings into sand and mud and then goes home to express his feelings in iambic pentameter. But in exploring Steve’s expressive journey, it became obvious that he’s not alone. There seems to be an abundance of Islanders who have discovered their poetic selves here — far more than one would find in a similar swath of America. So the question is: Why here — what is it about this place that encourages its denizens to explore themselves, be vulnerable, express feelings, and literally wax poetic?
Steve says, “It’s in the water.” He’s “an Island kid,” who grew up literally near, in, or on the water, for most of his 70 years — save three years at boys’ boarding school, Hotchkiss, which was enlightening but a little “too jacket and tie,” and a foray to New York hoping to work on a tugboat, but mostly spent washing dishes. He came back to the Vineyard to fish, work the Chappy Ferry, and learn the art and science of marine dockbuilding — in a twist on the usual refrain, was “the first one in my family not to go to college” — and came to be named the Edgartown poet laureate. He says he was spurred — no, compelled — to express deep-felt emotions when his younger brother died in a car crash. “Your vehicle abandoned, In the night, We pray God speed your spirit, Searching for the light … Your fluid run, Your arms, your legs, Your tender laughing face, In sweet swift years, You stamped your soul’s embrace.” Steve says, “It just came out of me.”
So maybe it is the water. Or being surrounded by water, isolated from the rest of the world. A safe place to observe and process and express oneself.
Maybe that explains why Nancy Luce, in the 1800s, wrote odes to her chickens. Or what possessed Dan Waters, writer/printmaker and West Tisbury poet laureate, to celebrate her in his work: “Nancy Luce, the night she died, called her chickens to her side, Neighbors ran to see them ride, through the island sky so wide …” Or inspired Nancy Aronie as the unofficial writers’ mentor of the Vineyard. Or perhaps was the muse to Jill Jupen, first poet laureate of the Vineyard. Or fueled the late Arnie Reisman, journalist/raconteur/playwright, poet laureate, and poet encourager of the entire Island, to host his Poetry Cafes at the M.V. Playhouse with Steve Ewing, Dan Waters, Rose Styron — grande dame of Island poets, Brooks Robards — poet and poet-publisher, Laura Roosevelt, Don McLagan, Liz Pozen, Fan Ogilvie, Jennifer Smith Turner, John Maloney, and many, many others.
Don McLagan, serial entrepreneur who retired to Chappaquiddick, says when you write poetry, “you strip off the stiff armor of achievement, purpose, and punctuality.” You lay yourself bare, no résumé or CV to put you at the head of the line; in fact, you wait in the line for a ferry, or in traffic at the Triangle, and you have time … time, if you’re a poet like Don, to form a thought, perhaps about that Chappy Ferry: “Three cars, three minutes, each time, on time, just in time, to midnight – metronome.”
Liz Pozen, psychotherapist turned painter, one day watching old home movies, reliving childhood memories, began sobbing, driven to put her feelings on paper: “I hadn’t written poetry before, and thought this was my one and only poem.” But it was the beginning of the next phase of her artistic life. From her studio overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor, she kept writing. She connected with Arnie Reisman, Don McLagan, Fan Ogilivie, and Brooks Robards, who guided her through publishing her work. She attended a workshop by the legendary Billy Collins, who liked her poems so much that when her book, “Salami,” was published, he wrote a back cover note: “The charm of Liz Pozen’s poetry … from aspiring to sarcastic, from naive to smart-alecky … all equally convincing.” Liz too is inspired by the Vineyard, but more by the people, famous but unnamed: “At the party, the very important person recalls his half-century-old successes and mentions his recent meeting with the power elite while searching over my shoulder for someone more worthy.”
Dan Waters worked for the Vineyard Gazette and Yankee Magazine, and has what he calls “a facility for short, rhyming poetry that fills a gap when a newspaper article runs short … and has a nugget of wisdom in it.” He describes the Vineyard as “a kind of terrarium, where we all experience the same things, the same weather, the same Steamship Authority, the seasonal changes, …things that touch everybody of every social class … although isolated and insular and separated from reality, has a whole set of realities and common experiences …. rich material for a poet.”
Laura Roosevelt’s circuitous path to poetry wound from D.C. to Wall Street to philanthropy to Martha’s Vineyard newspaper writing. Once here, she joined writers groups, and honed her poetic voice. Today she’s the curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Times’ Poet’s Corner, featuring poetry from all ages, on all topics, just to encourage and nurture the form. “Some of what I publish is very trite, with unimaginative rhymes, but some I love, and I love that there are so many amateur poets on the Island … hopefully getting better.” Why do poets and poetry flourish here? “My husband will often say jokingly, There’s a cosmic vortex underneath the Island of Martha’s Vineyard … feeding creativity here.”
Jennifer Smith Turner is another refugee from the corporate world (insurance, government, foundations, nonprofits) who realized her calling was in the written word, and she followed it all the way to the Vineyard. She joined Cleaveland House Poets, and has been writing ever since, and recently an awardwinning novel. Jennifer talks about “the circle of poets” and how “the light at different times of day” and “the quiet in October when you’re the only person on the beach” can “spark a poem.” Maya Angelou agrees, writing about Jennifer’s poetry collection, “Perennial Secrets,” “The language is sheer and the imagery delicate. It shimmers with light.”
But why here? How? What is happening here on Martha’s Vineyard to spawn a plethora of poets. Poetry Cafe, Poet’s Corner, Cleaveland House, Featherstone, Pathways Arts, multiple poet laureates (or is it poets laureate?)? What makes so many people evolve from their lofty or laborious careers to free verse or rhymed meter? To make art? Steve Ewing says, “Poetry is art. But art is everywhere. Digging a hole is art. The way you put the shovel in the earth. The way you pile up the dirt on the side. The shape of the hole.” Of course, if you dig deep enough, you hit water. It must be the water, or the light — or the quiet — or the vortex — or the Island itself. Ask the poets.
We invite you to send us thoughts on Vineyarders who have found their other selves, the next Second Act to feature on these pages. Send ideas to email@example.com.
Jim Dale is a nonfiction writer who has co-authored books on topics ranging from sports to business, to medicine, to politics, most recently the memoir “We’re Better Than This,” with Congressman Elijah Cummings.