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If you asked me how many poetry readings I’ve attended in Washington DC over the past three decades, I would be hard pressed to come up with a handful. Surely, you say, DC has so much going on there must be poetry readings and live performances every night of the week. But that is precisely the point.
When you live in a big city there is too much going on. It is overwhelming. Our response (and I’m ashamed to admit this) has been to ignore much of DC’s cultural activity except for the occasional play or concert. It was easier to stay home rather than fight the traffic in the evenings.
In Stonington, Maine, it is different. Life is slower. Some things are closer, while many conveniences are much further away. We step out of our cottage and walk about seven minutes down the quiet main street to the Opera House, the locus of cultural activity on Deer Isle. Despite its name, the century-old Opera House (first built in 1893) is a multi-purpose venue, hosting live theatre, dance, music, movies and, at one point, roller skating. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Opera House board.)
Last night was an evening of poetry. Two Maine poets read their own work and then a handful of local residents read a selection of poems, prefacing each one with brief commentary on “Why I chose this poem.” The theme was “home” and “place.”
It was a lovely and intensely meaningful evening. Sam and I have been coming to Deer Isle and to our family island for 40 years. And for the past seven summers we’ve come to our house in Stonington. So in some ways, this is “home” in the deep sense of the word, as much as, or more so, than Washington DC.
Let me offer you a few snippets of the poems and tell you a bit about the readers. Poet and author Deborah Cummins was curator of the event. On stage, she began the evening by quoting Irish poet Eavan Boland:
“There is the place that happens,
and the place that happens to you.”
– Eavan Boland
You may have to think about that for a minute. I did. The “happens to you” part makes perfect sense if you’ve been captivated by the starkness and beauty of the Maine seascape, as we have.
Then came Maine poet Dawn Potter. I was not familiar with her work. She was mesmerizing. Her poems are muscular and sturdy, rhythmic and clear and so very evocative of small town life. She lives in Harmony, ME where, of course, things are not always harmonious.
She read First Game, about attending a basketball game at her son’s elementary school. The players are awful she explained in advance. They are too short, clumsy and overmatched. The games are painful to watch. Of course, the devoted parents go anyway.
The poem evokes the moment when, the team losing badly, the crowd shifts in their seats.
“… and in that instant an alarm, a buffalo instinct, ripples among the parents: an obstinate, unspoken urge to circle their hapless calves.” – Dawn Potter.
You can find First Game and other recent poems by Dawn Potter in her anthology, How the Crimes Happened.
Local means heightened intimacy
What was most notable about last night’s poetry reading was the intimacy of the event. As Sam pointed out, reading to a group of people you know, that you’ll run into at the grocery store and on the street, “ups the ante of the emotional exposure” (his words).
That was particularly true for Ben Barrows, son of the well-known publisher of the local Penobscot Bay newspapers. After a decade working on economic development and crisis response in far flung places (from Antarctica to Azerbaijan), he returned to Stonington recently to take up the position of general manager of his family’s business.
He told us how hard the decision was to return home to live in the place he grew up. Then, after describing a month spent inside a U.N. installation in Afghanistan, his fear of drowning and of being so far from the ocean, he read Inland by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
“… Far from the sea-board, far from the sound
Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
Tons of water striking the shore,—
What do they long for, as I long for
One salt smell of the sea once more? …
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
Other readers included the town manager; the lead reporter for the local paper, a seventh-generation islander (retired businesswoman and politician), and a former math professor who now volunteers at the high school. All year-rounders (as opposed to summer people), they were surprisingly funny and eloquent. And a reminder that everyone in a small community wears multiple hats.
My favorite poems, both by Maine poets, weren’t dense or difficult. But they captured perfectly daily life in a remote place on the coast of Maine:
Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man by Alice N. Persons
” …you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs
who always brings the perfect present… “
– Alice N. Persons
I admit I do have a bit of a crush on our UPS man. He brings dog biscuits for our daughter’s dog, either because he’s nice or because he’s afraid of dogs.
And finally, Starting the Subaru at Five Below by Stuart Kestenbaum, poet and director of the nearby and famous Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.
” …Finger tips numb, nose
hair frozen, I pump the accelerator
and turn the key. The battery cranks,
the engine gives 2 or 3 low groans and
starts. My God it starts… “
– Stuart Kestenbaum
If we make it year-round in Stonington (not a foregone conclusion at this point), I expect we may have trouble starting our car in the middle of the winter. And maybe Sam or I will be asked to be a reader at next year’s poetry event.
PHOTO CREDITS: top, Opera House Arts; middle, Debbie Weil via iPhone; bottom, Opera House Arts