Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Island Poetry

I recently spent a week on Monhegan Island. Measuring almost two miles in length and only 3/4 mile across at its widest (not quite six square miles), it is situated 12 miles off Midcoast Maine. It has a permanent population of approximately 75 hale and hearty souls while the summer population grows to around a thousand with the arrival of the rusticators, many of them artists of varying stripe, and day trippers. SallyAnn and I have been going out to the island for the past six or seven years, and it is something we look forward to each summer.

This year was no different. We took the boat from New Harbor, just above Pemaquid Point, and returned to our regular room on the third floor of the Monhegan House with its wonderful views of the lighthouse on the hill and the harbor with Muscongus Bay beyond. It was nice to see friendly and familiar faces from summers past, and the island had not changed noticeably since our last visit; that is one of the things we appreciate and count on.

The island has been a mecca for artists for over a century. An important art colony was established there circa 1890 and prominent artists of the day - Robert Henri, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and others - began to visit the island regularly during the summer months. The English artist Samuel P.R. Triscott came in 1892, settled there permanently in 1902, and remained until his death in 1925 (he is buried in the small island cemetery below the lighthouse). Rockwell Kent arrived in 1905 and remained several years. The Wyeths also came to the island to paint and James Wyeth still maintains a home there. Subsequent generations of painters have continued to flock to the island - James Fitzgerald came in 1924 and resided there after 1942. The Russian painter A. J Bogdanov, Andrew Winter, Henry and Herbie Kallem, Reuben Tam, and others also came to the island to live and paint.

Today there is a thriving community of artists that maintain homes and studios across the island. The Monhegan Artist’s Residency program sustains others who wish to come to the island to work. The Lupine Gallery, near the island wharf, exhibits and markets the work of island artists and every summer the Monhegan Museum hangs work by noted artists past and present. Several artists also open their studios to the public.

Each time we visit Monhegan we have enjoyed wandering the island trails and the villages paths were we are constantly encountering artists hard at work at their easels and sketch books. Oils, watercolors, pastels, charcoal, pencil . . . just about ever media is represented. And then there are the photographers. This year SallyAnn came armed with her paints, pastels and her sketchbook, and while she was roaming the island in search of something to paint, I was contented to sit in the shade on the porch of the Monhegan House where I read and wrote.

I have never understood why Monhegan has long been a destination for artists yet it has never nurtured an organized community of writers. I would think that novelists, essayists and poets could appreciate and thrive in the same environment that has sustained a relatively large community of artists over the years. This is not to say that there are no writers there. Last year Matthew Keill, who has been a regular summer visitor to the island, published a novel entitled Monhegan Windows and it was for sale at various venues across the island. This year I also found copies in several bookstores throughout Maine. There are a very few poets who frequent the island, some of whom even count themselves among its permanent residents.

Jan Bailey, who is originally from the foothills of South Carolina, first came to Monhegan as a season visitor and now resides there year round and has for many years. She is the author of Paper Clothes (1995), Heart of the Other: Island Poems (1998), and her most recent collection, Midnight in the Guest Room (2004). Besides her writings, she has operated a store on the island and is presently the librarian.

Kate Cheney Chappell, a painter, printmaker and a seasonal island poet, envisioned and curated “Island Visions / Island Voices,” a joint artists-poets show at the Lupine Gallery in 2000-2001, and it then moved to the mainland and the Round Top Center for the Arts, in Damariscotta, Maine. Island Visions / Island Voices, a collection of poems, including those by Ms. Bailey and Ms. Chappell, was subsequently published by Stone Island Press (University of Maine at Machias) in 2001in conjunction with this exhibition. Ms. Chappell was also associated with the 2007 exhibition “On Island: Poetry on Monhegan,” sponsored by the University of New England, in Portland. It demonstrated that the island has had a strong, if not well-known, writing tradition which has included individuals like Rockwell Kent and Reuben Tam who are known for both their visual art as well as their poetry.

Whereas there are studios and galleries serving as an outlet for artists, the island’s literary events are few and far between. The island has it’s own public library housed in a small clapboard cottage located between the wharf and the island school, and it is here that the handful of literary events and workshops take place each summer. Besides that, this small and intimate library has a wonderful collection of books considering its size and constituency. There have also been readings by those published on “Monhegan Commons, an island website, and in 2003 Marjorie Mir edited and published Poet’s Cove: An Anthology, featuring poets who have appeared on the Common’s webpage.

Upon our arrival on the island this summer, I was hoping that there might be a similar literary event and so we stopped by the library on our walk from the wharf to the Monhegan House. A sign posted on the lawn outside the library announced an evening of poetry and I stopped to inquire about it. We were greeted by Jan Bailey who told us it was the first of two such programs planned as an opportunity to come and read a favorite poem, whether it be one of your own or one by a favorite poet. This year I came armed with some of my own work and so I looked forward to participating in this gathering.

That evening arrived, and after a long day exploring the island followed by a rustic seafood dinner en plein air along the island harbor, I walked over to the library. I could see and hear a storm approaching as I walked through the village. Ten of us showed up and we sat in a circle in the small reading room and took turns reading our own work and that of others. When it was my turn to read, I shared Donald Hall’s “To A Waterfowl” as well as some of my own poems. There was quite a selection of verse and I was able to meet and talk poetry with some very interesting people, both residents and visitors like myself. It was a very pleasant evening and the approaching storm lent some wonderful atmospherics to it all. Afterwards, I walked back through the village with one of the other participants, a young school teacher from Brooklyn who has been summering on the island with her family for as long as she can remember. The wind was blowing and the lightning and thunder were all about us. I like storms, especially out on the island, and this one will be particularly memorable! Luckily, the worst of it held off until I was back to the Monhegan House.

I hope that one day writers and poets will discover Monhegan and that it will be home to a thriving community contributing to the literature of the island. Its rocky shores and coves, its woods, it mighty headlands are the marrow of stories yet to be told, and poems not yet written.
Thanks to my wife SallyAnn for allowing me to post two of her beautiful watercolors.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

J’aime le Québec!

We are quite fortunate to be spending our summer months in the foothills of western Maine. Not only is the rocky coast of Maine just a short scenic drive to the east, but the mountains of western Maine and northern New Hampshire are a short hop up Route 26. And beyond that last height of land in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Range is the international boundary with Canada and la belle Province of Québec.

Crossing the border here, Montréal, Canada’s second largest metropolitan area, is only a two-hour drive through the rolling hills and farmlands of the Eastern Townships. The US-Canadian border is an arbitrary line drawn in 1842 and formalized by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Here it follows the highlands separating the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Ocean watersheds. For several miles before the international boundary you find yourself driving through near pristine forests where one seldom encounters another vehicle. There are no houses, telephone lines, or a living soul. Then, as one crests that final ridge line two lonely customs stations - one American, one Canadian - come into view. Completing the border formalities, one continues down into the St. Lawrence Valley with its patchwork of dairy farms and green fields and pastures interspersed with a collection of small villages.

There is no doubt one is in a foreign country. Speed limits and distances are measured in kilometers. In fact, everything in Canada is metric, a system the country converted to in the 1970s. At first one might think this was northern New England, but the architecture is different in subtle ways; the houses and barns have their own design distinct from their counterparts in the United States. Above all, everything is in French. The signs are French, the people speak French. Québec is French, pure and simple. Unlike the rest of Canada, which has been officially bilingual since 1969, the only official language in the province since 1974 is French. It was designed to protect its French language and culture within the framework of the Canadian nation. Québec is also very Catholic; crosses and shrines are everywhere and every village, many named after one or another saint, has a church in a prominent location.

I first came to Québec in the summer of 1967. Canada was celebrating its centennial and we spent a few days in Toronto before continuing to Montréal to partake in the festivities at Expo 67. We stayed in a small motel in St-Jean, on the banks of the Richelieu River, south of the city. It was there I had a severe allergic reaction on a Sunday morning and I was forced to seek help at the local hospital. Nobody spoke English and I had to sit on a wooden bench in the emergency room while the hospital staff, all speaking French, ran around treating several local youths who ended up sliced and diced during a bar fight the previous evening. I sat there until a doctor who spoke English drove down from Montréal to examine me and to prescribe medication that took care of my problem in short order. This first visit to Québec was my earliest introduction to a truly foreign culture and foreign language environment. It was intriguing, to say the least.

So I have been coming back to Québec every chance I get. There is something about this place that continues to draw me to it, particularly the Eastern Townships that stretch east of Montréal along the international border with Vermont, New Hampshire, and northwestern Maine. I love to wander here and there and soak it all in. The markets and the grocery stores (even the small chain outlets in rural towns) are a treat to visit and explore. The charcuterie, the cheeses (I have already written about poutine, Québec’s “national” dish), varieties of terrines, the local vegetables are de rigeur here. At home such a variety would only be found in specialty or gourmet shops. I am reminded of the markets I use to frequent when I was a university student in Germany. It is fun to walk down the aisles and look at well-known brand name items in their French-language packaging. I used to read the boxes in Germany in order to increase my vocabulary. I improve my French in a similar manner.

Québec is a place where things are quite different from what I grew up with. Different values, different language, a different culture. And each time I come, I remember back to that first visit over four decades ago. Things have changed, but in many ways they have changed very little. Québec will always be a different kind of place. That is what I love about it. Je me souviens.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Still Looking Toward Portugal

I am sitting here at the cottage on Sabbathday Lake, in Maine. It is very early in the morning and the fog is gradually lifting off the mirror smooth surface. The coffee percolator pulses and clatters as it comes to life, filling the entire cottage with the pungent aroma of dark roasted beans. A daily morning tattoo with its inviting cadences.

We have been at the lake for just over two weeks now and I am starting to fall into the routine. We have been spending quite a bit of time here at the lake and I have been writing while Sally Ann is busy with her sketch work and exploring new possibilities with her watercolors and pastels. Frankly, I can’t think of a better place to write and paint. The solitude and quiet offered to us has taken hold of us. At the moment we can’t think of a place we would rather be.

This is not to say that we have not done a little exploring, and our wanderings have taken us up into the Great North Woods of northern New Hampshire and then into the Eastern Townships of Québec (more on that later). We have also been over to the coast in search of cheap lobsters and clams and to sit in the shade of the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point, to stare out at the ocean, to Monhegan Island shimmering on the horizon, and toward Portugal which lies somewhere beyond the earth’s curvature.

I am reminded of what I posted back on December 8, 2008 when this blog was just a couple of weeks old:

So what lies beyond? When I first discovered Maine and its coast in the late 1980s, I often stood on a rugged finger extending into the surf below the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse (the one depicted on the Maine state quarter). I also favored Ocean Point, a few miles to the southwest of Pemaquid on the southern extremity of the Boothbay Peninsula. Later I ventured farther Down East to Quoddy Head, and the most eastern point of land in the continental United States (and like Kerouac I am also drawn to the America’s Pacific shore, visiting Quoddy Head’s western counterpoint at Cape Flattery on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula). About five or six years ago I discovered the eastern headlands of Monhegan, a small island located 15 miles off the Maine coast which has long been immortalized in the paintings of the Wyeths (James Wyeth still has a home on Lobster Cove on the island’s southern exposure), Rockwell Kent (who originally built the Wyeth cottage), George Bellows, and so many others. Even today one cannot visit Monhegan’s headlands, coves, and shores without encountering artists discovering and interpreting the island’s landscapes and seascapes for themselves.

Soon we will be back on Monhegan Island where we can once again go to those coves and headlands and extend our search a bit farther beyond that horizon. Life does not end at our coastline. There is something more out there and we yearn to know what it is. So we keep going back, we keep looking.

The percolator has ceased its morning rhythms and the coffee is ready. My attention is refocusing on the day that lies ahead. We will enjoy the lake as we write and paint. Yet I can’t help but ponder the possibilities that lie ahead as we once again wander out to sea. Norman Maclean was right. “I am haunted by waters.”