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.

1 comment:

  1. Just came upon this blog post, and wondered if, in the 6 months since you wrote it, you read my novel, Monhegan Windows. As to why the written arts (especially fiction) are so sparsely represented compared with the obvious multitude of art work highlighting the island, it's a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it has to do with a suspicion about writers that they are going to write about a place and make fun of it or make fun of the residents.

    There is one high-profile novelist who did write about Monhegan, although in short form -- Richard Russo, in his short story "Monhegan Light," which curiously (or perhaps not) is centered around the relationship of an off-islander with an island artist.