An incomplete list of my interactions with Dan Waters, in no particular order but all from the current calendar year:
- I attended a performance at the Vineyard Haven library in which Dan and Jemima James performed a selection of songs, some by her, some by him, some by other people. Dan sang at least one song in Portuguese, which he speaks fluently, having grown up in Brazil.
- Dan e-mailed me to ask if I’d make a contribution to Nina Violet, a stupendously good local musician who was working on a new CD. Sure, I said, and snail-mailed him a (modest) check.
- Checked in regularly with Dan’s Facebook page to monitor the progress of hummingbirds, turtles, and other denizens of his Indian Hill neighborhood.
- Also on Dan’s Facebook page, participated with several other Dan fans in improvising some wildly funny stories based on current (Vineyard) events. When Dan got home, he said he couldn’t leave us alone for a minute. True, but then he did it again.
- Attended a PowerPoint presentation by Dan about the proposed expansion and renovation of the West Tisbury Free Public Library, of which Dan is a trustee.
- Stopped by Dan’s Indian Hill Press booth at one of the summer artisans’ fairs at the Grange Hall to replenish my stock of his wonderful note cards. Dan writes the poems, carves the linoleum blocks, and composes the type on a Linotype machine. He manages to capture the verities of Vineyard life with more wit and fewer words than anyone else.
Yeah, it’s one guy doing all that stuff, day in, day out, so no one was surprised when it was announced earlier this month that Dan would be the recipient of this year’s Creative Living Award. (Several people did express surprise that he hadn’t won it long ago.) The Creative Living Award is given each year to honor the late Ruth Bogan, who, in the words of her friend Ruth Redding, was a “gallant woman who loved beauty, who loved the Vineyard and who believed anyone can do anything.”
Late yesterday afternoon, he received the framed certificate and the accompanying check at a well-attended and convivial presentation at the Grange Hall.
One by one, the four speakers created a verbal picture of Dan that I totally recognized as the Dan whose path has crossed mine several times (already) this year. Fan Ogilvie, West Tisbury’s current poet laureate — Dan was her predecessor, the first poet laureate in the town’s history — talked about Dan’s poetry, not the pithy quatrains for which he is best known, but two of his longer works: “A Night in the Azalea Garden” and “The Hag of Tiah’s Cove,” which you can find featured along with several other long Dan poems on the West Tisbury library’s website.
Jemima James — onstage without a guitar! — talked about how Dan had recalled her to music when, exhausted by dealing with stage fright and lack of what the commercial world calls success, she had given it up. They’d play in his living room a couple of times a week — and after a while they were gigging in public. We all knew Dan as a poet, artist, and master of old print technology — who knew he was also a pretty good singer and guitarist?
Beth Kramer, director of the West Tisbury library, was up next: she nominated Dan for the Creative Living Award knowing he was going to win, but not realizing that if he did, she was going to have to give a speech. Naturally she talked about the key role Dan has played in the library’s expansion plans, especially in letting the town’s residents know what is going on.
Artist James Evans, the youngest of the speakers, spoke of Dan the mentor: when James met Dan, he was a 15-year-old high school student with artistic gifts but no idea what if anything he could do with them. Dan encouraged him to stay in school and keep creating, then when the time came helped him apply to college.
In a word, Dan Waters isn’t and doesn’t aspire to be an anguished artist working in isolation from ordinary mortals. He’s deeply connected to the community he lives in; as he inspires its members, its members inspire him. So it was no surprise that while he was accepting this richly deserved award, he scanned the audience and couldn’t help noticing what a creative and artistic group we were. I looked around: damn if he wasn’t right. I was surrounded by artists in all sorts of media, quite a few of whom probably don’t consider themselves artists, and people who, day in, day out, are encouraging the creativity of others while they express their own.
Now I’m going to quote something that Dan didn’t say in his acceptance speech. He wrote it, though; I know, because I’m stealing it from the Indian Hill Press website.
“Martha’s Vineyard is a small, tight-knit community that’s strangely old-fashioned in at least one important respect: it recognizes and appreciates original home-grown expression. We wouldn’t have such a healthy population of eccentrics and independent thinkers if we didn’t understand the personal journey and forgive the occasional mistake. In a country that prizes superstardom, our island perversely favors local personages. Our resistance to homogenized mainland entertainment may stem from being surrounded by ocean, our lives bound by something intangible yet coherent. Whatever the reason, I feel immensely lucky to live here.”
It must have something to do with the ocean — and with the fact that so many people on this side of Vineyard Sound are willing and able to egg each other on as we follow our eccentric and independent paths. I don’t know if I feel lucky to live here. Sometimes I just feel doomed. But this is why I believe the place is worth fighting for.