P is for Poetry #AtoZChallenge

“I came to work on my novel.” It was a total cliché at the time — everyone, it seemed, came to Martha’s Vineyard to work on a novel. A few years later it was a screenplay they were working on, but screenplays never tempted me: I didn’t own a TV, wasn’t a big movie buff (my favorite movie of all time is still one I saw for the first time just before I turned 12), and had an inkling that it was much harder to get a screenplay produced than a novel published.

The sagest comment I ever heard on why people come to Martha’s Vineyard was uttered by the woman who is currently Travvy’s vet: “Some people move to the Vineyard to get themselves together, other people move here to crack up — and it’s not always clear which is which.”

A very capable writer, who’s been writing a Martha’s Vineyard Times column about matters veterinary for more than 25 years, she was also one of the very first poets I heard read during my first winter here. I’d been reading the newspapers and every posted flyer that caught my eye, looking for a lifeline, some clue to where I might find possibly kindred spirits: anything to do with writing and/or women. Thus I was led to a poetry night at an off-season series called “the Flip Side of the Ocean Club,” the Ocean Club being a seasonal restaurant housed in the Five Corners building that later, for a brief shining moment, became the year-round home of Wintertide Coffeehouse (more about that under W).

Leaving the Island cover (1989), design by Maggie MacCarty

What I wound up writing during my first years on the Vineyard, along with occasional reviews and essays for feminist publications, was poetry. It had something to do with learning that not only were there good poets on year-round Martha’s Vineyard, there were places to read it and people who would listen. But poetry and I were not strangers: I’d arrived on the Vineyard with a chapbook’s worth of pretty good poems, Leaving the Island.

When, with the help of my then girlfriend, Maggie MacCarty, who happened to be an excellent artist and graphic designer, I managed to self-publish it, the title led many to ask if I really was leaving. No, I’d explain, the poems were all written when I was still in D.C., about a mostly unrequited relationship. The title poem, however, written in the fall of 1981, begins “This crossing / I stand at Islander’s bow / windblown, entranced.” Another poem is titled “South Beach,” and there’s an untitled rather mystical one that begins “in giving myself to the ocean.”

Me (left) with poet Kathryn Howd Machan and her then husband, Ralph. After a reading at New Words Bookstore, Cambridge, late 1980s.

The poems I wrote during my first years here were also about a relationship — my developing relationship with the island — but unlike the Leaving the Island series, many of them were in traditional forms: sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles. I was blatantly under the influence of Marilyn Hacker. So much of the great lesbian and feminist writing of the 1970s and ’80s was poetry, so of course I read a lot of it, but of the poets I read most voraciously — Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Joy Harjo, Marge Piercy . . . — only Hacker wrote in traditional forms.

What she made those forms do, or what these forms allowed her to do — this was a revelation.

And a challenge. What made me rise to it? Not sure, but in retrospect I can point to the myriad of benefits I got from it. My writing tends to sprawl, as if space were no object. Writing formal poetry, like working at the newspaper, taught me to compress, to make every word count. More, using fewer words often makes for a more powerful piece. And yet another thing: At this point I was getting more and more involved in theater, which has had such a huge effect on my writing that guess what T is going to be for? This is when I started reading everything aloud as I was writing it, paying more attention to sound.

My very first Vineyard publication, believe it or not, was “Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting,” published as an op-ed in the Vineyard Gazette in early 1986. This five-sonnet sequence was about one of the West Tisbury planning board meetings that eventually led to the Deep Bottom Pond subdivision. Clever me, I reprinted it in this blog almost three years ago, so you can read it here.

In the early 1990s what I thought was a series of poems evolved into my first one-act play, “Persephone’s Mother,” which has actually been produced a few times. My lines were getting longer and longer and turning into prose. I’ve written almost no poetry since then. I don’t read much of it either: poetry is not the vital force in my life that it was in my women’s community days. Rereading what I wrote in the 1980s makes me want to try my hand at it again, though I’m not sure I have the patience.

Interestingly enough, and probably serendipitously, a guy has just come into my writers’ group who’s working on short-short fiction, “flash fiction” as it’s called. I’ve long been fascinated by the form, and tempted to try it. Maybe I will.

I’ve included other poems in this A to Z series, but it seems wise to conclude this particular post with one, a villanelle from February 1986.

The Tale-Spinner’s Design

Out of whole cloth I’m embroidering tales,
spelling runes to magic in colored thread.
Deft is my working with fingers and yarn.

I’m no one’s apprentice. The castle hails
me witch; to this craft I was born and bred.
From Mother’s cloth I embroider my tales.

My tapestries keep drafty hallways warm,
my carpets cloak the floors, my quilts each bed,
so deft am I with my fingers and yarm.

The night-born traveler slips through my veils;
I offer rest, she bids me stay instead,
sly spinster of cloth, embroidering tales.

My love swirls wild like paisley, so I warn,
it spans abysses, flames orange and red —
so deftly kindled from fingers and yarn.

She skirts the fringes, laughs aloud, and fails
to back away. It warms when we’re long dead,
our womancloth with deep embroidered tales,
so deftly fashioned from fingers and yarn.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to P is for Poetry #AtoZChallenge

  1. Jennie says:

    I think you would thoroughly enjoy flash fiction, Susanna.


  2. I have gotten a lot of long stories out of flash fiction attempts…I recommend it for people who are stuck, as trying to compose an effective story in so few words often results in whole novellas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can totally see that happening to me. My poems turned into plays, a short story into a novel . . . I did the first novel, and am doing the second, scene by scene. Most scenes have a beginning, middle, and end, so in a way they’re like mini stories, but they aren’t self-contained the way a poem or a short-short story is. That’s what I want to have a go at.

      Liked by 1 person

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