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The City and the Writer: In Martha’s Vineyard with Justen Ahren

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Martha’s Vineyard as you feel/see it?  

The Vineyard still is one of those places where life is married to the seasons. The geese migrating over the ponds; the first hungry-throated call of the frogs from vernal pools; the wind through bare trees; the gray, blue, white-capped ocean all are connected to our moods. We still call seasons by what we do in them: scallop season, deer season, bass season, tourist season, off-season. So we are still people tuned to place. We see ourselves as islanders, thus separate. Our view of the world is tempered, and bolstered, by our isolation. We tend to be sensitive to the footprints we leave, both literal and figurative. We are keenly aware of both impact and change. The land (we see it!) is finite and visibly shifting. Each storm, each house built, each person who leaves or arrives has impact, palpable impact. So the mood is complicated. We understand change.        


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?  

August, 1991. Hurricane Bob. The storm dredges up salt from the ocean and dumps it on the land. When the sun comes out, the leaves and flowers burn up. Docks are gone, boats are in people’s front yards. It takes years for both flora and fauna to recover. The devastation from the storm was scary and depressing—everything we worked so hard for during the season, and over lifetimes, was altered.    


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

For such a small island, this is a very diverse place. Geologically, we have forests, beaches, wetlands, tidal pools, frost bottoms, outwash plains, etc. Culturally, immigrants from England, Ireland, Cape Verde, Brazil, and Eastern Europe have influenced the feel and look of the island community.    


What writer(s) from here should we read?  

Many writers have called the island home. William Styron, Dorothy West, and Shel Silverstein lived here. Jorie Graham, Geraldine Brooks, David McCullough, and Michael Palmer currently write here. Many more visit during the summer months. In addition to these writers, the one we should read is poet Fanny Howe.  


Is there a place here you return to often?  

The woods behind my house. I walk them nearly every day. There is three hundred acres of conservation land with miles of walking trails and it is just beyond the stone wall bordering my house. There is so much to see here. I walk for hours, think and compose.       


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?  

Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven and the West Tirbury Library


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Winter on the island is its own city: a quiet one. It’s distinct from the tourist seasons. A person can’t say they’ve experienced Martha’s Vineyard, or that they belong to the community, until they have braved the winter months. Winter is a right of passage. There is a special stillness that can possess you for better or for worse. That is all I can say. When the wind is howling and the snow is flying and the ferries are canceled, there is a particular edge to the isolation you feel being out in the middle of the frozen ocean, riding on this small, terminal moraine.    


Where does passion live here?

The people who make the island their home tend to live passionate lives. Island living is a commitment. It is not an easy choice. Many creative, talented people find a way to be here. The carpenter is a potter. The truck driver is an artist. The landscaper is a writer. People here work to live; they don’t live to work. And so it is true that the waitress at your favorite restaurant is a jeweler with works in European stores, and the caterer is a dressmaker whose creations are worn to the Oscars.  


What is the title of one of your works about Martha’s Vineyard and what inspired it exactly?

“Cherry Blossoms” is a recent poem. The winters are long and gray in New England and I really experienced, on the day I wrote the poem, the miracle of spring.  


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Martha’s Vineyard does an outside exist?”

Well, yes, for certain. One thing I see outside is the turning toward the local—food, community, energy—as a growing movement and a way to revitalize the community. Being an island, we have, out of necessity, been dependent on the local for our survival. It is positive to see these principles taking root in various towns and cities all over the world.  


Justen Ahren is the current Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate and founder and director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts and the Italy Writing Workshop in Orvieto, Italy. He is the author of two collections of poetry: A Strange Catechism and A Machine for Remembering.  

Published Jan 17, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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