Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate

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The concept of the position of Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate (MV Poet Laureate) was initiated in 2011 by the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society. This was the first time in Martha’s Vineyard history that a position was created to designate an island-wide poet laureate. On similar note, the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society (MVPS) is the first island-wide poetry organization in the history of Martha’s Vineyard. MVPS was founded in 2008 by island poet/author/musician, William Waterway.

The Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society (MVPS) is composed of a group of approximately 370 island poets and supporters who seek to enhance the presence of poetry on the Vineyard and throughout the world. The purpose of Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society’s is to promote poetry on Martha's Vineyard through education and through the support of existing and new poetry groups. It is the organization’s hope that through elevation of poetry in people's lives and consciousness – it will facilitate a positive contribution to Martha’s Vineyard culture and life styles.

MVPS hosts and sponsors free public poetry events such as: “Summer Solstice In Poetry and Song” held at Featherstone Center for the Arts; "Winter Solstice in Poetry and Song" held at the Vineyard Haven Public Library; “A Gathering of Island Poets and Musicians” – a four-hour MVTV television production broadcast “live” via Comcast to the island community; “Martha’s Vineyard Poem in Your Pocket Day (MVPIYPD)”[1] held in conjunction with National Poem in Your Pocket (PIYP) day; “Civil War Poetry” at the Vineyard Haven Public Library with support from the National Library Association (NLA), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and, many other poetry programs on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

Designation of first Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate (MVPoetLaureate) in the island's history[edit]

Martha's Vineyard plays host to a strong and vibrant community of poets and clusters of poetry groups. Besides the resident year-round poets, the island enjoys seasonal presentations by many renowned poets, including United States Poets Laureate.

The position of Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate[2] (MV Poet Laureate) was presented to the public by the 370-member MV Poetry Society in July, 2012. Prior to this, there never was a designated Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate throughout the island's history. To accomplish the task of designating the island's first MV Poet Laureate, the Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society created a double-blind election process that precluded politicking, lobbying, or collusion.

Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate election process[edit]

Lee H. McCormack, first Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate (MV Poet Laureate) in the island's history

Following a year-long judging process - Lee H. McCormack was selected as the island's first Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate in July, 2012. A jury of ten qualified literary judges from representatives of the Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society, island libraries, writers, and poetry groups made the selection. Mr. McCormack was one out of a field of twenty-six participating poets. Each poet submitted five of their finest poems to the Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society. The poems were then copied and distributed to the judges without identifying marks except for a number assigned to each poet. All judging was based solely on the merits of submitted poems. Each of the ten judges did not know the names of the poets they were judging. On similar note, participating poets did not know the names of the ten judges.

The names of the winning poet was revealed to the judges after the numerical judging results were submitted and calculated. Shortly after the judging process, a public announcement and media release shared the name of the winning poet. The Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society, in conjunction with the Vineyard Haven Public Library, held a festive evening to inaugurate and celebrate the island's first Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate.

Since his election, MV Poet Laureate, Lee, H. McCormack has undertaken several public library poetry gatherings - as well as participating in the Featherstone Center for the Arts evening of "Fall Poetry and Music." Mr. McCormack is also organizing a series of workshops with island poetry groups; libraries; schools; cultural institutions, and council on aging organizations. MV Poet Laureate, Lee McCormack(aka: MVPoetLaureate McCormack), read his shark conservation and education poem, entitled, The Apex, before an audience exceeding 2,000 people at the "Jaws Fest The Tribute", festival in 2012.

Community responsibilities of Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate[edit]

The Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate is a two-year term position. The MV Poet Laureate is responsible for promoting poetry and educating the public about the merits of the high-art form of poetry. This effort includes outreach poetry programs through schools; senior centers; social institutions; churches; media; writers groups; memorials, and appropriate political gatherings on and off the island of Martha's Vineyard.

Experience and qualifications of Martha's Vineyard's first Poet Laureate[edit]

Lee H. McCormack is a year-round Martha's Vineyard resident who has lived on the island of Martha's Vineyard for over 40-years. He is a member of the Cleaveland House Poets of West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard. Cleaveland House Poets, is a poetry group that has grown out of a poetry group founded in the house of same name by Dionis Coffin Riggs. The group has met every two weeks since c1960. MV Poet Laureate Lee McCormack has composed poetry since age twelve, and has undertaken intensive poetry studies with: Galway Kinnell; Sharon Olds; Charles Simic; Robert Pinsky; Thomas Lux; Peter Klappert; Steve Orlen; George Mills (writer); Short-term critical studies with: Michael Ryan; AI; Single Summer Resident at Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

Brief history of Martha's Vineyard poetry[edit]

Martha's Vineyard has a history of attracting people of note as well as those involved with the arts - including: dancers; actors; singer/songwriters; authors; playwrights; artists; sitting United States presidents; and poets. The island's storied history with poetry begins with the writings of the first colonialists, who wrote poetic prose that is recognized today as a form called poesy. Another historic island connection to poetry is that with novelist and civil war poet, Herman Melville. As Martha's Vineyard entered the whaling era - many whaling ship crew members, including the occasional woman, also put poetic pen to paper.

During the early-1900s, the up-island home of Dionis Coffin Riggs (1898-1997) - situated in the town of West Tisbury, became the island's de facto center of poetry. Ms. Riggs' home was the historic "Cleaveland House." The Cleaveland House has been in the same family for over 250 years, and has always served as a meeting place of island intellectuals, politicians, and writers. Circa 1960, Ms. Riggs began hosting poetry gatherings at her home. Since its inception, this group of poets met every two weeks to share, discuss, and criticize the original poems of attending members. To embellish the literary experience at her home, Ms. Riggs hosted "black bean dinners" every Saturday evening as a vehicle for poets and writers to share discourse. Since 1960 or earlier, the Poets have met every two weeks at Cleaveland House on a continuous basis with little interruption, and continue to do so at the present. The continuity and longevity of this poetry group at Cleaveland House makes it the most successful writers' group in the history of Martha's Vineyard. In 2007, William Waterway became the group's Chair. Soon after, the group published their first book of poetry, "Wednesday's Poets," published by Summerset Press. The title reflects the day of week the Cleaveland House Poets have historically gathered. Contributing poets to this anthology were: Jane Brown; Ruth Cochrane; Janet Holladay; Russ Hoxsie; Bob Kaplan; Francesca Kelly; Judith Neeld; Katrina Nevin; Brooks Robards; Valerie Sonnenthal; Holly Wayman, and Sally Williams. Today, the Cleaveland House poets members include: Andrea B. Quigley; Ellie Bates; Bob Kaplan; Brooks Robards; Sally Williams; Chris Legge; Cynthia Riggs; Lee H. McCormack; Don McLagan; Fanny Staunton Ogilvie; Jo Rice; Judith Neeld; Kara Taylor; Peter Ledermann; Susan Pucuil; Valerie Sonnenthal, and William Waterway Marks. In 2009, Mr. Waterway began promoting the group at public readings as "Cleaveland House Poets". This group recently published an anthology entitled: "Cleaveland House Poets, 50 - Years," which was edited by Waterway. Cleaveland House Poets is now recognized as the oldest, continuously meeting poetry group in the history of Martha's Vineyard as well as the United States.

Over the decades, various island organizations and libraries have sponsored educational poetry programs, including the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and island elementary schools; the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, and Feathestone Center for the Arts.

The Martha's Vineayard Poetry Society (MVPS), which is the sanctioning organization for the Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate - was founded in 2008 by William Waterway. As of September 2014, MVPS has over 370 members, and hosts various poetry events that are offered to the public for free.

The position of West Tisbury Poet Laureate had its genesis with Dionis Coffin Riggs. During her active life as a poet and writer, Dionis Coffin Riggs was sometimes referred to the island's poet laureate. Dionis would flinch at this, stating that Poet Laureate is not a lighthearted sobriquet. In honor of her mother's memory, Cynthia Riggs undertook the task of creating the position of West Tisbury Poet Laureate. About ten years after Dionis' death, in spring of 2006, Cynthia Riggs petitioned the town of West Tisbury to put an article on the Annual Town Meeting warrant to establish the position of West Tisbury Poet Laureate. The position of West Tisbury Poet Laureate officially came into existence on April 11, 2006 by a voice vote at the West Tisbury Annual Town Meeting.[3] Soon afterwards, at the recommendation of an advisory committee formed by the West Tisbury Library, the Selectmen appointed Daniel Waters as the town's first Poet Laureate.[4] Technically, the town Poet Laureate is a municipal appointment with a term of one year (renewable up to three). Officially, there is no budget, no salary, no benefits, no power - except prestige and public acceptance. Beyond that, the job of town poet laureate is left to the poet's imagination. Since Daniel Waters selection, there have been two other poets selected to fill the position of West Tisbury Town Poet Laureate - Fan Ogilvie, and Justen Ahren. On similar note, in December, 2011, the selectmen of the Martha's Vineyard town of Edgartown appointed Steve Ewing as their first town poet laureate, .[5]

As documented above - in July, 2012 - the first Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate (MV Poet Laureate) in the island's history was selected by a panel of ten literary judges organized under the auspices of the Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society. The Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate (MVPL) is encouraged to work with island media; poetry organizations; towns, and schools to further the public's appreciation of poetry.