A Poem Is a Poem...
Poets reveal the Berkshire canon
Jayne Benjulian, Lisken Van Pelt Dus, Richard Berlin, David Giannini, and Steven Amash at No. Six Depot.
Photos by Christina Rahr Lane
“I used to write songs, but I discovered that I’m a better poet than a songwriter,” says 26-year-old Steven Amash. He has “only” been writing poetry for six years, he adds, and there is a sense of urgency about this, like maybe he started too late—despite having published his first volume, Monotone World Celebrations, last November.
“I admire most of the Beat writers,” Amash says. “It’s a toss-up between Kerouac and Leonard Cohen. Sometimes, I feel like I missed out on the best generations. But a friend of mine told me that it’s a poet’s job to focus on the time and the history that you live in.”
Amash is among a new generation of poets in the region creating a vibrant community around the spoken word. Baristas (Amash is the full-time café manager at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge), teachers, students, doctors, retirees, and carpenters are finding common ground in the pursuit of an art once reserved for lofty linguistic scholars.
Historically, the foundation for poetry and poets was laid here more than a century ago, when literary greats like William Cullen Bryant, Edith Wharton, Joyce Kilmer, and Edna St. Vincent Millay flocked to the area, some for brief respite, others to set up shop and cultivate their work. Perhaps the most well-known shrine to poetry is Steepletop (just over the border in Austerlitz, New York, and closely linked to the Berkshires), the former home of Pulitzer Prize–winning Millay. Holly Peppe is the Millay Society’s literary executor and a Millay scholar. She has seen an increase in visitors and interest in Millay’s life as a poetry rock star, thanks largely to what she calls a renaissance of poetry culture.
“Literary destinations are becoming very popular, especially among poets who want to pay homage, and we have all of that here,” Peppe says. “Steepletop is a hidden gem that people are finding.” She also notes a recent publication by Yale University Press of Millay’s work—some never before published—has finally solidified her status as a powerful voice for the modern era.
“The Yale book is a turning point that they accept her as a major literary figure. Finally,” Peppe says. “She’s not back; she’s here among us and has been the whole time.”
In Lenox, the Mount, Edith Wharton’s former estate, is also picking up on the poetry vibe, calling on Wharton’s lesser-known legacy—she wrote poetry in her private journals for years—as a portal to poets from all paths. The cultural embrace of poetry can also be felt in some of the famous residents—Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Wilbur lives in Cummington—and in the numerous cafes, libraries, bookstores, historic venues, and even bars that continue to reach out to the area’s wordsmiths.
David Giannini of Becket, himself a published poet, has been uniting poets for the last five years with his monthly Writer’s Read at Lee Library. Most of the invited poets also are published, and readings draw up to 40 people for audiences of 20-somethings to 90-year-old word veterans. (Giannini has also put together a group of poets to read at the Bryant Homestead as part of the first annual Earthcare Festival on September 10.)
Lisken Van Pelt Dus, who teaches at Monument Mountain Regional High School, recently read for the Writers Read, and will be reading at the Earthcare Festival from her collection, What We’re Made Of (May 2016, Cherry Grove Collections). The work is a reflection on the relationship between nature, self, and the metaphysical.
“The poetry is a self-sustaining venture,” Van Pelt Dus says. “I need it. Part of me is only alive when I am writing.” Despite her initial shyness, Van Pelt Dus understands the value of having an audience for her poetry.
“I love to share my work. The community is really rich, and there are a lot of people working seriously with language. There is a sense of value here.”
Richard Berlin of Richmond, a psychiatrist with a practice in Lenox, says he has felt that value ever since he was encouraged in his early 40s by a friend to join a writers group that he started to work his craft. “I definitely wasn’t looking to become a poet,” Berlin says. “But being a psychiatrist here has been very good training. The metaphor, the unconscious, careful observation, careful prescription; these are crucial aspects of what I do in both realms.”
Berlin’s latest collection, Practice (Brick Road Poetry Press, June 2015), embraces the persona of the observer, whether he is at the bedside of a heroin addict or looking at a hayfield in September.
There is inspiration virtually everywhere, says Jayne Benjulian, who moved to the Berkshires from California just over a year ago to be closer to family in New York City. Benjulian has recently published her first book of poetry, Five Sextillion Atoms (Saddle Road Press, June 2016), a taut collection of family history where the space between stanzas is loud and telling. But Benjulian says she is already noticing that since her move to Housatonic, some aspects of her work are shifting.
“I have accessibility to a deep artistic community,” she says. “And for the first time in my life, I started writing poems about snow. And birds. I’m not a nature writer, but I find myself sitting on my deck early in the morning waiting to see what will happen.”
Profundity for the Public
WordXWord Festival with poetry slams, workshops, and performances, AUG 9-13, Pittsfield, wordxwordfestival.com
Poetry reading (open mic) at No. Six Depot Café & Roastery, AUG 28, 6 Depot St., West Stockbridge, sixdepot.com
Poetry reading with Community Access to the Arts at The Mount, SEP 8, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, edithwharton.org
Billy Collins will read selections of his work at The Mount, SEP 9, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, edithwharton.org
Earthcare Festival with poets reading at the William Cullent Bryant Homestead, SEP 10-11, 207 Bryant Rd., Cummington, hilltownchautauqua.org
Lisken Van Pelt Dus solo poetry reading at The Bookstore, SEP 23, 11 Housatonic St., Lenox, bookstoreinlenox.com
To the north, the mumble of a train
grinding the long tracks beside the beaver pond.
Just south, a truck drowns it with its doppler,
but still I hear the fledgling robins squawk
indignant hunger. Wind shakes the treetops
free of rain that falls onto my page. It all falls
apart, gradually, the whole universe, or so
the scientists tell us, and I believe them,
the way I settle into home gratefully
and then spend my dreams on breaking
out, desire for what is not mine
feeding the filament of want I spin
into the air. Its shimmer tells me I’m alive.
Even if our lives are good, and sweet –
like mine, I readily admit – it’s not
enough for something in us, the part
that doesn’t care if it gets snared in webs
of its own making as long as it keeps
moving, like this spider, trapped
in a stickiness that only yesterday
was his survival, two legs snapped off,
free finally of function but unable
still to leave the tangle of their home.
I want it all. It hurts to lose
our energy and, worse, just in proportion
to our attraction to disorder. So time
runs down, and now the wind has stretched
all but two strands of the old web
to breaking point, and the dead spider
swings from the railing, making no sound at all.
"Entropy" was first published in upstreet (number two, 2006), and appears in Lisken Van Pelt Dus's book, What We're Made Of (Cherry Grove Collections, 2016).