Steven Slosberg: Westerly opens its arms to the poetically inclined

Steven Slosberg: Westerly opens its arms to the poetically inclined



Despite her valiant efforts last summer to help her brother, David Silverberg, sustain his restaurant, Valiant Brothers Provisions on Route 1 in Pawcatuck, the place closed in the fall. Lisa Starr, who used poetry evenings to fortify the patronage, was left with a curious but in a way happy dilemma: What to do with the two dozen or more poets, and spouses and friends, and musicians, who turned out regularly for the Valiant Brothers’ sessions?

Starr, the former State Poet for Rhode Island, advocates for her art with indefatigable elan. She headed to downtown Westerly and soon secured two venues to keep the gatherings grounded. The salons meet on the first Tuesday evening of the month at the Savoy Bookshop & Café on Canal Street, and on the third Thursday evening across the street, at 84 Tavern on Canal, which offers a reduced-price early evening menu so the poets can chew over their words, if they wish. At the Savoy, there are pastries, and coffees and teas.

Starr, who is working on her fourth book, has compiled an email list with more than 125 names, and growing. She has attracted readers and listeners from throughout Rhode Island, including Block Island, where she once lived, southeastern Connecticut and, on occasion, Massachusetts. Among those in attendance at recent gatherings were Stephen Dobyns of Westerly, prolific novelist, mystery writer, poet and essayist; Alfred Corn of Hopkinton, nationally lauded poet, essayist and teacher; and intrepid harmonica player Christopher Greenleaf of Westerly, who is perhaps better known here as a recording engineer and the impresario behind the excellent Music Matters concert series at the La Grua Center in Stonington.

Also there on this first Tuesday in January at the Savoy were Hamilton Salsich, retired teacher of English at Pine Point School in Stonington; Jude Rittenhouse of Westerly, well-known poet and teacher; and Erik Caswell of the Westerly Public Library, who is starting up a memoir writing class there.

It was standing room only with better than two dozen in attendance, seated and bunched around the cozy, windowed lounge facing Canal Street, and what resonated throughout the evening, besides the spoken word, was what Starr, who keeps things moving, has pulled this together with: of all dubious box-office draws, poetry. And, now and then, accompaniment by harp, viola, keyboards and Greenleaf’s harmonica.

Lisa Silverberg, as she was known at the time, was a student of Lou Gabordi, a retired teacher and principal at Ledyard High School. He was there with his wife, Catherine, both of them contributing poems. The Gabordis and Starr, longtime friends, conspired last summer to initiate the poetry evenings at Valiant Brothers.

Starr, the mother of two grown children, moved to Westerly several years ago after divorcing her husband, with whom she ran the Hygeia House, a venerable B&B on Block Island, since 1998. In 2004, while raising her kids and being an innkeeper, she founded the annual Block Island Poetry Project. The gathering had its last hurrah in 2015, when she left the island..

I asked her what she made of the consistently eager turnout for the Westerly poetry evenings. “I’m curious about that … but maybe not,” she responded in an email. “Create a good space without too much ego and enough sense of humor and see what comes of it. One woman drove an hour and a half to be part of the circle, and to listen and be heard in that circle. The listening is what strikes me — how ready we are to be nurtured by words, by each other, by common courtesy and a little music.”

At the Savoy this month, Cynthia Davidson, who has a sweat lodge in Hope Valley, began her turn by offering a Lakota prayer, then followed with a song she wrote at age 16 called “Rainbow Women.” All part of what’s evolved as a freewheeling but inclusive fabric.

Those coming to read are asked to bring one or two poems or pieces, with the caution that too large a turnout might lead to abandoning the second work to keep within the venue’s closing hour.

One pressing yet also gratifying concern is confronting Starr. She’s off to Florida for a short spell to visit with the celebrated poet Mary Oliver, now 82, whom she has befriended and cared for in her frail years, and to give readings at a college. Who, she muses, will host the next session in her absence? Who, indeed?

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: maayan72@aol.com.


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