In the Valley of the Poets – Part 2: The Present
In July, this magazine published my take on the literary legacy of the lower valley of the Merrimack River (read here), roughly the water’s route from the New Hampshire border to Newburyport, with a bit of splashing into the bioregion that includes the Transcendental Concord of Thoreau/Emerson/Alcott and the seacoast of New Hampshire and Maine.
Few areas in America compare favorably to our region’s depth and breadth of authorship and literary influence. Cultural meccas of big cities, of course, make their statements: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago. But among “blue highway” places, our Merrimack Valley holds a high rank. John Updike described this place as “the New World’s first real industrial belt,” but its collective literary power has yet to be framed for appreciation as effectively as the Industrial Revolution mills noted in every U.S. history textbook.
We can use a telescope and microscope to understand what is going on today, which is as vital as in past times. There’s a bundle of writers connected to the river valley, some of whom like writers Jane Brox in Maine and Elinor Lipman in New York City are “away” like Robert Frost going from Lawrence to Vermont, and some who’ve stayed like poet Michael Casey of Lowell and now Andover, who has been as steady as John Greenleaf Whittier in Haverhill and Amesbury.
One Sunday this past February, Brox and Lipman, who grew up in Dracut and Lowell, respectively, were featured authors in The New York Times Book Review, the gold standard for book notices. The Times said Brox “writes beautifully” in “Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives,” while “Good Riddance,” Lipman’s “caper novel,” was described as capable of inducing “a very specific kind of modern joy.” Both authors were A-List presenters at the Newburyport Literary Festival in late April, drawing enthusiastic fans, many of whom left smiling, new signed books in hand. Brox and Lipman return to the region when their latest books appear, tending to old, familiar community bonds.
So here we have a couple of major league writers who are easily integrated into what has become the premier literary event in the region, an annual platform for dozens of writers of all kinds. This is infrastructure as much as the Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack and Lucy Larcom Park in Lowell were built to benefit public life. The organizers work year-round to bring readers and writers together for a weekend at the mouth of the river.
One of the marquee authors in the program this year was Andre Dubus III, a neighbor in Newbury whose public presence is in the almost-priceless category now. He gladly participates in and boosts the profile of local events, this year doing two sessions in Newburyport, one about his latest novel, “Gone So Long,” in which he “probes the limits of recovery and addiction,” and the second a discussion about the legacy of his father, Andre Dubus II, who “instructs the heart” with his stories, wrote The Atlantic Monthly. With fellow author Peter Orner, Dubus III talked about the enduring influence of the recently reissued short stories of Andre’s father.
Poet Gary Snyder, a friend of Jack Kerouac’s, remarked that his two favorite invitations to read his work came from the Library of Congress and his hometown fire station down the hill from his house in California’s high country. It’s a special reward to have one’s work read by people the author can see in the local supermarket and bank. The Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport, another piece of the literary infrastructure, displays a list of its most popular books … ever. Dubus III’s “House of Sand and Fog” and “Townie” make the top 20.
I mentioned “priceless” earlier concerning Dubus III’s regional value. The longtime member of the UMass Lowell English Department played a pivotal role in bringing Oprah Winfrey to the Tsongas Center last fall for a conversation before more than 4,000 people, a benefit event that was expected to yield $1.5 million for scholarships until Winfrey announced spontaneously that she would match that to reach $3 million. Dubus III’s past networking led to popular appearances by Stephen King and Meryl Streep. On his night, King said, “This is my first stadium show!”
On another level, the literary grassroots are nutrient-rich. One evening last spring, 30 people jammed the Teen Scene lounge downstairs at the Amesbury library for the monthly reading hosted by Amesbury Poet Laureate Stephen Wagner. Writer and visual artist Ann McCrea of Newburyport read poems in various forms, from a pantoum and haiku to ekphrastic pieces composed in response to artworks. After the poems, more than a dozen questions kept the session going. Near the front, poet Rhina Espaillat of Newburyport nodded her encouragement for a poet stepping out in public.
Espaillat, the author of several collections of poetry, including “And After All,” has been instrumental in the creation of a robust core audience for poetry in the lower river valley. The Powow River Poets group, which she co-founded in 1992, is a force with its workshops and literary events. Espaillat has won the T.S. Eliot and Howard Nemerov prizes as well as the Richard Wilbur Award.
Up and down the valley, similar scenes play out. The Grey Court Poets of Methuen hang poems on the railing of a city bridge. The Chelmsford, Dracut and Tewksbury libraries host authors. North Andover Poet Laureate Mark Bohrer uses Facebook for publicity. The Whittier Birthplace in Haverhill and the Whittier Home Museum in Amesbury keep John Greenleaf’s foliage fresh. The Writers House at Merrimack College feeds student interest in books. Faculty and students there are trying to locate the North Andover grave of Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet.
There’s a Cambodian American Literary Arts Association in Lowell. Middlesex Community College hosts a conference showcasing Latino poets and others in translation. Image Theater, an organization co-founded by Jerry Bisantz and Ann Garvin, sponsors Femnoire for women playwrights. Merrimack Repertory Theatre turned 40 this year. Poetry advocate Karen Kline has a plan to rebrand the region as the Valley of the Poets and to invite the U.S. poet laureate to visit. Lawrence honors Robert Frost through the year, including a monthly “Hoot” reading at Cafe Azteca in Lawrence. Friends of the Robert Frost Foundation were saddened to learn of the death of foundation Executive Director Jessica Nesbitt Sanchez last April.
While growing up at 58 Bowdoin St. after World War II, Raymond Mungo didn’t know about Robert Frost having attended Lawrence High School. His grandparents from Scotland and Ireland met on a boat to America in the early 20th century. His mother was one of 20 children, his dad one of 14. He may have one cousin left in Lawrence.
He writes, “I could read and write by age 4 1/2, self-taught from my older sister’s first grade books. At age 8, I stunned the South Lawrence Public Library by needing an adult card because I had exhausted the children’s library.”
Mungo, who went on to have 15 books published between 1970 and 1996 and to write for scores of magazines, made his own way to serious writing, encouraged to read by nuns at St. Patrick’s School and to write by elderly, chain-smoking Brother Rudolph, an English teacher at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, which Mungo attended via a scholarship from the Ladies’ Solidarity of St. Pat’s.
Mungo never met an author until he was in college, where he began to read the region’s greats, including Frost, but especially Kerouac, “a sainted uncle of sorts” to him. “I was justly proud of them and inspired,” Mungo says.
Mungo came into his own as an anti-war activist and counterculture inventor in the late 1960s at Boston University, a co-founder of Liberation News Service, an alternative to the mainstream media. With the publication of his memoirs, “Famous Long Ago” and “Total Loss Farm,” the campus radical became a national figure. Mungo’s books are classics of the genre and remain in print some 50 years later.
He would publish fiction, a guide to getting published, and even an offbeat baseball book before switching career paths. Recognizing that the freelance writing life would not be enough, he trained at age 50 for social work and counseling, and helped people with AIDS and mental health challenges.
From his California home, he’s pleased to see the literary vitality in our region. His experience illustrates what it takes to write and to reach readers. The Raymond Mungo Papers, preserved at the UMass Amherst Libraries, are available online for research and enjoyment. UMass calls him “one of the most evocative writers of the 1960s counterculture.” In this year of remembering Woodstock and the first moon landing, Mungo’s voice remains fresh.