On the ferry to Block Island in 2008, I asked a young man to take my photo. A sunny day. And of course a bit of wind as the “ship” chugged along passing the North Light, then the rocky beach near Old Harbor. I was on my way to a weekend of poetry, readings, and other excitements at Lisa Starr’s “Block Island Poetry Project”, based at Hygeia House over on the west(ish) side of the little island near Smuggler’s Cove.
The highlight of the weekend ended up being me on the porch after dinner with Mary Oliver. She had stepped outside for a few minutes of peace, and I was breaking the spell by saying something I thought seemed relevant: Her dog knew my best friend’s dog from mornings on the beach near her home in Provincetown! After my pronouncement (what else can I call it, really), Mary turned her head my way, smiled, and asked the most obvious question, “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Betsy.” I said.
Without a pause, Mary replied, “Oh sure. I know Betsy.”
Of course she did. Back then she walked the beach every morning with her dog. I think it was Percy then, but I’d have to check with my friend, Cynthia, because I was in Provincetown for only a week, getting up early for poetry workshops every day at the Fine Arts Work Center, I was not at the beach that early, nor did I want to disturb Mary on her walk. Anyway, here’s a photo of darling Betsy!
The next afternoon, Mary gave a reading “in town” at St. Matthew’s church. Lisa Starr introduced Mary to the “congregation” of poetry lovers and poets, including Coleman Barks, Valzhyna Mort, Richard Tillinghast, and others. Mary made sure before she began that Lisa’s blond lab, Brother, was allowed in for the event. I wish I had thought to bring my dog Scoutie, but honestly the idea never occurred to me. Poetry weekend 400 miles from home? Bring my dog? Duh.
Our last day there, soon after breakfast, Mary offered to sign books. Red Bird, her newest book that year, was available and I was there in time for her to sign a copy for me. More than any other photo, this one is now closest to my heart. In a heart place like Block Island, you can have a special moment with a writer. You can lean in, listen to what she is saying to you, and feel grateful to be there with your hand on the back of her chair.
As I watched her pen move across the page of my book, I had no idea how much this moment would mean to me some day. I’m amazed it’s only eleven years ago.