A few questions with Christie Williams

Christie Williams (Tim Martin/The Day)
Christie Williams (Tim Martin/The Day)

On Friday, the Arts Café Mystic leaps into its 25th season with a typically elite program. Margaret Gibson, the world-revered, multiple-award-winning, Preston-based poet appears in celebration of her latest book, "Not Hearing the Wood Thrush." Also on the bill are musical guests The Sea The Sea and Opening Voice writer Edwina Trentham.

Last week, Christie Williams, co-founder and longtime creative director of Arts Café Mystic — and a renowned Flock Theater thespian — took a few minutes to answer five questions. The answers have been edited for space.

Q: We're watching a cultural sea change represented by remarkably shorter attention spans, lessened reading habits and changes in how we communicate. Does the ongoing success of the Café reinforce your hopes about the enduring quality of art?

A: From the start, the folks who came weren't poets — just ordinary folks. I wonder if many of them even read much poetry. But among the poets and musicians we've presented, our audience is legendary for being generously attentive, for getting the nuances of humor and passion, and for responding with laughter, audible gasps, and applause. If The Arts Café's audience is a measure of the state of the human mind — and especially for its attention span — the world will be OK.

Q: Share a quick anecdote or quick story about a headliner that demonstrates a personality trait that exhibits an "everyman or everywoman" quality you maybe weren't expecting.

A: Philip Levine, the U.S Poet Laureate and winner of Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, came to The Arts Café. We were walking together to the reading when he asked if I had a copy of "Simple Truth" — one of his greatest books — from which he wanted to read a poem. On show night, I always carry all of the books of the poet we're presenting, so I was able to fish "Simple Truth" out of my satchel. That night, at the podium, Levine was speaking amiably to the audience while thumbing through my book, readying to read another poem. Suddenly he stopped, looked up from the book — which bore my usual dog-eared pages and margin notes — and, addressing me with a wry smile, said, "Christie, you actually read this s***."  

Q: I don't think the musical component of each program is overlooked, necessarily, but it is sort of tangential. At the same time, it's a really cool thematic idea. Talk about the overlap between music and the written word and how difficult and/or important it is to present empathetic artists at Café presentations.

A: Music at The Arts Café stands co-equal with the spoken word. We are proud of the quality and diversity of the music we've showcased — which has ranged from rock to jazz, from folk to opera. It says something that several of the musicians we've presented have earned standing ovations, which is not easy to do with a mini-set. Yes, we take care in selecting musical acts, endeavoring to match them with the poets, sometimes to complement the spoken word, sometimes as contrast to the theme or mood of the poetry. And we take chances. Hell, we featured Grace Potter and the Nocturnals early on, before they began to headline concert halls and festivals across the country. What fun!

Q: Who's #1 on your Wish List in terms of poets who haven't appeared here?

A: A tough question. I think a lot about the great poets who were around but passed before we could get to them — James Merrill, Galway Kennell, Stanley Kunitz, and that English guy, Will Shakespeare. But the living guy I'd like to get is W.S. Merwin.

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