Lisa Starr assumes the reins at the Arts Café Mystic poetry and music series
One would not describe Lisa Starr, emerita poet laureate of Rhode Island and the new creative director at the Arts Cafe Mystic poetry and music series, as easily daunted.
Thursday morning, with the Wi-Fi and power out over large sections of Westerly after an October Nor'easter saturated the region, Starr was driving around from location to location, trying to find somewhere — anywhere — to transmit some information to a reporter about tonight's program at the Mystic Museum of Art featuring former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
No such luck.
Finally, Starr stops in a parking lot "with a nice view" and makes a phone call to the reporter. She'll simply READ the material line by line.
"I hate to do this to you," she says. "Yesterday was a long day. And now you have to listen to me talk." Starr explains she worked a double-shift Thursday at her "other job" waiting tables and couldn't get the press stuff out before the storm.
Of course, Starr is also the author of the collections "Days of Dogs and Driftwood," "Mad With Yellow" and "This Place Here," among other works, and has received two Rhode Island Fellowships for Poetry and twice won the Nancy Potter Prize for Fiction. She's also co-founded the Block Island Poetry Project, and annual community-wide festival of readings and activities.
Tonight's second program of Starr's inaugural season at the Cafe is a huge event. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins — a true literary superstar — headlines with estimable support from Opening Voice Coleman Barks, internationally famous for his own poetry as well as his translations of the Persian poet Rumi. Songwriter Jon Campbell will provide the musical component.
"This is an evening that means a lot to me personally," Starr says. "Coleman is my best friend and we've been traveling around the country doing our poetry gig for about 13 years."
Now 82 and dealing with issues from a massive stroke last spring, Barks doesn't do as many readings as he'd like. In observation, thereof, Starr says, Collins, another friend and fan of Barks, was excited to be part of the event.
"Billy is coming to see his old buddy who is not and will never be quite the same. Coleman's recovery has been remarkable but some parts of his beautiful mind have been really compromised," Starr says. "Billy rearranged his schedule to be with us in a beautiful gesture of friendship, so it's going to be quite an evening. And Coleman can still read Rumi like nobody's business."
If Starr sounds excited by the potential for tonight's program, it represents a fun and endearing quality to her new position: For all her own success, she remains astounded by the possibilities and power of the written word. At Arts Cafe Mystic, she is not only exposed to great writers, she also seeks them out for the pleasure of the series' devoted audience — established names like Collins and Barks or upcoming poets who deserve to be heard.
"I still get blown away by poets and poems," Starr says. "I get more mind-struck than star struck, but I think that's because of the very humanity so many of these writers have. In addition to Barks, Starr was also close with Mary Oliver, the remarkable National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who died earlier this year. "For all their wonderful work, it was their authentic qualities as people that's inspiring and has a lot to do with their greatness as poets."
But a large part of Starr's excitement about her new position is the audience itself. "The Arts Cafe Mystic has one of the consistently best atmospheres for any reading or poetry event I've ever attended or performed at," she says. "It has so much to do with these dedicated patrons of the arts who come out over and over. They show up even if maybe they haven't heard of the featured poet. We'll be bringing in plenty of tried and true writers whom we know will have a positive effect — and once in a while we'll stretch people's comfort level a bit because art changes and evolves."
Starr acknowledges a learning curve in terms of how to conceptualize programs and seasons as well as targeting and securing talent. Funding and poet availability are obviously two of the biggest parts of the job.
"It's the nature of the business that sometimes poets get famous and agents get involved and suddenly there's a hierarchy. I understand that," Starr says. "A lot of times, though, because of the Arts Cafe Mystic's reputation, a lot of artists will work with us and make the effort to be here. I love that spirit because that's what the Block Island Poetry Project was about. It's not about an icon and everyone else; everyone should have a place at the table. Everyone who writes wants to be heard."
As Starr talks about poetry and the Cafe and the art form's possibilities across the spectrum from audience to writer, the passion is evident in her voice — and maybe a little bit of awe. "Poetry has always been for me an extension of living," she says. "I took a few years off once to focus on writing and to be removed from everyday life didn't work for me. The restaurant work might be terrible for my feet, but it does wonderful things for the creative process."
If you go
Who: Poets Billy Collins and Coleman Barks and musician Jon Campbell
What: Arts Cafe Mystic
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic
How much: $15, $5 students
For more information: www.theartscafemystic.org