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    Friday, February 03, 2023

    After 25 years, creative director of Arts Cafe Mystic steps down

    After 25 years at the helm, Christie Williams to leave role at Mystic Arts Cafe. (Day File Photo)
    After a quarter century, Christie Max Williams steps down from Arts Cafe Mystic

    (Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original version published May 11.)

    Quote Christie Max Williams: "Nevermore!"

    After 15 star-limned years as the creative director of the Arts Cafe Mystic, Williams was scheduled to announce his retirement from the nationally renowned literature and music series Friday after the season finale program.

    Lisa Starr, the Emerita State Poet Laureate of Rhode Island who has appeared regularly at the Cafe, will succeed Williams.

    "When we launched the Arts Cafe Mystic, I could not have imagined it would become so popular and durable a part of the arts scene in our little corner of Connecticut. "I'm deeply proud of the many great poets and fine musicians we have presented over the years," Williams said in a release. He co-founded the program in 2010 with Melanie Greenhouse and Albert Kausch. Greenhouse was the organization's director for the first decade. 

    The list of poets and writers who have presented at the cafe include Poets Laureate of the U.S. and winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and MacArthur "Genius Awards." More than 100 elite writers have participated, and a very small representative list would include Wally Lamb, Billy Collins, Philip Levine, J.D. McClatchy, Kate Rushin, Frank Bidart, Margaret Gibson, Erica Jong, Xue Di, Marilyn Nelson, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Mark Doty, Denise Duhamel and Ocean Vuong.

    Musical programs have focused more on regional talent — including opera, classical, jazz and rock — and have also included such fame-destined performers as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

    Organizational milestones have been numerous as well. In 1997, a program was introduced to honor student poets laureate from local high schools. Each spring, the selected writers read from their work at one of the Cafe's programs and also receive honorariums. 

    And, in 2007, the Dorothy Mullen Arts and Humanities Award, presented by the National Recreation and Parks Association to "honor the most innovative and effective arts and humanities programs across the nation," was presented to the Cafe.

    Williams' friendship with Starr goes back years and, he says, their mutual respect makes the transition of stewardship natural and easy.

    "One of the tests of any arts organization is whether it can endure and grow through a change of leadership," Williams' statement continues says. "I am lucky to be able to pass the baton to Lisa — a wonderful poet and born leader. The Cafe audience has good reason to look ahead to many more years of inspiring words and music."

    Starr, whose collections include "Days of Dogs and Driftwood," "Mad with Yellow," "This Place Here" and an in-progress book of children's poetry called "Pot Luck," has been awarded two Rhode Island Fellowships for Poetry and twice won the Nancy Potter Prize for Fiction. She also co-founded the Block Island Poetry Project, an annual community-wide festival of readings and activities.

    "I am delighted, excited and unspeakably honored to be invited to steer the helm of the Arts Cafe Mystic," says Starr in an email. "As a long-time attendee and participant and as a lover of the arts, and in particular how they cultivate community, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the ACM and its remarkable Board of Directors to bring the finest poetry, music and fellowship to this amazing series, which sparkles just like the river that runs alongside it."

    And, as Williams told The Day last fall before the start of its silver season, "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."

    Rhode Island poet Lisa Starr will take over the leadership of Mystic Arts Cafe. (Contributed)
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