In the opulent Grand Hotel or at a humble clearing in the woods, a culture of poetry still thrives on Mackinac Island. Learn more about Jim Lenfestey, the poet in residence on Mackinac Island and the poetry he brings to Mackinac Island. Find the original spread and more in the July 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Jim Lenfestey has a theory about men and poetry and writing, and it starts with a question.
“Why,” he asks, “are men equally likely to be artists as women are, even though men are utterly constipated in their ability to express their feelings? Yet, they can write stories. Yet they can write poems. And my answer is writing is tactile. It bypasses the censor in the head. So when you get up in the morning and let your pen or pencil or keyboard lead you and see where it goes, it goes right in, and your story or your poem starts to come out. Writing allows men to get in touch with that world that otherwise comes out as fists or as some other way of male communication.”
It’s a Wednesday morning in August, and poetry is on Lenfestey’s mind because, well, poetry is always on Lenfestey’s mind, but also because on nearly every Wednesday morning in July and August, he runs a poetry gathering in the Audubon Room of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, where he is poet in residence. The weekly event starts at 10 a.m., and his habit is to gather his thoughts a half-hour prior at a little table near a café in the Grand’s lower level.
Summer 2015 marks the 10th year that Lenfestey has run the poetry gatherings, called Poets at the Grand Hotel, and during that time he has not only helped keep poetry a living part of the culture on the historic little island, but also he has developed a fan base that reaches beyond the perimeter of Mackinac’s shore. Some regulars drive an hour or more (plus ferry ride) each way to drink in the Lenfestey-led poet conversation. Others, of course, just pedal their bikes over from the other side of the island, even on days like this one, where a pea-soup fog obliterates navigational visibility in the Straits, and rain pours down.
As Lenfestey sits there, jotting notes before class, a woman stops on her way past, “He’s a great man. He does a wonderful service for the island,” she says, and then walks away.
“That was not a plant,” he says, laughing.
Lenfestey heads upstairs and sets his notes at the podium as about 30 attendees settle in. For the most part they are 60-plus, with a few young people scattered throughout, including, this week, the Grand’s college-age tennis pro, who cancelled the morning’s classes because of the wet weather. “I’m working through some family issues and writing helps,” he explains.
“Good morning,” Lenfestey says to those gathered in the stately library adorned with Audubon prints. “Thank you for coming on what a … what a …” Somebody says, “inclement.” “No, not inclement,” Lenfestey says, he pauses. “This is a day that takes us … we can’t look outward off that great view from the Grand porch, so what do we do? We look inward.” A perfect day for poetry.
For first-timers, he explains the day’s simple mission. “We come here and talk poetry, and what are poets but people trying to capture their yearning in sound and words and sentences. Poetry is nothing more than that.”
Today Lenfestey has chosen to focus on the poems of Pattiann Rogers. She studied zoology but abandoned that career to pursue poetry, and her deep understanding and awe of the natural world still powers her writing. Lenfestey loves that her poems are both highly crafted and accessible to a broad audience. He believes that one day she will be United States Poet Laureate, he tells the gathering.
“She’s a trained scientist and lives with a scientist. And she respects science, what it does for us day in and day out, but she knows there are questions science cannot address,” he says.
He quotes from her: “Most of my poems begin when something captures my attention. A word. A phrase. A branch against the sky. The way a killdeer flies up before me. Wanting to know why I am captured is where the poem starts.”
“I don’t know much about her childhood, but I do know she was steeped in the old Christian stories of southwest Missouri [where she grew up] because they emerge all through her poems,” Lenfestey says.
After a few minutes he invites the group to take turns reading. Each person has a stapled packet of pages with all of the day’s poems. Just like in grade school, a reader makes it through a set of lines, and then the next person picks up the thread. If you don’t want to read, no pressure. A 91-year-old woman reads, her voice both strong and tremulous at the same time. A 60-something man wearing a bow tie and white and blue pinstripe pants reads. The tennis pro reads. Amelia Musser reads—she’s the matriarch of the Grand Hotel family and is the person whom Lenfestey credits with starting the literary tradition at the Grand. Later he tells me, “Amelia is the literary heart of the island.”
The group makes it through a half-dozen poems during the hour they have, and Rogers’s ability to channel nature’s forces shines through in each reading. As 11 o’clock nears—time to read the final poem—Lenfestey says that what they do here on Wednesday mornings is “secular preaching, and we’re going for it full bore right now.”
The poem is titled “Within the Earth Beneath Us,” and it starts with the words “Our Father.” “Whether we are Christian or not, we tend to know Our Father,” Lenfestey says. It’s the prayer that this Rogers poem is built upon. He asks everybody to stand and read in unison.
As the people read on, Lenfestey stands at the podium. He silently mouths the words, raising his right hand like a choir director, motioning back and forth to keep time with the read. He looks every bit the poet maestro: white, longish hair and trim beard, round wire-frame glasses, sport coat, denim shirt. He’s tallish, lean, straight, square in the shoulders. Though he’s 70, years of running have given him a younger man’s physique and fluidity.
When the poem is done and people stand to leave, Lenfestey reminds them there will be a poetry reading that afternoon at 4 o’clock, the once-a-year gathering in the woods at Anne’s Tablet, a shrine to Constance Fenimore Woolson. She was an island resident in the mid–late 1800s who wrote poetry, fiction and travel pieces, and whom some speculate was in love with Henry James. She either fell or leapt to her death from a Venice hotel window in 1894.
The gathering at Anne’s Tablet “is ad hoc, informal,” Lenfestey tells the group. “We bring wine, cheese and sit there. People read, tell stories, do whatever happens.” If it’s pouring rain, they’ll do it on the porch of a nearby house.
Lenfestey fell in love with poetry as a boy. He still recalls the moment, the specific poem, “Out, Out,” by Robert Frost, about a Vermont farm-boy who cuts off his hand while running a buzz saw and then dies. “It tears your heart out,” Lenfestey says. And it was this poem that revealed to him how words could work at multiple levels, at a plain story level, at an emotional level, at a spiritual level. “I was just stunned by that, and that’s when I fell for this game.”
In college, he discovered the work of poet Robert Bly and was captivated by his original poems, his anthologies, and Bly’s magazine The 50s, which later became The 60s. In a curious twist, years later, Bly, born in Minnesota, ended up moving next door to Lenfestey in his Minneapolis neighborhood and they’ve become neighborly friends. After college, poetry continued as a force in Lenfestey’s life.
In early adulthood he ran a chaotic hippie-farm alternative high school in Massachusetts. He sought balance in poetry, discovering and becoming mesmerized by the Chinese poet Han-Shan, who lived in and wrote from a cave 1,200 years ago. Lenfestey journeyed to Han-Shan’s cave on Cold Mountain in 2006 and recently published a book, titled Seeking the Cave, about his travels there.
Though Lenfestey has run the poetry classes for a decade, the literary tradition at the Grand started 25 years before his tenure began, when Amelia Musser asked Jack McCabe—island resident, Shakespearean scholar and author (he wrote the authorized biographies of Laurel & Hardy and James Cagney) to do a summer class. “I said, Jack, if you would come and be our Shakespearian in residence, you could have all the champagne you wanted forever,” Musser says. She laughs at the memory as if it happened yesterday, not 35 years ago. By now, the day’s fog remains, but the rain has let up, so Musser has settled in to a chair on what’s said to be the world’s longest porch. The backdrop: an improbably long line of American flags draped in calm.
McCabe would select one Shakespeare work for the summer and discuss it at each of the weekly classes, and he did that from the age of 61 to 87, when he passed.
Musser doesn’t consider herself expert in literature or poetry, but she has a lifelong devotion to the arts, and the literary gatherings at the Grand are a way to bring people together. In that spirit, the event is open to guests and nonguests, and the hotel waives its standard nonguest visitor fee to keep the gathering entirely free.
By McCabe’s passing, Lenfestey had become a longtime regular at the class. “I had a feeling he might continue it,” Musser says. “So I asked him, and I had no idea what a wonderful continuation it would be,” she says.
Lenfestey seems like a poet hero to the people in that room, yes? “He is to me,” Musser says.
With the 4 o’clock start time for the Anne’s Tablet gathering near, Lenfestey pulls some provisions from his kitchen to share. A bottle of wine goes in his bike basket, a slab of cheese. He grabs his notes. He pulls on a black jacket.
“Actually, the Anne’s Tablet shrine is extremely unusual,” he says. “The U.S. doesn’t have too many literary shrines.” Each year, Lenfestey runs a small notice in the Mackinac Island paper announcing the annual poetry reading in the woods. Whoever shows up shows up. One regular is a manure sweeper who lives on the island and started writing poetry when he was 46. “He stutters, but when he reads his poems he doesn’t,” Lenfestey says. One year a man attended who was grappling with his daughter’s attempted suicide. Another year, a woman who was struggling with the loss of a son. “She said, ‘Why is it when in grief, I turn to poetry, not scripture?’” But many people journey to the event at “this secret little place,” as Lenfestey calls it, simply to celebrate life in ways big and small.
As for poetry performed in public places, “it has been eclipsed in the public mind with the advent of the electric guitar,” Lenfestey says.
“T.S. Eliot read to 14,000 people in a stadium in Minneapolis in the late ‘50s. Pablo Neruda read to 70,000 people in a stadium in Chile in 1971.” Lenfestey has also been involved in other efforts to take poetry to the people on Mackinac. As part of a fundraiser for an island art organization, he helped promote tickets to a ferry ride around the island on which people read poetry the whole way. Another time he helped organize a one-day event with a mission of reading all of Emily Dickenson’s poems within 24 hours. “We’d shanghai people on their bicycles and ask them to read her poems aloud right there on the street,” he says.
Lenfestey hops on his two-wheeler and pedals down the wet and narrow island asphalt that will take him to Anne’s Tablet. When he arrives, he leans the bike against a fence, but doesn’t bother locking it, and walks the trail to the little gathering place. The tablet—named for a character in one of Woolson’s novels—is a relief with a paragraph about Constance Fenimore Woolson and the image of a woman with arms reaching skyward. A stone ring about 15 feet in diameter offers a low ledge to sit on. On a clear day, you’d see beyond the tablet to the iconic harbor and Mackinac Straits. But today’s fog turns the view into something like a misty gray-white movie screen, in some ways an even more evocative backdrop for the readers.
Unlike the morning event at the Grand, Lenfestey plays no hand in choosing the poems—people bring what they want to read. About 20 show up. A half-dozen children, some young and middle-aged adults, some grandparents. Lenfestey shares a bit about Woolson’s history and invites people to read. One by one, they take the humble stage in the woods, each framed by that glowing, backlit fog. A girl reads a poem about a basset hound. Her sister reads a poem about their great grandma. A grandma reads a poem that she wrote to read to her grandchildren at bedtime.
Jennifer, who drove up from Harbor Springs, reads a poem by Mary Oliver about being among trees. Then she pauses. Lenfestey senses something, asks if there’s anything else, coaxes it out. She hesitates and finally says she’s going to read a poem of her own called “God’s Job,” about her sometimes troubled relationship with her father. She pauses again. “My heart is pounding,” she says, touching her chest, where her T-shirt says Lake Girl. She reads, and when done, she starts crying. Jim utters an “oh…” and steps into the circle to hug her. Jennifer wasn’t even a poetry fan until she attended the Anne’s Tablet reading a few years ago.
As people read, sounds of the island emerge from the white screen of fog, seemingly attached to nothing real, like sounds from the earth’s own subconscious. A gull cries. A boat engine hums. A ferry horn blasts. The faint clop-clop of horse hooves drifts up from below.
Soon, Karl Stuber steps to the circle. He sweeps horse manure for a living and began writing poetry in earnest in his mid-40s. Now he has two self-published books. “People ask me why I published poetry, and I tell them I had a bunch of poems and I had $800,” he says. The first time he ever read poetry in public was here at Anne’s Tablet in 2010. He introduces his poem, stuttering a little bit. But as Lenfestey had said, when he begins to read his poem about the history of the earth, the words flow through to the final line. A woman says, “That makes all that geology I learned in school make sense.”
Eventually Lenfestey takes a turn. He reads a poem about a lake freighter. He reads another about trolling for fish. Again, his right hand is in the air, keeping cadence. He ends with these lines:
For we fishers at dawn are not
We embrace the food of solitude,
trolling back and forth, back
until a sound strikes our mouths
with the taste of grace.
When he finishes, he leaves the circle and nobody takes his place. People start chatting with one another, packing up, drifting off along the trail through the cedars. Karl pops open his laptop and starts typing.
The next morning, clouds still lie thick and gray above, but the winds are low and the forecast tells of sunshine soon. Lenfestey wants to kayak to the east end of the island, to a place not far offshore where his family likes to swim among giant, submerged limestone slabs. As he shoves off and strokes into the little bay, he says the Anne’s Tablet meeting is still on his mind.
“That woman who wrote about her father,” he says. “It was hugely important for her to read that. She was desperate to read it, but was totally fearful to read it. That is common. That is so routine for all of us. Who wants to tell a story about yourself and your war with your father? It’s a story you really want to hide and put away and never really deal with. Robert Bly understood this so well. He said you gotta go down inside before you can go up.”
Episodes like Jennifer’s at Anne’s Tablet, or seeing the light go on in any student’s eyes are what keep him inspired to teach. “I really believe this stuff! I am like a country preacher thumping his Bible, but I get to thump the best poems of the literary universe, most if not all also welling up from sacred springs. So each class is like a sermon, each season a set of sermons all with one goal in mind—to reveal the sacred in speech through time.”
He paddles on, pushing his yellow kayak along the Mackinac shore, talking almost nonstop. Lenfestey is a talkative man. The water lies flat, is gray. Lenfestey is in a reflective mood. “I do a lot,” he says. “I’m not inactive. I chair three boards. I devote a third of my life to my family, a third of my life to poetry, and a third of my life to climate change,” he says. As a journalist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune in the late ’80s, he became convinced that global warming demanded urgent action, and he has been helping spread the word ever since.
Lenfestey traces the curve of the island, and eventually Arch Rock comes into view. It’s late morning, and tourists line the edge of the bluff high above. “There are always tourists watching you when you are here in the water, but in the morning, not so much,” he says.
He stops paddling and drifts in the still water, staring down, looking at limestone slabs the size of cars, the size of semi-truck trailers, busted up and left jumbled by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.
From low in his kayak, he points up to the bluff that’s just a couple hundred yards from his island home, the bluff where he walks to catch the sunrise. (Nearly every morning he rises early enough to catch the sunrise no matter where he happens to be.) From up there, he can discern the currents that surge through the Straits, that swirl around the island. Currents from the north. Currents from the west. From high on the bluff you can see where two main currents meet, he explains. “You can see where it creates a smooth 4 surface, almost like a river within the lake.” Powerful currents converging, placidity above, turbulence below—the very things Lenfestey implores people to explore in their poetry.
The water is clear and Lenfestey can easily see the limestone slabs below. He wants to find one special shelf, a shelf where, for years, he’d bring his family for afternoons of swimming—he and his wife Susan have four grown children and seven grandchildren. The shelf lies just below the surface, so you can stand on it and dive off its edge into the deeper water around (Now this, a rock embodied with the power of a poem.)
“My beloved shelf,” he calls it. Finally he sees it. “Here! Here’s the one!” he yells. “Here is where you dive off and feel yourself going through those thermal layers. You feel like a freshwater seal swimming among those rock slabs. It’s good for the soul,” he says. He sets down his paddle. He closes his eyes. He moves his arms in a swimming motion. “Oh, you can feel it. Oh, you can feel it.”
Works of James Lenfestey
Seeking the Cave
- Earth in Anger: Twenty-Five Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth
- A Cartload of Scrolls: One Hundred Poems in the Manner of T’ang Dynasty Poet Han-shan
- Into the Goodhue County Jail: Poems to Free Prisoners
- The Toothed and Clever World
- Saying Grace
- Low Down and Coming on: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems About Pigs (editor)
- The Urban Coyote: Howlings on Family, Community and the Search for Peace and Quiet
- Robert Bly in This World (co-editor)