Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Writing Against Loss: Self-Interview

Peter Anastas was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1937. He attended local schools, graduating in 1955 from Gloucester High School, where he edited the school newspaper and was president of the National Honor Society. His father Panos Anastas, a restaurateur, was born in Sparta, Greece, and his mother, Catherine Polisson, was born in Gloucester of native Greek parents.

Anastas attended Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, on scholarship, majoring in English and minoring in Italian, philosophy and classics. While at Bowdoin, he wrote for the student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, and was editor of the college literary magazine, the Quill. In 1958, he was named Bertram Louis, Jr. Prize Scholar in English Literature, and in 1959 he was awarded first and second prizes in the Brown Extemporaneous Essay Contest and selected as a commencement speaker (his address was on “The Artist in the Modern World.”) During his summers in college, Anastas edited the Cape Ann Summer Sun, published by the Gloucester Daily Times, and worked on the waterfront in Gloucester.

After graduating from Bowdoin in 1959, Anastas lived in Florence, Italy until 1962, where he studied medieval literature at the University of Florence and taught English at the International Academy. While in Florence, Anastas worked as an interpreter-translator at the university’s Institute for Physical Chemistry. His translation of Prof. Giorgio Piccardi’s The Chemical Basis of Medical Climatology, was published in the U.S. in 1962.

Returning to Gloucester in 1962, Anastas taught English at Rockport High School and Winchester (MA) Senior High School before winning a graduate teaching fellowship to Tufts University, where he studied English and American literature, receiving a master’s degree in 1967 with a thesis on the concept of place in the works of Henry David Thoreau.

Between 1967 and 1972, Anastas worked as a free-lance writer, publishing his first book, Glooskap’s Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of Maine (Beacon Press, 1973), with photographs by Bowdoin classmate Mark Power. As a result of his experience of poverty in rural Maine, in 1972 Anastas joined the staff of Action, Inc., Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, where for thirty years he was a social worker and Director of Advocacy & Housing. For twenty years he was also an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College, where he taught English and literature.

During these years Anastas continued to write and publish, contributing a weekly column, “This Side of the Cut,” to the Gloucester Daily Times and publishing When Gloucester Was Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City (with Peter Parsons and photographs by Mark Power), Siva Dancing, a memoir, Landscape with Boy, a novella in the Boston University Fiction Series, and Maximus to Gloucester, an annotated edition of the letters and poems of Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Times. In 2002, At the Cut, his memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s, was published by Dogtown Books; and in 2004 Glad Day Books, founded by authors Grace Paley and Robert Nichols, published Broken Trip, a novel of Gloucester in the 1990s. His most recent novel, No Fortunes, set at Bowdoin College and in Gloucester in 1959, was published in 2005 by Back Shore Press, a writers’ collaborative, which Anastas co-founded. Anastas has also published fiction and non-fiction in Niobe, The Falmouth Review, Stations, America One, The Larcom Review, Polis, Split Shift, CafĂ© Review, Sulfur, Architecture Boston, Art New England, and Minutes of the Charles Olson Society.

Anastas is the father of three, Jonathan, an advertising executive in Los Angeles, Rhea, an art historian currently teaching at Bard College, and Benjamin, a writer who has published three novels. Having retired from social work in 2002 to devote full time to writing, Anastas continues to live in Gloucester.

Q: When did you begin to write?

A: I’ve been writing consciously ever since I was twelve years old. That’s when I discovered I didn’t have to be given an assignment by a teacher—“My Favorite Pet,” “What I Did on my Summer Vacation”—in order to put words on paper, although I waited anxiously for those occasions each year when we’d be asked to write a personal essay.

Q: What did you write about?

A: I can’t remember exactly what my first piece of independent writing was about, but in junior high school I wrote a skit about Captain John Smith and a one-act play about Julius Caesar, using my Aunt Harriette’s Royal manual typewriter. These plays were performed in English and history classes. Then I wrote a two-act British murder mystery, which was produced for the entire assembly of Central Grammar School’s students and teachers.

Playwriting was never to be my forte, although I had another chance at it in college, where I won second prize in an annual student one-act play contest, later abandoning drama for fiction, essays and journalism. Yet I continue to be struck by the revelation, that moment of liberation, when I realized I could actually write on my own, whenever I felt like it, about whatever I wished. It was a key moment in my life, perhaps the singular one, the moment in which I began to be myself.

Q: Where did you write?

A: I still remember the atmosphere of that early writing. Sometimes I wrote in my Aunt’s bedroom in the apartment building next door to our house, where she kept the Royal typewriter. Other times I wrote in the basement of our duplex on Perkins Road, having lugged my aunt’s typewriter down several flights of stairs to be able to work in greater privacy. I recall how I set up a workspace in a whitewashed section of the basement that was used by my parents to store canned goods during the war. It consisted of a bench on top of which I placed the typewriter and a wooden tonic case I’d borrowed from my father’s store, located just around the corner from where we lived. The bench was my desk, the tonic case my chair. And the paper I used was some yellowed bond my aunt brought home from the Gloucester Gas and Electric Company, where she worked as a clerk. Once I started composing on the typewriter, I could never comfortably write another way. Happily, my parents soon gave me a portable Smith Corona, which I wrote with from high school through college.

Two things continue to strike me about my first writing space. One is the sense of isolation and privacy it afforded me. The other is the pleasure I experienced remaining utterly alone for long periods of time. It was like the pleasure I’d enjoyed for years when I sat by myself to read on the back porch on long summer afternoons, or in a living room corner after I’d finished my schoolwork. Essentially I’m a solitary person and I suspect that my writing has always been a function of that condition.

Q: What role has your birth and residence in Gloucester, Massachusetts played in your life and work?

A: Thoreau said that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord,” and I might say the same for myself in Gloucester. Though I have also traveled in Europe and the United States, in many respects Gloucester has been my world, the place I know the most about, the source of practically everything I have written.

Q: Didn’t Henry James call Thoreau “worse than provincial—he was parochial?”

A: As an internationalist James had to escape the localism that so much of American literature was saturated in during the 19th century-a localism and a regionalism that emerged as Americans broke away from England and Europe both intellectually and culturally in order to embrace their own history and identity. Thoreau was in the forefront of this movement of self-declaration, when town histories began to be written and local historical associations were formed. It was only natural that American writers began to write about where they lived.

Q: Is that why Thoreau has meant so much to you?

A: We read selections from Walden in high school during sophomore English with our teacher, Miss Claudia Perry, who was a Radcliffe graduate and an inspiring Americanist. But I wasn’t ready then for Thoreau’s understanding of the natural world, his practical Transcendentalism, though I had been fascinated by his descriptions of living through the seasons at Walden Pond when I came across his writings while browsing in the library years before high school. By high school I was immersed in the novels of Steinbeck and Hemingway, and when I wasn’t reading fiction I was listening to jazz or trying to play it. When I entered college, Walden, was part of the required reading in English 1. Our instructor Steve Minot, who was himself a writer, helped us to appreciate the precision of Thoreau’s prose, rooted as it was in the phenomenal world, just as Thoreau had immersed himself in the history of Concord and New England. Since then Walden has been a key text for me. Every year I read a few pages or a chapter from it. I might add that writing my master’s thesis on Thoreau’s concept of place also helped me to understand the nature of place itself-historically, culturally, politically and symbolically-and my own birthplace as one of the first American places.

Q: There must have been some other attraction for you in this strange man who lived mostly in the same house with his parents when he wasn’t traveling in the Maine woods or Cape Cod.

A: I loved Thoreau’s eccentricity, but I also admired his politics. I was writing my thesis in the mid-1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “Life without Principle,” and “The Last Days of John Brown,” were essays that electrified me, showing me a side of Thoreau that I hadn’t recognized before. Reading those incendiary tracts was an important part of my own radicalization. Who could have guessed that the quiet hermit of Walden Pond had once declared, “I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up”? After reading that, who needed Abby Hoffman or H. “Rap” Brown?

Aside from Thoreau’s bracing anarchism and his Abolitionist politics (I’ve come to understand Transcendentalism as the single, great, native intellectual and political movement in America), Thoreau was a loner. As I’ve said, I’ve been a solitary, too, all my life, from the days when I wandered the riverbanks of my neighborhood collecting butterflies and studying the weeds and wildflowers to the hours I spend by myself today walking, reading or writing in my journals.

Q: Was it a difficult transition from Thoreau’s localism to that of Charles Olson’s in The Maximus Poems?

A: Actually, it was Olson who led me back to Thoreau. Not personally, because Thoreau wasn’t a great favorite of Olson’s-he once wrote on a postcard to Gerrit Lansing, “Thoreau is not thorough”-but in terms of Olson’s focus on the multi-dimensionality of place. I began reading The Maximus Poems seriously in 1962, when I returned from Italy to Gloucester. I was also seeing Olson and his wife Betty almost daily. His deep study of local history and the way he explored the past and present life of Gloucester in the poems helped me to realize that it was possible to write about the place one came from in a way that didn’t merely evoke “nostalgia” or “local color.” Gloucester, her streets and people and the extraordinary quality of the natural environment, came alive in Olson’s poems and in the letters he was writing to the Editor of the Gloucester Times slamming development that threatened to destroy the city’s historic buildings and valuable wetlands.

When Olson wrote in his powerful, “Scream to the Editor,” “Oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition, destroying its own shoulders, its own back greedy present persons stood upon,” he wasn’t romanticizing the nation’s oldest seaport, as many writers and painters had done before him; he was warning the community about what it would be losing in its rush to make a Faustian pact with Urban Renewal. The local came alive with Olson, both in his poetry and his activism, so I had a living example in him of what Thoreau had been writing and enacting in Concord in the 1840s and 50s.

When I went to graduate school, one of the first courses I took was Wisner Payne Kinne’s seminar on Thoreau. As soon as I started reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I began to view Thoreau through an Olsonian lens, and I was on my way to a study of the significance of place that led to my thesis on Thoreau’s approach to it. Conversely, reading Thoreau helped me to understand Olson more deeply, though they were very different writers. This concentration on place-what it means, how to know it, how to live in it knowledgeably and write about it lovingly-became the focus of my work. It also helped me to understand why I had returned to Gloucester.

Q: There had to be some more practical reason for why you chose to return to your birthplace and remain there.

A: In order to stay out of the draft I had to find a teaching job. Fortunately, there was one ready to hand in Rockport, MA, the town with which Gloucester shares the island of Cape Ann. My brother Tom, who’d been stationed in the Pacific during his service in the army, came home after being discharged in January of 1963 to warn me that we were preparing for war in Vietnam. “It’s going to be hell,” he said, “and you should do everything you can to stay out of it.” I lost my educational deferment when I decided not to pursue the fellowship in Italian I’d won at Berkeley in 1960 and had delayed for two years while still in Florence; so all that remained was teaching, which offered an occupational deferment. Having already taught English for two years in Florence to finance my stay, I discovered that I loved helping others to learn, so it seemed natural to continue in the US, first in Rockport to fill a vacancy and then permanently in Winchester, MA, where I was subsequently hired to teach English and literature. At that point, living in Gloucester, first with my parents, and then on my own while commuting to Winchester, was a practical decision.

But there were other reasons why I chose to remain in Gloucester. I found there was an incredible community of writers and artists around Olson. There was my old friend and mentor from my early teens, the poet Vincent Ferrini, who had lived in Gloucester since 1948. Through Olson and Ferrini I met Jonathan Bayliss, a Harvard and Berkeley educated business analyst and writer, who become a friend, confidante, and intellectual inspiration. Stimulated by Jonathan’s work on ritual and dramatic poetry, I returned to the study of the Greeks I’d begun in college, and that fascination with ancient history and culture continues. I also met the poet and scholar Gerrit Lansing, who had important ties to the New York School, and whose studies in Jung and the occult opened me to other ways of looking at the world. Gerrit is also the best read person I’ve ever known, making him an invaluable resource. Among local visual artists, there were painters like Mary Shore and Celia Eldridge, and later Thorpe Feidt, whose diversely experimental work helped me to continue an interest in contemporary painting that began when I was growing up on Rocky Neck.

Olson was continually being visited by writers like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure, Robert Kelly, Joel Oppenheimer, and Allen Ginsberg. Even Jack Kerouac showed up once at his back door. I met the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage in Olson’s kitchen and had a chance to see several of his groundbreaking works at Mary Shore’s during Brakhage’s visit. There were scholars and archaeologists who came to Gloucester to pay their respects to Olson, along with the curious and the adulatory. An evening at Olson’s could entail impassioned talk about everything from John F. Kennedy, whom Olson had taught at Harvard, to Joyce, whom Olson didn’t like, or Dostoevsky and D. H. Lawrence, both of whom Olson adored. And Olson often read to us from his poems in progress about Gloucester or his brilliantly speculative essays, many of which were published in Human Universe.

“Why go to Berkeley when there’s graduate school right here at my kitchen table?” the poet once remarked. And I knew he was right.

Meanwhile, living in Gloucester, first in our family house on Rocky Neck, then nearby in my own waterfront studio at the Beacon Marine Basin, I came to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of my native place. As America’s earliest art colony, Rocky Neck was a miniature Provincetown. Painters like John Sloan, Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley had lived and worked here. And in my day, the European-born painter Albert Alcalay, in whose studio I’d met Olson during the summer of 1959, was a powerful presence. Albert and his wife Vera had met and married in Rome just after the war, and they introduced me to contemporary Italian painting and writing. They also encouraged me to speak Italian, which I’d just begun to study in college.

After living in Europe, Gloucester seemed more to me like an Italian or French Riviera town than the run-down resort I’d tried to escape from. Everyone had a garden, and in the morning light the houses of Portuguese Hill glowed from the water like villas clinging to the hills of Liguria. You could hear Italian or Portuguese spoken on the streets and buy fresh bread and pastries in the shops, along with homemade pasta and sausages.

If, when I was in high school or college, anyone had predicted that I would return to my home town and remain there for the rest of my life, I would have been incredulous. It was fully my intention to live elsewhere in the US, in Berkeley, for example, where I’d once had fantasies of teaching, or in Europe, as I’d been inspired to do by my readings in Joyce, Lawrence, Pound or Hemingway. But when I came home to find the rich intellectual and artistic life inspired in part by Olson’s presence (though there had always been writers and artists on Cape Ann) and the natural beauty I took for granted when younger, I found it hard to let go of. My brother was living in Manhattan and that seemed exciting; but I had no real connection to the city, or any chance of a job without getting drafted.

Q: Are you sure that wasn’t something else that kept you in Gloucester beyond the lure of place?

A: I’ve since wondered if it wasn’t also fear that rooted me here, fear of having to establish myself somewhere I wasn’t known or didn’t have friends or family, fear of failing or of loneliness. But I seem to have settled easily in Florence, and before that in Brunswick, Maine during my college years, so fear seemed less the case, though for a good part of my early life I suffered from separation anxiety, which I write at length about in my memoir At the Cut. I’ve wondered, also, if I didn’t have some abnormal emotional attachment to my birthplace or my family, an attachment I feared breaking. Gloucester has been experienced by many natives as nearly impossible to leave-we call it the “island mentality.” Once people succeed in getting away, they often rush back or never feel fully at home in any other place. There are even some residents who boast that they’ve “never crossed the Cut Bridge,” which was once the only way out of town. I’ve yet to explore these issues fully, but I hope to in future work.

Q: If there was so much stimulation and intellectual company in Gloucester, why did you return to graduate school?

A: Again, it was Olson who encouraged me. Not directly. He never said, “It’s time now for you to return to your studies.” It was more the consequence of two years of dialogue with Olson about American literature, American history. Aside from a course in contemporary literature at Bowdoin, in which we’d read the major novels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and a seminar for English majors where I encountered Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and Dos Passos’ USA for the first time, I had read very little native writing. I’d read Moby-Dick in high school and then again on my own in Italy after reading Olson’s seminal Call Me Ishmael, on the mythic and Shakespearean sources of the novel; and, of course, some Hawthorne, which we were all required to read in high school. But I had no real sense of the continuum of our literature, no feel for its history until I began discussing it with Charles.

One day he suggested that I take a look at the “Custom House” preface to The Scarlet Letter. “American literature really begins with that essay,” Olson said. I rushed over to the Sawyer Free Library and signed the book out. I remember that it was the 8th of May in 1963 and the whole town was fogged in. I sat reading near the French doors of my studio, barely able to see the harbor below. I couldn’t take my eyes off Hawthorne’s text as I went on to read the novel, which I hadn’t opened since high school, when I couldn’t possibly have understood it.

As soon as I’d finished reading The Scarlet Letter I knew what I wanted to do. I would study American literature. Immediately, I began making applications to graduate school. I expected it would keep me out of the draft. I also hoped to gain some experience teaching at the college level. Tufts awarded me a three-year renewable teaching fellowship in English, allowing me enough money to live on after tuition remission, so that I could pursue both the MA and PhD degrees.

Q: Why didn’t you complete the doctorate and begin a teaching career?

A: After three years in graduate school it was clear to me that I was not interested in scholarship purely for its own sake. I loved the detective work it entailed, but I didn’t have the desire to devote my life to academic pursuits. I discovered that I really wanted to write fiction, and I worried that teaching and scholarship might undermine the imaginative work I yearned to do. I had seen too many classmates and friends, who also wanted to write, fall into what I felt at the time might be a trap, teaching with little time for one’s own work. Olson had left Harvard before receiving the doctorate, and his remark in a letter to Bob Creeley that it was “difficult to be both a poet and an historian,” came home to me.

Q: What about the draft?

A: By the time I left graduate school in 1967 I was thirty years old and our son Jonathan was two, so I’d effectively avoided the draft. I’d also enhanced my knowledge of English literature by studying Renaissance drama and Milton’s poetry and prose with Michael Fixler, who was one of the best teachers I ever had. And on my own I’d steeped myself in English and American Puritan theology and writing in an attempt to understand the basis of the American mind.

Q: Have you ever regretted not completing work for the PhD?

A: I have. But my solace is that I did complete a very rigorous master’s thesis, which one of my advisors called the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. This showed me that I could do scholarly work and that I’d at least mastered its techniques, which I could employ on my own. But in my heart I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the academic world. The backbiting I’d witnessed at Tufts, the competition for grants and honors, the professional jealousies, were not for me. Tough as survival in Gloucester often seemed-drugs, drinking and violence, the ups and downs of the fishing industry, the battles we entered time and again to stop deleterious development-life in my hometown seemed a lot realer than life on a college campus. I felt that if I were going to write seriously I had to be in an environment that fostered writing itself, not writing about writing. I’ve never looked back.

Q: But you have taught.

A: I taught humanities for two years at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA. And I taught English composition and English, American and World Literature part-time for over twenty years at North Shore Community College. I loved every minute of that teaching because it was pure pedagogy, mostly with adult learners, blue collar men and women who were coming back to school as serious students, not because they were compelled to be there. We read everything, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Dante and Goethe to Death of a Salesman, and the students brought a lifetime of hard experience to the examination of those texts. Working with them was one of the great experiences of my life. I’ve never forgotten reading Crime and Punishment with a roomful of Gloucester cops, who would take me out drinking with them after class and share with me the details of the latest murder case they were working on. And in that same class, Ken Joyce, the acting chief of police, one of the most literate persons I’ve ever met, wrote a masterful paper on “The Compulsion to Confess in Dostoevsky.”

Q: Have you ever taught writing?

A: I enjoyed teaching expository writing at Tufts and North Shore Community College. I’ve always taken pleasure in helping students learn how to express their thoughts and feelings with sharpness and clarity. I’ve even facilitated writing workshops and writing groups, but I would never presume to teach the writing of fiction. I’m still learning how to do it myself!

Q: How did the writing go?

A: For five years after I’d dropped out of graduate school I stayed home and wrote, largely due to the support and understanding of my then wife, who went out to work as a computer programmer and laboratory technician so I could devote myself entirely to writing. I also shared child care with her, as the children came along, first our older son and then his twin brother and sister; and I did my share of the cooking.

It was rough going, the transition from graduate school with its assignments and deadlines to writing on my own, at first without a contract or delivery date. I also discovered that the desire to write doesn’t necessarily presume having something to write about. So I spent a lot of time trying to find a subject for a novel I wanted to write beyond my first two attempts, each set in Italy, “From What Bone,” which I completed in Florence, and “Until the Axle Break,” finished after I returned to Gloucester.

Q: Couldn’t you have written about Gloucester?

A: I made my first try in college when I began a cycle of stories set in Gloucester that I hoped might be an honor’s project. I soon discovered that I didn’t possess the narrative skills to write those stories, and I really didn’t have an authentic fix on Gloucester, so I gave the project up, hoping that someday I could return to it.

The stories I was writing between 1960 and 1967 were set mostly in Europe. Then I wrote Landscape with Boy, a novella set in Italy and Salem, Massachusetts. The American parts really took place in Gloucester and they were about my childhood, but I didn’t have the courage to name the place then. While subsequently published, those stories and the novella seem in retrospect too literary, based more on my reading than naturally conceived and written. Looking at them now, I recall what Olson had said to me after listening to a chapter from my first novel, which I’d read publicly after returning to Gloucester in 1962:

“The literal, not the literary,” Olson had warned, and I was just beginning to understand what he meant.

After that, it occurred to me that if I attempted a short memoir set in Gloucester I might begin to enter that part of my experience I was having trouble fictionalizing. So I sat down and in two or three days I’d composed Siva Dancing, the story of my first summer on Rocky Neck, when I was thirteen years old and had met a young painter who gave me a list of novels to read that changed my life. I was also in love with this young woman, and I told the story of my frustrated attachment to her, along with that of my discovery of the power of jazz.

In that memoir, in which I described the streets and houses of Rocky Neck and wrote about an unfortunate lawsuit my father had become involved in, along with my crush on the young painter, I began to find my own voice. I wrote a third novel, “Reunion,” about a writer who writes about attending his tenth college reunion instead of going to it. This book gave me an opportunity to write about my emerging political self, having spent most of the 1960s opposing the war in Vietnam. I had a near miss with the novella and the stories at Atlantic Monthly Press before receiving a contract and advance from Beacon Press to research and write what became my first published book, the documentary Glooskap’s Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of Maine.

Q: Maine Indians? That seems far afield from Gloucester.

A: It turns out that groups of Penobscot Indians, who rotated their habitations seasonally, camped in West Gloucester every summer until just after the First War, living off clams from the marshes and the sale of exquisite baskets they wove from sweet grasses gathered locally. The background work I did on them and their world included a lot of research on colonial New England, which has since stood me in good stead. Having spent four years of college in Maine and several summers on Gotts Island, near Bar Harbor, with my family, I’d become as interested in Maine as I was in Gloucester.

In any event, I came to see the Indian book as my book about going away from Gloucester, like Thoreau’s Week, the trip you take out into the world in order to help you understand that larger world before you can begin to know your own small world.

Q: And your Walden?

A: My Walden, if I won’t seem too presumptuous, is At the Cut, a memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s. That of course was preceded by When Gloucester is Gloucester, the oral history of the city Peter Parsons and I did for Gloucester’s 350th anniversary, which was published in book form by the city in 1973, with photographs by my Bowdoin classmate Mark Power.

Q: Up till now you’ve spoken about non-fiction, a documentary book set in Maine and a Gloucester memoir and oral history? What about fiction?

A: After the novella and stories of the 1960s and the novel of the early 1970s, the fiction came slowly. In fact, I didn’t or couldn’t write fiction for nearly 20 years, from my divorce in 1972 until 1991, when I stopped teaching and gave up the weekly column I had been writing for twelve years in the Gloucester Daily Times.

Q: Say something about that column.

A: I began writing the column, which I called “This Side of the Cut,” in 1978 at the urging of my friend Peter Watson, editor of the Gloucester Daily Times. The previous summer I’d responded to a request Peter made of me and three other Cape Ann writers to describe what we felt was “the real Gloucester.” For my contribution I’d submitted an essay about growing up on Perkins Road and about the complex ethnic and class structure of the city as I’d experienced it personally. On the basis of that column, Peter asked me to become a weekly contributor to the editorial page. “Write anything you want about Gloucester, anyway you want to,” Peter said. So I began to write more about growing up here. I branched out to deal with local political issues like opposition to a fast-food chain or the closing of neighborhood schools. I wrote about Cape Ann artists and writers. I took on national issues as well. Peter, and my subsequent editor Nan Cobbey, let me say whatever I wanted to say. There was no censorship and my columns were never cut.

Q: That must have been a significant experience.

A: Writing the column and interacting with people on the street about what I’d written each week changed my entire relationship with Gloucester. It also got me writing regularly again, though I never ceased keeping a journal. People who hadn’t read anything of mine, indeed, who didn’t even know I wrote because I’d published in such arcane magazines, began to think of me as a writer. Suddenly I had an audience. I also had the responsibility to produce seven or eight hundred words a week. I found the pressure exhilarating. Yet I never pulled any punches. I refused to write down to my audience. I wrote as if I were publishing in any mainstream publication. I worked hard on those columns and I learned a lot about writing from them. The kids would come for the weekend and want to see what I’d said since their last visit, especially if I’d written about them, as I occasionally did in essays about the tribulations of parenthood or the stages of growth one shares with one’s children. People told me they would clip and save my column each week; others responded by writing their own essays as the paper opened its editorial pages to the community. It was a heady time for me and for Gloucester. Our newspaper won prizes as one of the best and most responsive dailies of its size in the US. All during the 1960s it had published Charles Olson on the editorial page, and in the 70s and 80s I had the privilege of appearing with several other regular columnists, who wrote about an array of issues. Now the Times has been sold—twice-and it’s only a shadow of its former self, albeit splashed with color as newspapers are today, as if to mask their lack of content or a serious commitment to journalism.

Q: There’s the book on Olson, your annotated edition of his letters and poems to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, with a long biographical and critical introduction. How does that fit in?

A: Maximus to Gloucester is my homage to Olson, to our friendship and what I learned from him about the importance of place in our lives and our responsibility as citizens to preserve and enhance the places in which we make our lives. I saw Olson’s letters collectively as a handbook for living in and caring for one’s own community, one’s place in the world, and the earth itself, which Olson called “the geography of our being.”

The book comes out of my academic training. Establishing the texts for Olson’s letters and editing and annotating them called upon the bibliographical and research skills I’d acquired in graduate school. The book comes equally out of my growing understanding of Gloucester’s history, my love of my birthplace and my years of activism on behalf of preserving the town’s rich historical and architectural heritage.

Q: Your activism would seem to have been in integral part of your life in Gloucester.

A: I spent nearly forty years active in social and political issues, mostly in Gloucester and having to do with Gloucester. My activism was partly a function of my job at Action, Inc., advocating for decent, affordable housing or for jobs that paid living wages and assured people of health benefits, and partly a result of having come of age politically in the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s. Following Olson’s example, I was involved in many campaigns and struggles against what those of us who joined forces believed was inappropriate development for Gloucester—luxury condos in working class neighborhoods or in unspoiled wooded areas; a shopping mall with underground parking that had been proposed for the last open parcel of land on the working waterfront; extreme gentrification.

Though I never ran for public office, I served in a variety of appointed capacities, as chairman of the city’s fair housing committee and as a member of several affordable housing task forces and civic commissions, including the Downtown Development Commission and the Gloucester Historical Commission. I also served as chairman of the mayor’s Dogtown Advisory Committee. This was a body created to monitor the management plan for the city’s treasure, Dogtown Common, 4000 acres of unspoiled terminal moraine wilderness in the center of Cape Ann. Taking its name, as some believe, from the packs of wild dogs that continued to roam there after its original settlers left--or perhaps because it had literally "gone to the dogs"--Dogtown had been saved from development in the 1980s by one prescient mayor and a private citizen, Bob French, who spent his life in public service.

My first campaign was the one I organized in 1967 opposing the placement of a Sentinel anti-ballistic missile site on Dogtown. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and many natives were shocked that anyone would dare speak out against a government initiative to protect us from enemies, actual or perceived. As a town full of veterans of several wars, Gloucester was a patriotic community, so you can imagine how I and the group of protestors who joined me were viewed. At one point the Pentagon sent a team in to “brief” the city about the proposed site, creating even more animosity against us. But we persevered, joined by an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and old-line Republicans from Rockport who loved Dogtown, part of which was in Rockport, and wanted no part of a missile base near where they lived. Once they were on board—and they had excellent connections in Washington-the Pentagon scratched the site. Eventually, the Johnson Administration gave up the system. But this campaign helped to spawn a grassroots organization called Cape Ann Concerned Citizens, formed first to educate the community about civil rights and the war in Vietnam and then openly to oppose the war. The group contained seasoned activists, who had worked in anti-nuclear campaigns in the 1950s and early 60s, and I learned a great deal from them about organizing.

Mostly, though, it was ad hoc activism. Neighborhood associations would form alliances with environmental activists to save wetlands or woodland tracts from being subdivided; or citizens would rise up to protect the waterfront from zoning that would allow new housing, thereby undermining marine activity.

A particularly poignant battle we fought in the late 1970s and early 80s was a protracted one to stop the closing of several neighborhood schools in Gloucester’s inner city. Those of us who joined forces—parents, teachers and some public officials-believed that the schools, many of them architectural gems, were an integral part of their neighborhood’s character and social ecology; and if you closed them you would be undermining that cohesiveness. We lost, and the neighborhoods in which the schools were closed have never been the same. The Gloucester School Department later admitted that it had been a mistake to close what people had referred to as “the little schools.” But by that time it was too late. The school buildings had either been razed or made other use of.

All through the 50s and 60s it was quiet in the city, if you discount Urban Renewal, which most people, except for Olson, had been hoodwinked into thinking was good for the community. Gloucester hadn’t been discovered. People went about their business undisturbed. All of a sudden, in the 1970s outside developers began to eye Cape Ann. The proposals started coming thick and fast—a mini-mall at the entrance to town; a supermarket near West Gloucester’s marshes; the mall I spoke about for the waterfront. These were followed by plans for condos above Good Harbor Beach, then more condos in the woods of Magnolia abutting Ravenswood Park, another pristine preserve. An industrial park was proposed for land abutting the city’s priceless watershed. There were so many proposals, so many developers, so much struggle for years! People suddenly realized that if we didn’t act we’d lose the community we loved. The face of Gloucester would literally be transformed.

Q: How successful were you?

A: On balance, I’d said we were moderately successful. We managed to halt or stave off the most radical proposals, the waterfront mall, luxury condos at the Paint Factory, an iconic 19th century complex that greets everyone who enters Gloucester’s inner harbor. And we fought for and won comprehensive plans for the city’s orderly growth and development. After all, there is some change that is both necessary and inevitable. People need to build houses to live in; and the creation of an industrial zone, once measures were put in place to protect the watershed it borders, has turned out to be an economic benefit, offering hundreds of jobs to local workers. There were also a number of non-profit groups and private individuals who offered truly innovative adaptive reuse proposals; for example, turning abandoned public or industrial buildings into elderly or cooperative housing or office complexes, and converting former churches into apartments or condos that would enhance the downtown economy. There has been a lot of positive and productive growth in Gloucester as well as some truly horrific development that has sadly changed the city, making it visually less attractive and far more expensive to live in.

Q: Isn’t that happening everywhere?

A: It is. But when you consider that Gloucester had held out for so long-call it benign neglect or just that Yankee resistance to change, which I have come to love-it was all the more tragic to see the change when it came, especially when it could have been better controlled or managed.

Q: What’s it like living in Gloucester now, 2007?

A: In a word, depressing. So much of the Gloucester I grew up in, the city I loved, has been transformed almost beyond recognition. In place of the solid housing stock of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ve now got cheap modular houses jammed into pocket-sized lots. “McMansions” dot the once-open coastline. And a 1950s retro drive-through bank has recently been approved for the heart of the city’s historic district, over the objections of many merchants on Main Street. What’s more, there is an initiative underway to rezone parts of the waterfront from marine-industrial to what its proponents call “mixed use,” a euphemism for allowing developments like commercial and office space, maybe even boutiques or a hotel, that essentially don’t need the proximity of the harbor to function except to attract tourists. Should it happen, it could mark the end of Gloucester as we know it. Those who want to replace a marine industrial way of life with a tourist economy don’t understand that they may be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But, sadly, Gloucester has always had a will to self-destruction. Furthermore, as if what I've already mentioned isn't bad enough, there's a new project on the horizon for a 20-store shopping mall just off the Route 128 Extension into Gloucester, a complex that will include an assisted living facility, a 100 room hotel, and a big discount store as anchor. If that doesn't drive the final nail into the coffin of Main Street I don't know what will.

Not only the physical attributes of the community have changed; the institutions are changing too. The Sawyer Free Library where I read my first books, the library that was my Harvard and my Yale, no longer has the atmosphere, the feel, of the library I grew up with, the intimacy of its small rooms and hallways decorated with exquisite murals of local land and seascapes, the extensiveness of its collection. Many of the books that meant so much to me were thrown away, literally tossed into a dumpster or put on sale for a dollar a bag, as a result of some overzealous weeding—first editions of novels by Richard Yates and Wright Morris, irreplaceable copies of Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s searing indictments of Stalinism, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats— to make way for shelves of best sellers, video tapes and CDs, and banks of computers. The collection that took generations to build, and that educated and delighted so many of us, is sadly depleted. When I confronted the former library director, who was responsible for this dereliction of stewardship of the community’s heritage, his response was, “I’m not running an archive.” Fortunately, a new director has been appointed, who is working with the board of directors and community volunteers to enlarge and upgrade the institution and its collections, with a view not only of expanding the library but of making it the community’s primary cultural center.

The Cape Ann Food Cooperative, which I helped start in the early 1970s, has closed, victim to agribusiness monopolies and their chains of supermarkets that blanket Cape Ann. Even the Gloucester Daily Times has been sold, twice, as I mentioned, each time to owners more conservative and less committed to maintaining a community newspaper with its irreplaceable institutional memory. And that’s just for starters.

What I’m feeling besides anger and dismay is an enormous sense of loss; a sense that not only the city I knew and loved but the larger world I cared about is gone forever, replaced by a degraded environment and a dumbed-down culture with little respect for the past, for institutions that nurtured the community. Olson would turn over in his grave if he could see what’s happened to the place he memorialized in one of the greatest poems of the 20th century. As for me, I think it could be said that the writing I do now, perhaps all the writing I've ever done, is against this loss. Christa Wolf said that "Writing is a way of resisting the inexorable loss of being." I would only add that part of that being she alludes to consists not only of our own existence, but the persistence in our memories (and hopefully in our works) of the people and places we've loved and lost.

Q: In the end, how did you square your activism with your writing?

A: Olson once said to me that a writer has two choices. You either oppose the destruction of the things you love, or you describe the tragedy of their loss. He tried to do both, as I did, and we each eventually gave up. Olson retreated even more deeply into The Maximus Poems. And when I retired from social work three years ago, I committed myself entirely to writing. The liberation was enormous, though I assuage any quilt I may feel about reentering private life with the knowledge that a whole new generation of activists has taken the place of those of us who were at the barricades for so long.

Q: What happened after Maximus to Gloucester appeared?

A: The publication of Maximus to Gloucester seemed to open a floodgate. In quick succession I wrote No Fortunes, a novel based on my experiences at Bowdoin that I’d been wanting to write ever since graduation. Then I completed At the Cut, which I had actually started working on around the time of my father’s illness and death in 1975. That was followed by Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories, set in Gloucester in the 1990s and based on my life as a social worker.


ADmin said...
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ADmin said...

In the present day century the mantle over here of Lamb has fallen on numerous essayists. Stevenson in the later Victorian age inherited the convention of Lamb.