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January 17, 2007

Between The Covers


Note the verb tense in the title. SAG HARBOR IS A Literary Celebration sings the praises of contemporary poets and prose writers as well as commemorates talent of the past. And who best to advance the theme of a town's living literary tradition than the co-owners of Sag Harbor's much-loved, 25-year-old, down-home bookstore, Canio's, on Main Street?

In putting together a "serendipitous, rather than exhaustive" collection of pieces that range over 186 years, Maryann Calendrille, the editor, and Kathryn Szoka, who did the b & w photographs, hope to show that historic Sag Harbor continues to attract writers looking for a congenial, attractive place to live and work, and who feel they've found it in this charming "un-Hampton."

Among the more recognizable names included here (most from the past) are Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck (who was living in Sag Harbor in 1962 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature), Betty Friedan, Walter Mosley, Joe Pintauro (his essay here, "[Nelson] Algren in Exile," is full of lively outrageousness) and Spalding Gray.

Understandably, space limitations made it necessary to exclude "many award-winning playwrights and children's book authors" and "legions of fine journalists and magazine writers" [not to mention novelists]. A number of the entries are drawn from recent articles in the Sag Harbor Express and from Canio's editions.

Although the pieces pay tribute to Sag Harbor's beauty and charm, photo placement may appear curious to those who know the town, though readers who recognize landmarks probably won't care if a chapter from Moby Dick comes with a picture of Main Street in heavy snow; that Vince Clemente's poem about Otter Pond ("Algonquin Morning Song") shares the page with a shot of Sag Harbor Bridge at sunset; or that George Held's shaped poem "Twilight on Union Street," with its reference to The Whalers' Church, sits across the page from a shot of St. Andrew's on Division Street.

Certainly, if the literati gather in one of the village's many watering holes, discussion is more likely to turn to who's in the book and who's not. There are a number of appreciative references to quiet movers such as Canio Pavone, whose essay, "Sitting for Mike [Loos]" would no doubt have pleased long-time Sag Harbor resident, teacher, historian and environmentalist Bill Mulvihill (d. 2004), to whom SAG HARBOR IS, is lovingly dedicated, and who delighted in taking visitors on tours of what he called ''the unknown Sag Harbor."

Although presentation is not strictly chronological (the first piece is from James Fenimore Cooper, the last from Val Schaffner), Mark Ciabattari's short but encompassing introduction, "Writing Sag Harbor," pulls threads together, especially Sag Harbor's multicultural history. Certainly new arrivals should know about the long-time presence, even before whaling days, of Sag Harbor's Native American and African American population (see, for example, the poems of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, b. 1869 and the "Soul of Summer" recollections of Paul Ruffins (nephew of the artist Reynold Ruffins). Of course, the landscape has changed.

Though in 1990 Wilfrid Sheed felt confident that "by the time ugliness had entered America, Sag Harbor couldn't afford it," McMansion fever was indeed infecting areas north of the highway. It is heartening, therefore, to read Bill Mulvihill's conviction in 2002 that, because of local efforts and legislation, the town "is still pretty much the way it was and conservation efforts much improved" ("The Way We Were").

The book boasts a beautiful cover, a glorious sunlit color photo of John Steinbeck's outdoor writing studio. It also contains toward the end an eloquent personal essay by British-born landscape writer Carol Williams about her "Mapping Sag Harbor" in 1972. She notes "the mesmerizing pattern of our streets," the three broad avenues "that link us, beyond village boundaries and through the woods, to the ocean and to a larger town with more movies," and "the labyrinthine side streets and alley ways that diverge to wrap around ponds, coves, schools, and graveyards."

And she shows how "everything converges at last in the single curving Main Street, which inevitably connects us to each other, and which, in turn, funnels onto Long Wharf that leads straight out to sea and vast expanses of sky."

She might well have added that this vision also connects Sag Harbor's rich literary life to the visual arts and to the numerous new studios and galleries that now dot Main Street and help make a broader claim for Sag Harbor as a continuing and growing center of all the arts.

SAG HARBOR IS A Literary Celebration. Ed. by Maryann Calendrille, photos by Kathryn Szoka, Harbor Electronic Publishing, 192 pp., inc. bios & sources and dates, $17.95.

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