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My Affair with Henry and the Photo Shoot that Followed

As the one who’s always behind the camera instead of in front of it, my need for a new, professional portrait crept up on me this year. Charmed by Sarah Beard Buckley Photography‘s beautiful 50 Mainers portraits in Maine Magazine, I craved how she created environmental shots that capture the intersection of sense of place with personal identity. Since my pulse centers on Portland, I wanted to choose from the many scenic or gritty or architecturally fascinating locations. But where? My mind traced the trails and cobblestone streets and wharves until my mental tour arrived at Congress Street and stopped at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house, the historic home museum of the Maine Historical Society. Yes, I’m talking about an affair with “Henry,” a Maine poet, dead for some 130 odd years now.

I discovered by age ten that “Henry” had seeped into my DNA. On a one-week forced hiatus from school, confined to bed with influenza, I decided to memorize the 88-line poem “Wreck of the Hesperus.”

It was the schooner Hesperus,
      That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
      To bear him company…
Those of you who know this poem know that the skipper probably shouldn’t have brought his little daughter. Things don’t end well for either of them “on the reef of Norman’s Woe.” Nonetheless, I was smitten by the melodrama of the trampling surf, sheeted ghost, bleak sea beach and the salt sea frozen on her breast (you really have to read it, it’s great stuff).
Weeks later, as a fifth grader, I performed the Wreck of the Hesperus in front of the whole school in what today we would call a poetry slam. Bruce Macomber’s intensely talented rendition of Casey at the Bat transported us all to Mudville and put me firmly in second place. (I forgive you now, Bruce).
Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow,_photographed_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron_in_1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Although I lost that competition, my affair with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow continued. My mother, Joan, a compulsive and passionate gardener, belonged to the Longfellow Garden Club, a volunteer non-profit since 1924 that maintained the garden once established by the Longfellow family. She donated hundreds of hours of her time to organize, research, weed, and plant a garden worthy of the house’s history. Before she passed away, she became the Club’s President, a position that honored and intimidated her in equal measure. My personal relationship to that garden deepened when I graduated from the Portland History Docent Program as a docent trained to give tours at the Longfellow House, a volunteer service that I loved.
So, yes, the photo shoot had to use the lovely newly-renovated and rejuvenated garden of the Longfellow House. Thank you, Maine Historical Society, for allowing the photo session and for taking care of this treasure.
SBeardBuckley_Patricia_Erikson-28lores

Patricia Pierce Erikson, at the “Children’s Gate” entrance to the Longfellow Garden

Things to do: Residents of Portland visitors alike love to take their bag lunch into the Longfellow Garden or catch some private moments for reading and writing in the lush oasis. On Thursday, August 4, 2016 the Garden will host a poetry reading event.
Written by Patricia Erikson, Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

How an Island Loves its Library

Peaks Island enjoys its own small library, a branch of the Portland Public Library. I mean it really enjoys its library. Loves it. A lot. A Friends group devotedly nurtures library programs and book purchases by organizing fundraisers. These programs vary from the “birthday book program” for island elementary school children to a middle school book club (yes, middle schoolers) to the achingly sweet tradition of bringing books to the homes of island newborns. I could go on, but for today, I want to give you a sneak peek at the long-awaited annual tradition of having a book sale to raise funds for the library. Islanders donate books by the cartload and then tables groan with impressively organized books. While I juggled my tottering pile of eleven books, I noted that the “Foreign Language” section of the sale boasted some 18 linear feet of books. Really? What island can say that? Well, if you haven’t made it to our sale, then take this one-minute tour.

Written by Patricia Erikson, Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Find Your Retreat: Your secret hiding sense and place

retreat2An experience this weekend reminded me of the necessity for finding my “retreat,” that muse-infused space where magic happens. I don’t mean a formal “writing retreat,” complete with workshops and lectures. Although, those are nice, too. Find your retreat in a place that inspires you, connects you to a sense of wonder.

A shadowy porch, a flower-ringed garden bench, or a gloomy forest might offer what Robert Duncan called a widening of the world:

“…part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part
to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar
all voices and scenes come back…”retreat3
I craved this place “where from afar, all voices and scenes come back” so I ran away this weekend to edit my Jimmy Brackett manuscript. Dear friends offered me respite for a precious 24 hours. I feel rejuvenated, renewed, re-energized.
I share photos from the weekend to encourage you to find your retreat. It doesn’t have to cost money. Go out and find that place, that corner, that view that brushes aside cobwebs and sets your writing free.

 

retreatWritten by Patricia Erikson, Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Writing on Basement Walls: What inscription will you leave in 2015?

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Imagine that you are descending stone stairs down to the basement in a 150-year-old high school to a room known as the Graffiti Room. Does this sound like a writing prompt or perhaps jacket copy for a mystery novel? Mention of this Graffiti Room popped up in my daughter’s college application essay recently. In her words, “the floor, ceiling, and all four walls are covered with students’ names and graduating years. Layers and layers of signatures blanket the historic walls…in a few months I will sign my name in this room, leave my mark on history, and become a part of the tradition.” I realized that when my daughter inscribes her name on the wall, she will share space with her grandmother who would have written her name nearly seventy years earlier.

I don’t generally advocate for writing on walls, furniture, trees or rock outcrops either, but, the layering-of-names tradition hit me. I have never been bitten by the “I was here” bug that would prompt me to write my name on a wall, but isn’t striving to write similar? When writers write, aren’t they grasping at truths, inscribing them, and leaving them behind like names scrawled on a wall? Think inscription, trace, epigraph, literary footprints.

I used to struggle with cynicism towards academic publishing; I still harbor frustration with the jargon-ridden, inaccessible nature of the genre. My prejudice shifted when, after delivering a presentation at a conference in Arizona, a few undergraduate and graduate students asked me to sign their copy of my book “Voices of a Thousand People.” This wasn’t a book tour, far from it. I don’t think my presentation even mentioned the book, but, to my surprise, they eagerly shared their excitement to meet me and how much they loved “Voices.”

Despite my reservations about academia, my work had spoken to these students, fired their imagination, and fueled their passion for learning. Even though writing often feels like a selfish endeavor — the journey toward flawless craft and research, the search for inspiration, and the quest for publication — it remains similar to writing on walls. Writing leaves a trace, a literary pathway for making and sharing insights with people the writer may never meet.

So if you’re struggling with your writing (as I have been this past year), embrace the notion of writing on walls. Writing is not just a solitary endeavor. The act of writing reaches out and touches others, makes connections and shared meaning that we all crave. Keep writing. As you face 2015, ask yourself: what delightful discovery do you want to leave for others to discover in a basement room?

Here are the Peaks Island Press entries that readers most visited in 2014:

Most Read Article about a Peaks Island Writer
Eleanor Morse: Coming Home to Writing

Most Read Article on the Writing Process
Nicole d’Entremont: on family stories and 5 tips for writing an historical novel

Most Read Article on Peaks Island Literary Life
Book Love: An island tradition welcomes babies

Collaborating with professional photographers: Alban Maino

Alban Maino shooting at the Seashore Trolley Museum

Alban Maino shooting at the Seashore Trolley Museum (courtesy of Phil Morse)

Writers are not always the “lead partner” when they work with photographers, but if you are the point person for a project, you should ready yourself to collaborate successfully so that another joint project will follow.

Because the Summer Guide issue of Portland Monthly Magazine published my “A Streetcar Named Narcissus” — an article named after a vintage, interurban electric coach at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, I’ll use my collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Alban Maino as an example.

The Narcissus–once a high-speed engineering marvel–bears the distinction of having transported Theodore Roosevelt Jr. between Lewiston and Portland, Maine on August 18, 1914. Ken Burns’ newest documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History has turned the grand lady Narcissus into a bit of a celebrity, prompting me to ask my friend, Alban Maino of Dreamland Medias, to help me document her painstaking restoration. Here are some takeaway tips from that project.

Tip #1: Plan for the unique conditions of your site. I shouldn’t say “this was an unusual shoot,” because the fact is, every photo shoot is unique. For a writer to lead a successful collaboration, they need to learn as much as possible about the conditions under which the photographer must work and PLAN AHEAD. The idiosyncracies of the location might require particular accommodations of footwear, clothing, photo equipment, or even mental preparation. The more the photographer knows, the more prepared he or she can be.

Photographer Alban Maino captures the "Narcissus."

Founded in 1939 and spanning a 330 acre-campus straddling the Kennebunkport/Arundel town line, the Seashore Trolley Museum has grown into the largest electric railway museum in the world. Its comprehensive collection of vintage public transportation vehicles includes electric streetcars, buses, omnibuses, trackless trolleys and subway cars; one of these electric railroad coaches “the Narcissus” – once a high-speed, engineering marvel – bears the patina of having transported Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. between Lewiston and Portland on August 18, 1914. Less than a month after the Portland-Lewiston Interurban line (PLI) opened to acclaim as Maine’s fastest and finest electric railway, Teddy stepped up to the glossy green coach, climbed through an elegantly arched doorway, and took one of the plush, green seats, most likely avoiding the smoking compartment where his traveling companions puffed on cigars. (Copyright Alban Maino)

Tip #2: Do not underestimate time. In order to photograph the Narcissus in natural light, I worked with Narcissus Project Manager Phil Morse to have the Narcissus untarped so that it was exposed to natural light. A team of volunteers labored for hours to uncover the vintage interurban vehicle; consequently, our photoshoot needed to coordinate precisely with the volunteers’ efforts, as well as align with good weather.

Tip #3: Be a safety nut. The physical conditions of photographing the Narcissus were demanding physically and slowed the project down. In order to get the frames that he wanted, Alban scampered more than twenty feet up onto the salvage “trucks” or undercarriages of trolleys nearby. The dramatic photo of him above – dubbed “the crouching tiger” by Phil Morse – illustrates how conditions must be navigated carefully and safely.  While the photographer is looking through his lens, you can help make sure that he doesn’t step into harm’s way.

Tip #4: Advocate for your partner. Photographers like to receive pay and credit just as much as you do. If a job pays only by the word or a flat fee and doesn’t remunerate for the photos (which is annoying, at best), then share the fee fairly. Also, particularly in our digital age, photos are more easily published on the web without adequate credit or without any at all. This was a problem on this particular assignment. The photo credits on the printed version of the magazine were tiny and missing altogether from some of the content published online. Despite aggressive advocacy on my part, the outcome was disappointing and unacceptable to both of us. This is not necessarily unusual. Be prepared to voice strongly your concerns. In the meantime, enjoy some select photos of this project that Alban has posted in an online album at http://www.espritvoyageur.net/trolley/

Portland Magazine article on Seashore Trolley Museum

Portland Magazine article on Seashore Trolley Museum

 

Restoration of stained glass window of "Narcissus" interurban car (copyright Alban Maino)

Former President Theodore Roosevelt would have gazed at the passing Maine landscape through the Narcissus’ stained glass windows – framed by mahogany paneling with gilded striping and inlaid with holly and ebony – now under restoration (copyright Alban Maino).

 

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Feed your muse: plenty of inspiration awaits in Maine

Explore the Maine Literary Map

Explore the Maine Literary Map

My last post spoke of new beginnings in our literary lives and I’m clinging to that spirit with this piece on New Year inspiration. Since many of the online resources on Peaks Island Press’ Maine Author Resources page had evaporated into cyberspace, I have freshened it up. So feed your muse and meander through resources listed there, for example, the Literary Map of Maine.

Consider how one of the many pinpoints on the Maine map features a four-foot tall porcupine:

Hugh Pine
Janwillem Van de Wetering (1931-2008)

And if you drive the Sorry road often enough, you will see Hugh Pine too.
He still wears his red hat, and he still walks upright, so chances are you
won’t know he is a porcupine and not a little old man with white whiskers
and a long coat.

This 1st title in a series of children’s early readers stars Hugh Pine, a four-foot
tall porcupine, a lovable old codger, and a sage of Sorry Bay. Hugh has many
amusing adventures while looking for the meaning of life. The Dutch born
author was world famous for his adult mystery thrillers and lived in Surry, Maine.

A porcupine who dresses as a man to safely cross the road

A porcupine who dresses as a man to safely cross the road

Doesn’t that inspire you to either read more about Hugh Pine, create your own character, or drive to Surry, Maine?  By the way, Surry’s municipal website provides a helpful tip on how to deter bears from your backyard during their mating season by hanging peanut butter-smeared tinfoil on your electric fence. Really. I don’t think I could make that up.

Alternatively, visit the Maine Crime Writers’ blog and feed your paranoia as you shove blocks of wood into your hungry woodstove:
“There’s a malevolence to a Maine winter, too, the lethal edge of bitter cold and icy water. Go down in the snow on a sub-zero night–injured, drunk, disoriented–and there’s a good chance you won’t get up. Go down in a snowstorm and there’s a good chance you won’t be found, not before April.”
So walking porcupines and death-by-snowbank lurk in the resources that I have assembled for you. Go forth and seize the new year with a sense of literary adventure.

Book Love: An island tradition welcomes babies

Mira Ptacin and Theo on Peaks Island

Mira Ptacin and Theo on Peaks Island

New Year is a time for sweeping gestures that clear off the surfaces of our lives, clarifying what we could have done, if only our daily habits hadn’t hijacked our best intentions. In that new year spirit, I share this story of Book Love, a beautiful tradition that welcomes babies to Peaks Island. This is a story that I’ve been meaning to write for many, many months. Enter island author, Mira Pitacin (and her little Theo), to whom I’m grateful for helping me share this tradition.

Many Peaks Islanders have met Mira, a creative nonfiction and children’s book author whose essays have appeared in everything from New York Magazine to Epiphany Literary Magazine. A graduate of the MFA program in nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College in 2009, Mira currently teaches writing at another of her alma mater, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Mira writes of her transition to Peaks Island in one of her recent articles, “Is a Baby a Luxury?” (published in Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics): “One morning in October, ten weeks after moving to Maine, I woke up feeling awfully nauseous. A chemical stick revealed that the life of our little family was about to change. We were overjoyed. But not insured.” The heartbreak, joys, and angst of the journey to motherhood and the economics of health insurance and child-rearing are among the life-stuff that Mira bravely charts for her readers.

This past summer, when Mira and her husband, Andrew, welcomed baby Theo into their lives, they experienced a beloved tradition maintained by the Friends of the Peaks Island Branch of the Portland Public Library. In the midst of those bleary first few weeks of sleeplessness and new routines, Mira heard a knock at her door. I’ll let her tell the rest:

“I was about 15 days a mom, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, scared, hormonal, overstuffed with visitors. I was on the verge of a meltdown (not really but somewhat) when there was a knock on the door and a totally unexpected guest bearing a gift–a tiny little bag with tiny little books for my tiny little human. I felt so much love in that moment, and so much support from the Peaks Island community, and also felt that from them towards my son. That’s when I bear-hugged the deliverer of the bag and possibly held on longer and more tightly than she’d expected. But she’s a mom and I think she could remember how I must’ve felt. Anyway, the whole experience was one of the best and most poignant ones from the first memories of being a new mom. Powerful stuff.”

The “unexpected guest” a.k.a. library book angel was island resident, Kathryn Moxhay, a member of the library Friends group that shares this book love, celebrating new readers one birth at a time.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine.

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