Artist in Residence: Justen Ahren

West Tisbury’s new Poet Laureate discusses nostalgia, inspiration and his new distinction

In January of this year, the West Tisbury Library began accepting nominations for the town’s next Poet Laureate. In April, the library announced that Justen Ahren had been awarded the title of West Tisbury Poet Laureate.

The position was the brainchild of longtime West Tisbury resident and author Cynthia Riggs whose mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs was a widely published poet, often referred to as the town's unofficial poet laureate. The Poet Laureate is a municipal appointment with a term of one year that is renewable for up to three years. Prior to Ahren’s appointment, poet held the position for the maximum three-year term with distinction.

Ahren, whose work has appeared most recently in Fulcrum and Borderlands, Texas Poetry Review has made a name for himself on the Island as a poet’s poet. He is the founder and Director of The Martha's Vineyard Writers Residency - a competitive writers retreat at the . He is also co-director of the Summer Festival of Poetry at that devotes Thursday evenings in summer to showcasing visiting poets.

In true Vineyard fashion, Ahren also has a family and a landscaping company. However, he took time away from it all to talk to us about what he’s been working on this winter, what he loves most about spring and what it means to be named Poet Laureate of West Tisbury.

Ahren will be reading his poems alongside poet Rebecca Morgan Frank, author of the poetry collection Little Murders Everywhere, at the on Tuesday, June 5th at 5 pm.


How long have you lived on Martha's Vineyard?  

Twenty years.  I came here during college to work at Morning Glory Farm.

When did you write your first poem?  

I've been writing as long as I can remember. And before I could write, I was composing in my head and in my body in that preverbal soup of dream and sound we live in for a time.  I 'wrote' my first poems in high school, but I have been writing them always, with each breath, and releasing them one at a time.

What about the Island inspires your poetry?  

Its natural beauty, its people. I could see myself here in ways lost to me in the suburban landscape I'd grown up in. I could see and feel the history of this place and a deep source of creative energy. It helps when the community is in tune to the creative. It seems that everyone here has a talent they are pursuing.  

What about the Island hinders you?  

Well, I used to feel that it was too isolated. After graduate school I missed the community of writers I'd found there. But when I began to seek out and, in various ways, create that community here for myself, I found it was actually a magnate for people and for the things I love. I do miss, as a poet, the extremes of the human condition that can be found in say New York City or Mexico. But I travel in the off-season to get my fill.  

What have you been working on this year?  

I've just finished a manuscript entitled The Bells In Her Mouth.  It is about a woman found standing and turning in a parking lot. Some of the poems are in her voice, others in the voice of her young son. I've been working on the collection for three years. It is making the rounds at all the poetry book contests.  

What does it mean to you to be the Poet Laureate of West Tisbury?  

It is humbling and gratifying. It's an honor to be recognized for doing what I love. It says so much about what we cherish here on this Island that we have a post for poets, that we acknowledge they walk among us. I believe all of us are poets. We may not write poetry but we have the capacity to feel and experience. Poetry is not so much a thing as a way of looking or being in the world, a way of interacting with it.     

Are there specific topics that come up often in your poetry?  

The past. I'm nostalgic, sentimental. I write about what I've loved that is lost. There is no end to this.

Who inspires you?  

People who are awake. People who are asking questions about life. People who are saying "there's more to this."   

Why do you think we have such a strong presence of poets on Martha's Vineyard?

We are encouraged. Poetry is encouraged. It goes back to what I said earlier, we are blessed to live in a place that acknowledges not just poetry but all the arts and artists. It is a great seed bed for talent to germinate.

Where is your favorite place to go for a walk?  

Out my back door. I composed most of my book walking in the woods around John Hoft Farm with my dog. 

What is your favorite thing about spring?  

The peepers. Then the smell the earth gives off waking. The bird songs. Every year, as I've gotten older, it seems even more miraculous that this is all becoming again, that the natural world is unstoppable, the daffodils unstoppable, the sun. And just when I've forgotten how it all blooms, it does!


Below is a recent poem of Ahren's, titled "Shrive"


Shrive      I can’t tell if the day is ending, or the world.

                                                    Anna Akhamatova


You turn me to rain

with a sentence.  The black

and secret centers have me

falling, confessing

I know nothing but the crusts of words

about this starvation

we call living. 


All day the earth broke open

under a furrowed brow of clouds

crows rose, smoke

and thin crocuses.


West Tisbury Poet Laureate Justen Ahren will be reading alongside Rebecca Morgan Frank, author of the poetry collection "Little Murders Everywhere," at the on Tuesday, June 5th at 5 pm.

Michael West May 25, 2012 at 11:25 AM
Mathea, thanks for this interesting glimpse into the mind of Justen Ahren. Fascinating.
Mathea Morais May 25, 2012 at 11:57 AM
Thanks Michael. I agree with you - he is definitely fascinating, but I just asked the questions, he's the one with the good answers!
Lara O'Brien May 28, 2012 at 02:44 PM
It is so healthy to see Justin creating such a wonderful outlet on the Vineyard for those who wish to write. Well done! It is so encouraging to others to keep the imagination, dreams and pen moving.


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