By Rick Koster
Publication: The Day
These are brittle times for folks in the fine arts business. Which is sort of understandable: if the economy collapses, a lot of people are more worried about making the car payment than subsidizing, oh, a community string quartet series.
At the same time, the arts provide great spiritual and aesthetic comfort. And Christie Williams, artistic director of the Arts Café - Mystic series of poetry and music, is a fervant advocate who faced grim prospects at the dawn of the recent recession. In 2010, the café, which he co-founded 18 years ago with friends Melanie Greenhouse and Albert Kausch, was in serious trouble of folding.
Williams, though, simply thought the organization was too important a thing to let die - and followers of the series agreed.
"It really did seem we were done for," Williams says, "but members of our audience came forward and proposed we reconstitute the Arts Café as an independent not-for-profit. And some committed to making generous donations and serving on our board of directors."
Williams also met with local community civic and business leaders, learned how to write grant applications, and basically went into survival mode. Late last year, the café was registered as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit outfit - and Williams just announced a full slate of three programs scheduled for this spring.
It's a welcome comeback for a series that has hosted a rather amazing array of writers, including U.S. and Connecticut Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners and Guggenheim genius grant honorees.
Donald Hall, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Katha Pollit, Marie Howe, Philip Levine, Sue Ellen Thompson, Rennie McQuilkin, Stephen Dobyns and C.K. Williams - an iambic pentameter-y equivalent of the 1937 American League All-Star team line-up - are just a few who have read at the café.
Tonight's spring season kicks off with a benefit: "An Evening With the Marcy Kelly Quartet." In addition to the Kelly band's jazz and standards, there will be a complimentary open bar and hors d'oeuvres, and free parking.
Williams is humbled by the support and relieved that the programs will continue.
"There's something to be said for hearing poetry well-read by brilliant poets," he says. "Poetry is one of the places our culture packs its wisdom. And there's a texture to the sound of great poetry being read aloud - a sensuous and seductive texture. We fill our house because our audience wants the wisdom, but I think they're beguiled by the aural texture of our common language raised to its highest level."
Regarding the conception of the Arts Café - Mystic, Williams considers himself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. A native of California, his was a slow but steady journey across the country.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at Berkeley and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. After school, he worked as an actor, scriptwriter and director in both Los Angeles and New York, and spent years in a variety of senior and freelance capacities including writer/editor for the National Audubon Society and as chief development officer for Project Renewal, a New York City organization dedicated to ending homelessness.
Ultimately, Williams moved to Mystic with his wife, Cate Moffett, daughter Tess Williams and son Cody Williams. In addition to his Arts Cafe post, he is the director of development and communications for Glynwood, an organization dedicated to the preservation of farming communities.
All along, Williams says, he read voraciously and wrote and "sometimes even published" poetry and essays. When he integrated into the Mystic area, he was delighted to find a great little poetry scene happening - open mic nights at bars and coffee houses, and Rich Martin publishing local poets at his Hozomeen Press.
"It simply occurred to me that it might be fun to create a venue, which would present big-time poets and good music, while also providing an audience for local poets," Williams says. After he and Greenhouse and Kausch brainstormed, the Arts Café was born. Greenhouse served as the artistic director for the first 10 years and then Williams took over.
Williams says the Arts Café takes pride in choosing musical acts for each program that's thematically empathetic to the headline poet's work - and provide an opening slot for area poets or high school honorees.
In terms of booking poets, he says, he figured he might as well shoot for the stars.
"It's simply more fun to present the greats. When I took over directing the café, I was working in New York City where, to my astonishment, I could open the phone directory and find the names of famous poets who lived there," he says.
He would call them out of the blue, he says, and invite them down to Mystic.
"Over the years, we've built a reputation among the poets for having an audience that listens intelligently and gets their humor. There's a lot of laughter at our shows," he notes.
For all the spectacular writers and musicians who continue to grace the Arts Café stage, Williams says, he's most grateful for the connection they've established with the community.
"My hunch is that most members of the Arts Cafe - Mystic's audience would say they don't especially like poetry and don't read much, if any, poetry between shows," he says. "But they keep coming back to hear the poetry and music we serve up, which suggests to me that there is something special about the experience of hearing poems read aloud - and maybe something special about the celebratory feeling our shows have."
Photo by: Tim Martin/The Day
— Mystic, jots down a few anecdotes about interacting with some of the esteemed poets who have read at the series.
“A couple years back, Philip Levine — who’s the current Poet Laureate of the U.S. — headlined one of our shows. We were walking from dinner to the Arts Center when he asked me if I had two of his books with me. He wanted to read some poems from them but he’d neglected to tote the books with him to Mystic.
“It happens that I own almost all of his books and was carrying them in my satchel, so with some pride I fished them out and handed them to him. They were older books — one had won the Pulitzer Prize, the other the National Book Award. So, later, Levine was at the podium turning the pages of one of the books, when suddenly I recalled that it was dog-eared and marked up with my marginalia — and Levine looked up at our audience and, turning his bemused gaze at me, said into the microphone, ‘So, you really read this s***!’”
“Katha Pollitt is an important, inspiring poet but also among the nation’s foremost political essayists, especially on gender issues. It happened that a while after she performed for us, I was traveling with my family through New Haven’s Union Station. We had descended the stairs from the train platform and I noticed a small woman beginning up with a large suitcase. Bounding up to her, I announced that I was going to help her, and then, despite her mild protests, grabbed her suitcase and lugged it up the stairs.
“When she finally made it up I observed that it was Katha Pollitt! Flabbergasted, I realized that I had just committed unwanted chivalry on one of the leading feminist voices. In panic, I babbled something about how much The Arts Café hoped she would grace us with a return engagement — to which she smiled her luminous smile and to my amazement replied, ‘I would love to…’”
“We had the privilege of presenting the great Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. and recent recipient of the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama. Hall is one of the gods of American poetry, but he is also a very fragile man, wheelchair bound, in evidently poor health, appearing much older than his 83 years. Yet over our pre-show dinner it was clear that his intellect and curiosity were undiminished. His eyes were bright and his voice animated, but from time to time he would steal a look at his companion, which spoke of weary panic. Would he make it through another performance?
“I found myself wondering what sort of man would arrive at the podium that night. In fact, because Hall can no longer stand at a podium, we sat him at a table before our audience, and after my introductions, it was his show. Suddenly this gnome-like man, whose face was almost masked beneath a full beard and long hair, lit up with a charismatic energy that could power the Northeast grid. He became somehow sexy. His eyes were riveting, his voice strong and dramatic. He seduced and charmed his audience, and there was a palpable feeling in the audience that we were witnessing something memorable — perhaps greatness.”
— Christie Williams
Photo by: Tim Martin/The Day