Surprises at MASS MoCA

On Wednesday, after a morning filled with unexpected complications, I picked up a local poet-friend and we headed for North Adams for the annual reunion residency of the Boiler House Poets at MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The Boiler House Poets met and bonded five years ago; we were the first group of poets to be in residence through the Studios at MASS MoCA, through a collaboration of the Assets for Artists program and Tupelo Press. We arrived only a few weeks after the studio residencies program began. (Most of the MoCA artists in residence are visual artists, but we are pleased to bring a literary arts presence, too.) Only two of the poets knew each other before arriving, but we bonded so strongly that we wanted to be together again and were fortunate to be able to continue our relationship with The Studios at MASS MoCA and have returned each fall for a week together, visiting the museum, writing, workshopping, encouraging each other, and, sometimes, staying up in our apartments way too late talking.

I am one of the six original Boiler House Poets who is in residence this year, along with my Binghamton-area friend who joined us in our second year and a new addition this year, who is a friend of two of the original members. Whatever the particular configuration, we have such a strong core that our residencies are positive experiences. I must admit, though, that I sometimes get overwhelmed and exhausted, partly because of the intensity of the residency and partly because the rest of my life has been complicated enough that I can’t totally disconnect from my non-poetry life when I am here.

But on to the surprises…

The first was not a positive one, because one of our poets was ill and not able to join us on our arrival day Wednesday. It felt so odd to have any empty place at our welcome dinner where she would have been. Luckily, she recovered enough to join us on Thursday. We are so happy to have her here, even though she must be careful not to expend her usual amount of energy until she recovers a bit more.

On Thursday, I decided to go the museum to check out the exhibits, knowing that we planned to choose one about which to write a related poem as our group project this year. Artists-in-residence have a free pass to the museum, but check in at the desk to get a daily sticker. The woman behind the desk said, “Joanne?” and I was surprised to see a local poet who had led a print-making class for us in a prior year and had read with us at our first public reading. I hadn’t realized that she was now working for MASS MoCA.

By design, MASS MoCA doesn’t have a permanent collection, so there are always new things to experience when we come every year. One of the largest exhibit spaces has an extensive installation by Trenton Doyle Hancock. As I was about to wander into it, a young man said, “Joanne?” I was startled to see James, one of the original Boiler House Poets. While we differ in age, race, and gender, we had a special bond because we had both grown up in the North Adams area. I had lost track of him as he hadn’t been able to make our earlier reunion residencies – and now, here he was! He had moved to North Adams earlier in the year and was working part-time at MoCA while continuing his art practice and freelancing. He was also scheduled to leave for vacation the next day, but, happily, was available to join us for lunch.

As we were picking up our lunches at the cafe and settling down at our tables, I kept looking out for James. I hadn’t told anyone he was there because I wanted them to be as pleasantly surprised as I had been. It was so much fun that we wanted more time to visit and catch up, so we arranged another visit for later in the evening. We stayed up much too late, but we laughed a lot and had fascinating and wide-ranging conversations.

In fact, we were up so late that people were able to be the first to say “Happy Birthday!” to me. Perhaps, I’ll say a bit more about my birthday in the next post.