(Editor's note: This is an edited version of the article to correct the location for the New Year's Eve inauguration of the new poet laureate. The ceremony will be held at the Playhouse Theater on Church Street, starting at 6 p.m.)
BELFAST - Everybody has a heyday of sorts. But not often does someone momentarily embody the zeitgeist as completely as Ellen Sander, who was appointed Belfast's newest poet laureate this week.
As a young journalist she rubbed shoulders with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and a long list of other luminaries, and exhibited a knack for making the scene that would put Forrest Gump to shame. It didn't hurt that it was the late-1960s, a time so dense with cultural novelty that an ambitious writer in her twenties could plausibly publish a memoir, and Sander did this in 1973. A photo taken at the publication party for "Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties" shows the author wearing flowers in her hair as brilliantly as if she'd invented the idea, smoking a long pipe, and generally outclassing the gentelmen on either side of her, Phil Ochs and Jackson Browne. And in case that's not enough, there's a glimpse of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman strolling by in the background.
Sander's travels carried on long after her "Trips" days.
When the New York scene died down, she moved west to Bolinas, Calif., a small coastal town north of San Francisco that was an incubator of sorts for poets. It was a post-Beat scene, informed by Zen Buddhism, parenthood and a proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Sander had always written some poetry, but it became more of a focus in California where she found mentors and a community that was invested in the decidedly slower-paced art form.
In the following years she lived in New York and Los Angeles. In the mid-2000s she followed her fiance to Beijing where he had been offered a teaching job. Sander found teaching work of her own and did stints at an English language women's magazine and in television and motion picture production. Following a "marital catastrophe," she returned to the US and in October 2006 accepted an invitation from a friend to come up to Maine.
Her arrival, in Northport, happened to coincide with the second annual Belfast Poetry Festival where Sander first met Elizabeth Garber, the city's poet laureate at the time. The event made a huge impression. "It was like this small picture-perfect New England city and it had this amazing poetry," she said. "My life was in shambles. I thought, why wouldn't I just live here?"
She tried Northport and Swanville before settling in Belfast. Locally, she is a volunteer for the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast and Our Town Belfast and works on the promotion committee of the annual Belfast Street Party.
In recent years, Sander's poetry has been published in several journals including the Saturday Afternoon Journal, Social Anarchism and Dongxi. The latest resurgence of interest in the 1960s prompted her to begin a series of e-book collections of her music and culture writing, organized by theme ("Rock and Roll Womanhood;" "The Lifestyle that Rock Unleashed") or artist ("Plaster Casters!" and an upcoming volume on the Rolling Stones).
In her application letter for the honorary post, she indicated a desire to seek out poetry from young people, veterans, inmates and others who have historically worked on the margins.
"With the amazing number of authors who are here and already writing and publishing, it's easy not to look at that other work," she said. "So, I'm excited about going on that journey."
The Belfast Poet Laureate position was informally created around 2000 by then-Mayor Mike Hurley as an honorarium for scientist-turned-philosopher and artist Bern Porter who lived in Belfast. Porter was given a golden cape and no term limit or official duties and held the post until his death in 2004. He was succeeded by Bob Ryan, Garber, Karin Spitfire, Linda Buckmaster and current poet laureate Jacob Fricke.
Recent appointees have given a more active interpretation to the honorary position, hosting workshops, poetry contests and collaborations with visual artists and musician. For a time, organizing the annual poetry festival was a major part of the poets laureate's job, though Sander said that piece has since been taken over by a steering committee.
Sander's inauguration will take place on New Year's Eve at the Playhouse Theatre. As part of the ceremony, which was held at the Colonial Theatre in past years, the gold cape originally made for Porter, now embroidered with the names of all the past laureates, is passed on to the incoming poet.
"I did have a sort of tapestry cape that I wore from time to time," she said. "I had all that. I had a kind of brocade vest. I had the fringe."
Belfast Farmers Market, as Summer Ends
─ Ellen Sander, August 2012
A morning surprise:
moist kiss on my bare shoulder
from the hydrangea, as I pass
like twilight, like petals, like mist,
like twilight, like petalslike love
An involuntary smile
a stranger catches and
thinks it’s for him
Still morning, a still morning
but it can’t stay morning forever
no matter how sweet
or curated in writing
T.T.S.P. you used to write me
This Too Shall Pass
I haven’t made the bed in 2 days
The sun sets more golden on the hill
cricketish gibberish nigh
summer fades delicately, like
The reason the honey is cloudy
is because there is pollen in it
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