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Poetry Roundtable at the library thrives on Zoom

Shelter Island has long been a haven for artists of every kind — painters, poets, musicians, novelists among them — who have come here to incubate works in progress.

This is no more true than with nationally-known poet and Islander Virginia Walker, who has found support and creative inspiration right here.

In a recent interview, Ms. Walker discussed two of the seminal platforms for poetry that exist on Shelter Island. The first was started over two decades ago by the late Art Barnett, then-editor of the Reporter and inveterate poetry lover. The group he formed came to be known as the Poetry Roundtable.

Ms. Walker didn’t join the group until 2016. “I thought it was some kind of poetry workshop,” she said. “I came to find out that, though some of the members wrote poetry, it was really more a place where people gathered to talk about poetry.”

The same year, Richard Varney took over as president of the Roundtable. Ms. Walker describes Mr. Varney as “brilliant,” and his leadership as “inspired.” The group met weekly for lively and provocative discussion and debate over poetry of every stripe, classic to modern.

Sadly, in May 2018, Richard Varney died.  Ms. Walker assumed leadership of the Roundtable. “The group really began to grow, people brought in people,” she said.

But by 2020, Ms. Walker realized she needed to direct her energies toward her own poetry and the many social causes about which she cares deeply.

Though still a sometime-participant in the Roundtable, she turned over its leadership to a group that included now-president, Yvette Janssen, and, as this reporter can attest, though the meetings are on Zoom for the foreseeable future, they are as robust and fascinating as ever.

The second platform for poetry on the Island has its roots in the yearly event Ms. Walker established in 2018 to honor Richard Varney — The Richard Varney Memorial Readings. In its inaugural year, members of the Roundtable volunteered to read poetry from Varney’s extensive collection as well as some of their own works.

Three years later, a pandemic notwithstanding, those memorial readings have inspired a webinar titled, “What is the Role of a Poet?” The webinar, presented by the Shelter Island Library and hosted by Ms. Walker, will be aired this Saturday, Sept. 18. 

According to the library press release: “Virginia Walker will have four guest poets discuss the role of the poet today and read their own poetry to illustrate. George Held of Sag Harbor, Gladys Henderson of Nesconset, Robert Savino of West Islip and Lila Zemborain of Shelter Island are all distinguished poets.

George Held is the author of three poetry books and has eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. Gladys Henderson, an artist and poet, was Poet Laureate for Suffolk County 2017-2019. Robert Savino, another Suffolk County Poet Laureate, won the Oberon Prize for Poetry in 2008. Lila Zemborain, a clinical professor at NYU, is the author of poetry collections in Spanish and English.”

Ms. Walker added, “All four of these poets are very accomplished and very different. In the webinar, they will be attempting to define themselves in terms of the relevance of what they do, the extent of its impact and whether or not they consider themselves on some level to be teachers. You know, in a country like Colombia, 5,000 people show up for a poetry reading. In America, you get 10.”

For information about the Art/RichPoetry roundtable and this Saturday’s webinar, contact Jocelyn Ozolins at [email protected] or visit the silibrary.org website and scroll through the Adult calendar listings to register.