By Anne H. Oman
May 10, 2021
‘I’ve been writing poetry since I was a little kid,” said Nola Perez, Fernandina Beach’s official Poet Laureate, who grew up on South Fletcher Avenue. “I used to leave poems on the communion rail of Memorial Methodist Church for the minister to read.”
Since then, she has turned to more conventional means of publishing and has 13 books of poetry and 3 memoirs to her credit. Her most recent book, The Best of Fernandina’s Poetry Canteen, showcases the work of 11 local poets who are members of this group. Just out, the book is available at Story & Song Bookstore and Bistro, where, before Covid, the group met the second Tuesday of every month.
“I’m going to work on getting us meeting again,” Ms. Perez told the Observer. “We’ve kept it alive by emailing each other poems.”
The Poetry Canteen was born in 2013 in the wake of a play, Fernandina and Other Images, staged at Fernandina Little Theater by local historian and theatre professional Ron Kurtz. The work featured a saxophonist and five people reading Ms. Perez’s poems. After a few performances, a group of interested poets started meeting in the theatre. Kate Hart, the Fernandina Little Theatre Owner suggested that the poets could meet in the canteen building next to the theatre. Hence, the Poetry Canteen.
All of the members contacted expressed enthusiasm about the Canteen and gratitude to its leader.
“The Poetry Canteen has been inspirational for me,” said Nancy Bell, who started writing stories and poems when she was in the third grade in Buffalo, New York. “It encouraged me to resume writing after decades of doing the other things that life entails It gave me an outlet for my poems that I so cherished. I could speak from the heart to a supportive, non-judgmental circle. Nola as facilitator is a delight as a human being and poet both.”
Some of the poems by Ms. Bell in the book are haikus, such as “To My Late Husband,” which reads, in part:
Long ago, yes, but
I can still taste the lemon
In the tea we sipped.
Professor Marilyn Wesley, a retired poetry editor and a poet herself, worked with Ms. Perez to form the group and has participated in it ever since.
“I had been a member of a variety of poetry workshops and had learned that most participants really wanted to have their efforts heard, not corrected, and this is the kind of group we formed,” she said. “It has been an abiding pleasure to meet with poetry enthusiasts of Amelia Island to share that pleasure.”
To Professor Wesley, writing poetry involves “finding the words to define something that hasn’t yet found a general definition.”
One of her poems, “My Mother’s Hands,” captures a woman washing dishes while listening to the Arthur Godfrey show on the radio that sits atop the icebox:
Jelly glasses, dinner plates, pots
take turns in the Ivory suds.
Lotion, then, smooths the grey veins
embossing our initials from knuckles to wrists.
Ann Carter Usher’s poems are inspired by nature – from the birds, the wildlife, the ocean.
“I’m always writing about the external world, which is really my internal world,” she said.
Her poems included in the book are about trees, stars, a tortoise and a great blue heron:
His elegance moves slowly and with grace on long black leg sand articulating knees,
Nights, he folds himself up into our live oak like a chair.
“I’ve enjoyed the diversity of the group, people with different backgrounds, different styles,” she said. “I’ve been writing poetry since middle school. I have a big birthday coming up, so I’m now collecting, sorting and arranging them all so I can smush them all together into a book.
Walter Petersen, one of four men in the group, began his career as a metallurgical engineer, a background evident in his witty and playful wire sculptures which are often on display at the Island Association and other art venues.
“I’m an engineer – I’m not a writer,” he said. “I just write stuff when I get ideas.”
The idea for one of his poems came to him when “I was on my bicycle, riding past a scene of clouds that I thought looked like a herd of elephants.”:
“The clouds seem African tonight
Elephants with heads held high
Trunks thrusting into the sky.”
“I just picked the poems I liked,” said Ms. Perez, who edited and published the book. “I wanted to honor the poets for their loyalty….I’ve written poetry all my life, in good times and bad times. Poetry kept my feet on the ground. I don’t just sit down and write a poem – a trigger has to come to me. It can be a fragment, something you see. If it’s strong enough, I start writing.”
The trigger for her latest poem, visible on the computer screen in her study, a cheerful room strewn with books, photographs, and souvenirs of her life here and in Atlanta, France, Belgium and Venezuela, was a dream about a beloved, now deceased, brother.
“In the dream, my brother and his wife were driving to a beautiful ocean resort,” she said. “Later, while I was drinking my coffee, I thought how wonderful it was to have had that dream.”
Her advice to budding poets: “Read a lot of other poets. Take time to see the world. Listen to your inner voice.”