- Sydney Lea
Back in 2006, recently arrived in the Northeast Kingdom, I learned that former Vermont poet laureate Galway Kinnell was giving a reading at the Glover Public Library. On the appointed summer afternoon, I stashed my Vermont Atlas & Gazetteer in the Subaru and lit out on the adventure of finding the venue.
This summer, poetry enthusiasts may find themselves on a similar pilgrimage to the Kingdom’s newest literary series, Back Roads Readings, featuring Vermont’s current poet laureate, Sydney Lea. The readings’ venue is the Brownington Congregational Church, part of the Old Stone House Museum, and to get there you’ll most certainly need to grab your Gazetteer, GPS or Siri.
The Readings’ organizers, Lisa von Kann and Paul Gruhler, both say they believe that simply getting to the grounds of the museum will be half the fun. (Hint: Look for the small wooden arrow painted with the words “Old Stone House” as you pass through Orleans.)
After all, the hordes managed (and continue) to find Bread and Puppet Theater’s pageants tucked in the hay fields behind a screen of trees on the way to Sheffield. Phish fans poured north to the previously little-known Coventry Airport in August 2006. Just so, the Readings’ co-organizers are hoping that curiosity or love of words will combine with navigational serendipity to procure an appreciative audience for their three readings showcasing some of the state’s most celebrated writers.
The Old Stone House is worth finding even before you toss in the readings to sweeten the deal. Its grounds are composed of arrestingly beautiful buildings, especially the five-story granite-block dormitory, Athenian Hall, for which the museum is named. It was built in the 1830s by the nation’s first African American college graduate and state legislator, the Rev. Alexander Twilight, and his team of oxen. This building, brimming with artifacts, now serves as the main exhibit hall of the Orleans County Historical Society. The 55-acre site also hosts a new timber-frame barn, historic gardens and the church where the readings will be held.
“We wanted to offer readings where people could connect with the magic of the place,” says von Kann. As former library director of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, she specialized in organizing presentations by dynamic writers in handsome, historic forums. Twenty years ago, von Kann established the Readings in the Gallery, a summer reading series in St. Johnsbury featuring some of Vermont’s most acclaimed authors, including then-living poets Hayden Carruth, Ruth Stone and Grace Paley. With each of the free Back Roads Readings, von Kann says she hopes to reach a wider audience, including locals who might not otherwise seek out an event of this kind, Vermont history buffs and Canadians traveling from the nearby Eastern Townships.
Pairing poetry and pilgrimage is a deeply familiar act for the event’s cofounder, Gruhler, who is an internationally exhibited visual artist. Gruhler, who grew up in Manhattan in a devoutly Christian family, recalls that his only early exposure to spoken-word art was through Bible readings. Hearing Robert Frost recited aloud by his grade school teacher was “transformational,” he says, an experience he hopes to recreate for attendees of the Back Roads series.
As an adult, Gruhler sought out Vermont in a conscious effort to get closer to Frost’s environment; he has lived in the state since 1993. Fifteen years ago, Gruhler was meandering on back roads when, on a whim, he turned onto Hinman Settler Road, the main thoroughfare through the grounds of the Old Stone House campus. The sun was setting, its rose hues reflecting on the Athenian Hall windows. Feeling as if he had accidentally driven into a previous century, Gruhler recalls, he wondered, What is this place?
Friends, roamers and country(wo)men of all literary persuasions will have the chance this summer to become lost and found on the grounds of the Old Stone House, and to lend their ears to some of Vermont’s finest writers.
Memoirist Reeve Lindbergh and poet Sydney Lea read on June 23; poets Leland Kinsey and Gregory Djanikian read on?July 14; and essayist and travel writer Edward Hoagland reads on ?July 21, all at 3 p.m. at Brownington Congregational Church. A reception and book signing at the Samuel Read Hall House follows each reading. Free. backroadsreadings.com, oldstonehousemuseum.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "A Summer Series in the Kingdom Entices Readers to Hit the Back Roads"