For the past 10 years, the carpenters have met for a beer every Thursday night at James's Gate Restaurant in Jamaica Plain. They finish up whatever job they're on -- demolition s, additions, renovations, new construction -- and compare notes, complain, and catch up. Two years ago, one of the guys brought in some poems by Mark Turpin, a carpenter who has published collections and won awards.
"We can do that," said someone.
"We can do better than that," said someone else.
The challenge went out: Write a poem on the subject of carpentry, and bring it to the pub.
Thus was born Carpenter Poets of Jamaica Plain. They are 18 men and one woman, and they write of cross-cuts and concrete, aprons and belts, splinters and cuts, post s and beams, plaster and lathe, hammer and nails, the bit and the blade. One penned an elegiac poem called "A Carpenter's Friend," about a beloved dog who accompanied him on each job. They've written about impossible clients and favorite clients. They've written odes to the wood they work with, to the ubiquitous yellow pencil stuck behind their ears.
"Bark stripped, branches cut, timber hewn, such beauty in life, as pure a gift serving in death again and again, man and tree grow to become what they make of each other," wrote Vin Dorio, of the relationship between carpenters and their medium.
Twice a year, the Carpenter Poets hold readings at James's Gate. Some spend weeks polishing their poems; others scribble frantically on cocktail napkins at the last minute. But all claim to take it seriously. For the month before the latest reading, the questions made the rounds: "How's it going? Are you done yet?"
On a recent Monday night, a crowd of family and friends was there to cheer them on as they took their turn before a microphone. Most wore their work clothes: jeans, boots, flannel shirts. Their subjects ranged from getting up in the cold dawn to build warm houses for other people to "Homage to a Chair." Some rhymed. Others were free verse. One was penned in Dr. Seussian style. They were short and long, serious and funny. And all elicited cheers, sometimes laughter.
"There's no critiquing," says Joe Bergin, who owns the J.P. Carpentry Company. He adds: "Not everyone is going to be a Robert Pinsky. These might not get into the Norton Anthology, but they're damn good." Years ago, Bergin, 55, took a leave from Middlebury College classes, worked construction, and never went back. "Just building something people live in is amazing to me," he says, sitting at the island of a Chestnut Hill kitchen he built.
Bergin had played around with poetry in high school and college, intending to major in English. While he built houses, he wrote poems. "I was very much influenced by Arthur Rimbaud," he says. "His intensity, his sense of adventure."
To him, the link between carpentry and poetry is obvious: Both involve constructing something complicated. "For me, poetry is putting emotional constructs together, and carpentry is putting functional concepts together. Both take thought and heart." Plus, he feels the subject matter is limitless. "There are so many situations in carpentry." Like the poem he wrote entitled, "Death Defying Postures," in which he describes the dangers carpenters face on the job.
There is lighter verse, too. Carl Weinhardt wrote one poem that begins: "Says Euripedese to Euripedose, 'Dese saws is dull and my fingers is froze.' 'Looks like we's could use a cup-le o'teas,' says Euripedose to Euripidese."
Was it difficult for the men to get into poetry? Didn't they think it was a little la-di-dah? Nah, they say. Everyone's got poetry in them; the trick is to let it out. "Poetry doesn't have to be academic or pretentious," says Bergin.
He and some of his friends say they're influenced by "cowboy poets" such as Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black, whose words celebrate the cowboy life. "They are our brother poets," says Bergin.
Outside the group, Bergin writes on topics other than carpentry, including a self-published collection of poems about Boston: "The Boston Seasons Quartet." Two years ago, Bergin met Mayor Tom Menino at a wedding, told him Boston needed a poet laureate, and volunteered for the job. He's still waiting to hear back.
Bill Thibodeau is a mainstay of the group. The former high school teacher is working on his master's degree in anthropology and arch eology at Harvard's extension school. Last summer he published a book of poetry, "American Icon and Other Poems." He agrees that the cowboy poets changed the image of poetry as being "sort of sissy."
"They helped dispel the notion of poetry being for salons," he says. "There are a lot of regular people out there writing poetry."
Still, he concedes that the Carpenter Poets are an anomaly. "To come to a bar where people are reading poetry, you don't find it here. You find it more in the old country, in Ireland," says Thibodeau, who is rebuilding a living room in the South End.
Which is harder, carpentry or poetry? "Constructing a poem is sometimes as difficult as constructing a building," he says. "In construction, you have to build something that's going to last, and it has to be aesthetically pleasing. You can look at poetry like that as well. It has to stand on its own, like a building."
Siobhan Murphy is the only woman in the group. At the pub, she read a poem that began: "This carpenter is working a hard angle and it's got my panties all in a tangle." It ended: "But this carpenter knows how to keep her cool. Just remember the bevel rule and you'll cut it like a jewel." It was greeted with loud applause, whoops, and knowing nods from the others. Murphy, who is working on a staircase in Arlington, admitted to writing it in an hour earlier that day.
Ginny O'Neil lives down the street from the pub and was there to listen to the carpenters. An artist, she quickly sketched them as they read. "I really appreciate the poetry and just hearing those carpenters writing about their work. It makes you realize how much they're thinking while they're working."
Mark Rogovin is the guy who originally brought in the poem by Mark Turpin, which spawned Carpenter Poets of Jamaica Plain. "I really am not a big poetry aficionado," says Rogovin, owner of Rock Steady Builders. "Dr. Seuss was pretty much the last time I heard poetry."
For John Brown, it's as much about the people as the poems. "It's great to put it out there and ramble, whether you know what you're doing or not. Who cares? The community is what's important." Glancing around the pub at others who were hoisting beers and laughing, he said: "What a great, convivial conglomeration of people. Isn't it fun?"
It's clear they also -- usually -- love their day jobs. As a poem by Cyrus Beer concludes: "At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I've left part of myself in that house. Makes me proud, and it sure was fun."