Finding a still point amid the whirl

Literary offerings challenge writers

By Victoria Leenders-Cheng
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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Finding the peace of mind to work on a novel, play, or poem in Cambridge can be like trying to find a parking spot in Harvard Square on Friday nights.

Local artists say the city's surfeit of literary pursuits sometimes makes it that much harder to focus on their work, and although that complaint may not draw much sympathy from writers who look at the city's plethora of bookstores, theaters, and readings with envy, it has pushed many an aspiring scribe to quieter pastures.

Factor in the end of the city's rent-control program 15 years ago, and the result is a changing community of Cambridge writers that is struggling in some respects and flourishing in others.

Gail Mazur, a Cambridge poet who founded the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in 1973, said the number of poets living in the city has diminished.

"When rent control ended, a lot of poets who had a lot of part-time jobs just couldn't live here anymore," she said.

Anna Ross, who lives in Dorchester but takes part in a Cambridge-based writing group, said that several members of the group, herself included, lived in Cambridge in the past. She and her husband moved to Dorchester when they decided that homes in Cambridge were out of their price range.

Although living amidst a tempting social calendar of literary opportunities is inspiring, it "can also distract and detract from the amount of time one is able to actually close the door, turn off the phone, and write," she said.

But Ross said those who leave take with them an initiative to create writing communities elsewhere.

"Perhaps because we see ourselves as living in more of an outpost, there are more efforts to organize events," she said, noting that the Dorchester arts collaborative to which she belongs has a website, listserv, and frequent gatherings.

Cambridge's reputation for literary cultivation was founded on an older generation of established writers and a flurry of literati workshops and readings, Ross noted. Although people may enter the city to exchange ideas, they often go elsewhere when they actually need to write.

Andrea Cohen, who succeeded Mazur as coordinator of the poetry series in 2002 and who moved from Cambridge to Watertown in 2000, wrote part of her latest book at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.

"The remoteness of MacDowell is part of what makes it such a fruitful place, and the ability to step away from daily distractions and focus solely on one's art," she said. "What Cambridge offers is another kind of wealth, with all its varied resources."

Playwright Rosanna Alfaro balances writing with research by setting aside two hours most mornings to write and spending the rest of her time drifting in and out of restaurants and cafes in Harvard Square, gathering material.

A list of her favorite haunts - L.A. Burdick's, the Central Square Theatre, the Harvard Book Store - sums up much of Cambridge's literary appeal, and her description of evenings spent in the company of academics, writers, artists, directors, and actors gives the city's resident intellectuals a Bloomsbury-esque tinge.

"There are such literary traditions in Cambridge - you feel like you're walking in the footsteps of giants," said novelist Alice Hoffman, who moved to Cambridge in 1980 out of love for its bookstores.

Hoffman hosts an annual breast-cancer awareness event at the American Repertory Theatre that features local and national authors such as Tom Perrotta and Claire Messud. The event also acts as a gathering place for the authors themselves, she said: "Jodi Picoult was here last year and I just saw her and she said she became friendly with Gregory Maguire from that evening."

Writers visiting at Harvard and MIT add to the luster of Cambridge readings, but playwright Hortense Gerardo, who runs an annual playwriting workshop at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, said this is simultaneously the city's greatest literary drawback.

The "ethos of erudition" apparent throughout Cambridge also leads to a "general perception by people outside of academia that those in the ivory tower are out of touch with the rest of society," she said.

For some writers, the close-knit nature of the community in Cambridge has survived despite the rising cost of living, but this intimacy can sometimes be stifling, said Jacques Fleury, a Haitian-born poet and East Cambridge resident.

Stepping back from the whirlwind social calendar of the local literary landscape helped him focus on his work, he added. Likening the friendships, rivalries, and social demands of the Cambridge writing scene to a large extended family, he pointed out, "You have to know when to get away."

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