It only takes a handful of writers to make a city immortal, and Boston’s Jamaica Plain is certainly suspended in forever. Its rows of autumnal hued Victorian homes, otherworldly cemetery, curious biodiversity, and artistic inhabitants are inscribed onto the surface of time in lines of poetry.
Jamaica Plain seems to exert a particular gravitational pull as a place for creativity, and especially for poets. Pulitzer poet Sylvia Plath was born on Price Street near the Arnold Arboretum back in 1932, and at age 8 she published her first poem in the Boston Herald. Anne Sexton, another Pulitzer Prize winner, and poet e.e. cummings are buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.
The neighborhood’s amalgam of urbanism and nature offer a unique setting for penning a poem, as its star-studded literary history proves, and many of Jamaica Plain’s current dwellers say there’s something about the community that strings words and rhyme-inclined people together.
Sandra Storey is one of these poets. She’s lived in Jamaica Plain for 42 years, during which she’s founded the Jamaica Plain Gazette, worked as its editor-in-chief, taught poetry workshops, published poems in various literary magazines, including New York Quarterly, Friction (UK), and New Millennium writings, and performed countless works at readings across the community.
“Arts feel encouraged and supported here,” Storey said. “Poetry is not treated like an oddity.”
Store is also a member of the Jamaica Pond Poets, a leaderless writers workshop composed of 13 members who meet weekly to discuss and edit one another’s poetry. The Poets, who are in their 20th year together, are a very successful group—all members are published in literary magazines, several have won awards for their work, and a few have books and chapbooks on store shelves. Jamaica Pond Poets is a community, Storey said, and it’s helping preserve and nurture Jamaica Plain’s literary tradition.
“It helps keep poetry in the air,” Storey said.
The group also hosts poetry readings, one of which is Rozzie Reads. Dorothy Derifield is an operating committee member, and she read at the Dec. 3 event where Storey was the featured poet. Derifield is a Jamaica Pond Poet, too, and her work is in the Radcliffe Quarterly and Harvard Magazine. She’s also the director of the series Chapter and Verse, which she inherited when it was on the brink of extinction she said.
“I didn’t want it to disappear,” Derifield said. “It was important to the community.”
It’s evident Jamaica Plain residents value the arts, Storey said. She’s surrounded by artists— musicians, actors, visual artists, and writers—and it’s normal to go home and work on your art, to tend to something, she said.
“It’s easy to find people who understand what you do,” Storey said. “There are a lot of poets in JP.”
Along with historic figures Plath, Sexton, and e.e. cummings, Jamaica Plain is home to Jill McDonough, published poet and creative writing professor at University Massachusetts of Boston, Maggie Dietz, who directed the Favorite Poem Project founded by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, and the Carpenter Poets of Jamaica Plain. There’s also a handful of regular poetry readings series including Rozzie Reads, Calliope Poetry Series, Moonlighting (an LGBTQ open mic), and a fairly new series called Mr. Hip Presents, an interactive event that incorporates poetry, spoken word, and live jazz music
Mr. Hip Presents’ founder and director is Donald Vincent. Vincent grew up Washington D.C., and he’s lived in Jamaica Plain for three years now. He received his M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and he works for the Department of Home Security and leads Mr. Hip.
Vincent said he started reading and writing poetry because it offered him an alternate avenue for expression.
“Poetry is a gateway,” Vincent said. “It’s a way of living.”
The art form resonated with him, but he was frustrated with the lack of poets of color, both in his college courses’ syllabi and at poetry readings in Boston, he said. He found a need to disrupt this homogeny, to expand the community and diversify the cast and rhythms of poetry in Boston he said. So he created Mr. Hip and it found a home in Jamaica Plain.
What Vincent noted was a fairly universal social tendency known as “homophily,” which describes people’s natural preference to stick with their own kind. There’s a large vat of research showing how homogenous environments hinder creativity, which is perhaps why so many poets have flocked to Jamaica Plain—its multiplicity of voices makes people more imaginative.
“If I need some inspiration, I’ll just walk down Centre Street,” Vincent said. “Who knows what you’ll see in Jamaica Plain.”
Many cities offer the creative benefits of diversity, what differentiates Jamaica Plain is its nature, seamlessly stitching Centre Street to the Arnold Arboretum to the Forest Hills Cemetery. Jamaica Plain’s greenery drew twenty-something poets GennaRose Nethercott and Blake Campbell to settle here.
Nethercott recently moved to Jamaica Plain this September after returning from touring Europe with her poetry. Her father was a writer and she grew up surrounded by books and storytelling, she said. She also grew up surrounded by nature, and she’s come to reside in the Boston neighborhood because it reminds her of her hometown, Brattleboro, Vermont, she said.
“It’s a woodsy artsy area, and if I was going to be in a city it seamed like a great place,” Nethercott said. “The green spaces help me handle urban life, and it has a really active arts scene.”
She’s a published, world-travelling poet and she earns a living wage writing poetry—a fact she’s proud of she said. Nethercott traveled around Europe with her typewriter on her back, writing poems to order in whatever city she found herself in. Now you can find her writing poems by the pond side and around the neighborhood in Jamaica Plain.
“I’m fascinated with the idea of storytelling not as an accessory to life, but a necessity,” Nethercott said. “The stories people tell are a way to communicate some need of society.”
The Jamaica Pond is one of Nethercott’s favorite places to find a lucrative kind of solitude for writing.
“You have access to these quiet pensive spaces where you can go and have that time for reflection, but is still has access to the city where you can find more active engagement with the city and with people,” Nethercott said. “For me, as a writer, I really need these quiet spaces to think creatively.”
Poet Blake Campbell echoes Nethercott’s sentiment—similarly he’s found peace and creative stimulation from Jamaica Plain’s natural areas.
“Poets I admire are very tied to place,” Campbell said. “We’re immensely impacted by the environment.”
Campbell won the Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank Most Promising Young Poet Award this September. His winning poem “Bioluminescence,” is about losing a great love and it’s told through a story of cave exploration. Most of his pomes are inspired by nature, he said, and on Saturday mornings Campbell has a habit of waking up early to take walks around the pond.
“I need that,” Campbell said. “I need to be able to go for long walks where I don’t have to do anything but think and look at the world around me. And sometimes a line of poetry will come into my head and I will work out a poem, or concept for a poem in my head.”
The artistic process finds breath in Jamaica Plain, said Storey. She said the Jamaica Pond Poets is the reason she started writing poetry again after a 17-year hiatus. Storey said the community understands one another— understands the act of carrying a notebook in your back pocket, or desperately searching for a napkin and pen when a detail of life needs capturing. She said she reconnected with her poet-identity, found connections with new people, and looked at the world through a literary lens.
“Poetry is important because it gives us an alternative way to talk about the world,” Storey said. “And the atmosphere of Jamaica Plain is conducive to talking about alternate ways.”