The Mastheads’ INSCAPES taps into new Berkshire poets

“Why are these green beans so hard?
That’s because they are edamame.

Declan McDermott reflected on the Korean Garden in North Adams.

He was answering a prompt: “What defines the Berkshires for those who live here? Write a couplet (a two-line poem) about a specific place in Berkshire County. The place can be anywhere that resonates with you: a town, street, river or mountain; a restaurant or corner store; a family member or friend’s house.”

“When you write poetry in a group during a workshop, you can get into conversations that you could not get into otherwise,” said Sarah Trudgeon, the Literary Director for The Mastheads, a public arts and humanities project based in Pittsfield.

In a recent community workshop, The Mastheads partnered with MCLA’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities to launch INSCAPES, a yearlong regional campaign with text-based art installations across the Berkshires — the poems will take form on film, in community events and as artwork on billboards throughout Pittsfield.

The Mastheads Westside Fireside Poetry Workshop meets in Pittsfield.
The Mastheads

The Mastheads Westside Fireside Poetry Workshop meets in Pittsfield. Press photo courtesy of the Mastheads

On June 17, a group of Berkshire community members traded personal couplets in an intimate conversation that gave each resident-poet a chance to share their own poetic insights and perspective on the Berkshires. The workshop asked people to write 13 couplets on any place in the Berkshires; one writer shared their daily rituals in a local Dunkin’ Donuts, and another shared her desire to avoid “nature lovers” as she experiences the vistas on Olivia’s Outlook in Stockbridge.

The group shared laughs as some followed the instructions better than others, and the workshop felt joyful and rich. Now anyone, and especially any one who lives in the Berkshires, can engage with the poetry prompt and enter an original poem on the INSCAPES website until July 2.

On July 17, a film with music from Berkshire native Ben Jaffe, guitarist and well-known as half of the Los Angeles band HoneyHoney will incorporate the couplets into the lyrics of a song, and 6 billboards will display couplets through the design of a viewfinder. The Mastheads and Milltown Capital will show the film at the Pittsfield Common before a live screening of “Tanglewood in the City,” and then the film will be available on the Mastheads website.

“An inscape is a term that describes the unique essence of a place,” said IAH coordinator Erica Barreto.

INSCAPES will give an opportunity for the Berkshire community to cherish their environment, Barreto said. The project seeks to explore individual definitions of place and home, and to translate these into a larger conversation on the distinctive setting of the Berkshires.

At MCLA’s virtual workshop, Sarah Trudgeon and Tessa Kelly, Mastheads co-founder, led a discussion on poetry, setting, and everything in between.

The workshop itself was welcoming and small, as about a dozen people came together to share their own senses of belonging. Some took a more of a metaphorical approach to the idea of place, and others described a place in particular, with all its specificity.

INSCAPES grew directly out of the work The Mastheads began the past year, Trudgeon said. As organizations across Berkshire County experienced their programming fall idle during the pandemic, The Mastheads found projects that thrived.

The Mastheads has always run at the intersection of poetry and architecture, she said. They find ways for writing to occupy physical and architectural spaces — parks, billboards and sidewalks, in Pittsfield.

The two-line poems on place will act as a public art project, and they contribute to The Mastheads goals of amplifying the voices of community members as poets and the contemporary writers that occupy the Berkshires.

The Berkshires’ writing history may involve classics like Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, but now the streets are filled with the work of new poets. Each year since its beginning in 2016, the Mastheads has expanded their focus on historical poetry eras, Trudgeon said, with a continuous emphasis on how these histories can be used to add new voices to the Berkshires writer community.

The poets of Morningside’s 2nd grade classes, MCLA students, and long-time community members are all vital to Berkshire literary culture, and INSCAPES will give all people a chance to ground their poems in the place and culture they are an essential part of.

“The project will help us own the Berkshires history: what The Mastheads is built on,” said McDermott, IAH Communications Manager.

The Mastheads have spent the pandemic placing poetry into the physical spaces Berkshire residents love and share, and now they are offering a special opportunity for residents to create poetry from these cherished spaces. In a drive down Tyler St or a walk past Otto’s Kitchen, keep an eye out for a couplet or two; The Mastheads have painted Pittsfield with the extraordinary work of the Berkshires’ new accomplished poets.

The group began with five writing studios named after Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Henry David Thoreau — all writers who have lived in the Berkshires and have long connections here. Since its start  the organization has brought writers from across the country to a writing residency here in July, and since 2017, the Mastheads have expanded into public humanities programming in Pittsfield, educational programming in schools.

The Mastheads’ typically hosts residencies for writers to travel to the Berkshires and write within the Berkshires’ historically rich literary realm for a few weeks each July. Although The Mastheads Summer Writers’ Residencies the past summer were virtual, many of their projects materialized in-person, such as the residents’ writing installed on billboards and essential businesses throughout Pittsfield.

“The Mastheads is by nature a pretty fungible product that can adapt to meet whatever situation it has to,” Trudgeon said.

Mastheads writers in residence work in contemporary studios inspired by writers with local roots including Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Courtesy of Mastheads

Mastheads writers in residence work in contemporary studios inspired by writers with local roots including Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The past year has paved the way for unlikely and unexpected projects.

“The pandemic kicked off a bunch of projects for us that I don’t think we would have necessarily thought of, like public text installations and community poetry writing workshops for adults, which we had not done yet,” said Trudgeon.

In virtual video formats through the pandemic, Trudgeon found more ways to adapt to allow the Mastheads’ other programs to continue.

“We were kind of ready for it,” Trudgeon said. The pandemic acted as a catalyst for their community work to expand.

The Mastheads have partnered with Morningside Community School every semester since 2017 to provide a series of poetry workshops with 2nd graders. This Fireside Virtual Poetry School offers students interactive realms in which students brainstorm and create poetry as they become part of Berkshire County’s rich literary culture and history. This summer, lines of poetry by Morningside poets will be installed at the nearby Kellogg Park being created by Mill Town Capital and The Mastheads’ architectural partner, Group AU which Kelly runs.

“The students already are our Berkshire writers,” Trudgeon said. “Our projects are about emphasizing that fact. They live here, so they can make the place what they want to make it.”

This spring’s virtual workshops Trudgeon executed with the 2nd graders surrounded a theme of transformation. “Our poetry in schools program is really focused on bringing students into the Berkshire literary culture and emphasizing students as the makers for their culture, so we focused a lot on transformation: turning things into other things,” Trudgeon said.

In a recent workshop, the students personified letters in small poems about the lives of Os, Ps and Qs. Students transformed the letters into other objects as they told the stories of each; The Kellogg pocket-park will host 5-foot concrete letters within a fence along the border of the park, inscribed with lines of poetry written by the young poets about the lives of letters.

“It is really one of my most deeply held beliefs that anybody can write poetry,” Trudgeon said.

The Mastheads’ projects focus on accessing this truth across different communities around Pittsfield, from 2nd graders at Morningside to college students at MCLA.

The Mastheads often partner with the Westside Legends, a neighborhood group of adults and all ages, that supports and reinvigorates the diverse Westside neighborhood of Pittsfield. Recently this partnership has executed “Westside Fireside Eat and Eating Poetry Workshops.” In these outdoor park events with community members and Roots Rising, a group of Pittsfield teens that runs the farmers market find their own inner poet to write through lenses of food, neighborhood, and growth.

“We do community poetry workshops with any population that wants to do them,” Trudgeon said, “We think just everyone can write a great poem.”

The Mastheads’ literary outreach efforts will extend for residents across the Berkshires this summer with INSCAPES. The INSCAPES June 17 virtual workshop concluded the MCLA-IA annual summer symposium, a conversation on diversity and equity that brings speakers from across the country — this year on the theme of Accountability. “The workshop rounded out the symposium with a positive piece,” Barreto said

The IAH symposium events have hosted space and time for difficult and necessary conversations on creating “brave spaces,” Anti-Racist Theatre work and managing systematic and collective trauma in the arts. “INSCAPES is the end of the summer institute, and you can see the arc of the work. We want to focus on pride of place and feeling connected to the Berkshires.” said IAH Director Lisa Donovan. The INSCAPES workshop connected community members to each other, and to the physical spaces they share, in a celebration of Berkshire humanities culture.

Through couplets, the project forms an ode to what makes the Berkshires its own space. “We want to remind people why this is such an incredible place,” Donovan said.

‘I think couplets are interesting as they represent two pieces coming together,’ Barreto said.

Couplets often suggest a call and response, she said, or the melding of two conflicting ideas. The choice of couplet acknowledges that relationships to the Berkshires may be both beautiful and difficult, and a couplet can hold that type of duality.

The project aims to share different backgrounds and experiences on the billboards. “There is something very important about the public installation aspect that is very important,” Barreto said. “It keeps the work alive.”

“Not all of the submissions will be celebrations,” she said, “and that is part of it. There is a range of possibilities that can come into play.”

“We want to celebrate these diverse backgrounds and experiences, whether it be age or race or how long you have lived in the Berkshires,” said IAH Communications Manager Declan McDermott. “We may have some voices of people who have only been in the Berkshires since they started at school here, but we also might have voices of people who have been here their whole lives, and might know Mass MOCA not as a museum but as a factory.”

The INSCAPES event itself underscored the power writing poetry has to open meaningful conversations. “I think it is a way of asking people better questions,” Trudgeon said.

The MCLA workshop on INSCAPES gave poets time to discuss poems such as “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl.” The event opened conversations on the nuances of perspective uncovered by poetry, and the meaning of the spaces that communities occupy. The prompt is thoughtfully open-ended, and left room for workshop attendees to share their perspectives on the relationship between place and the Berkshire culture on both the individual and community levels.

The Mastheads plan to continue their partnership with MCLA into the fall with more workshops for students, and ultimately flags will carry MCLA students’ INSCAPES poems throughout the campus. For her first submission, Brianna Christie, IAH’s Public Relations and Social Media Assistant, wrote a few couplets on her sense of setting and place in the Berkshires as a student at MCLA.

“I went to Pedrins last September
For my first date, we ate tenders”

“The lions invite me to come inside
The gates keep Williamstown awake”

“A rite of passage at MCLA
Go to MassMOCA every day”

“We should hike Mount Greylock
Driving up it sounds better”

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