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Celebrating a city’s literary past

Writers Center in Gloucester hosts guest artists such as Andrei Codrescu

Writer Andrei Codrescu in Gloucester on Aug. 25. Writer Andrei Codrescu in Gloucester on Aug. 25. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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When he first arrived in Gloucester recently, writer Andrei Codrescu was taken to see the gravesite of Charles Olson, the city’s towering literary figure, who died in 1970. The headstone, he was sorry to learn, is cracked, the site unkempt.

At an event late last month at the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church, Codrescu wondered why it isn’t the city’s duty to tend to the final resting place of the poet, whose epic “The Maximus Poems’’ sought to illuminate the soul of Gloucester.

Then he answered his own question. “Poets are not regarded as a draw for tourists,’’ said Codrescu, whose droll Transylvanian accent is unmistakable to anyone who has heard him as an NPR commentator.

Yet Gloucester has made great strides with its support of the so-called “creative economy,’’ which emphasizes the city’s literary history. Codrescu’s brief two-day stay as a writer-in-residence at the Gloucester Writers Center was a validation of the community’s efforts to establish one of its newest arts organizations.

Codrescu, a longtime resident of New Orleans, whose many books include poetry, essays, novels, and travelogues, stayed with his wife, Laura, at the Writers Center, the compact harborside home studio of the late Vincent Ferrini, the city’s longtime poet laureate. On their first night, the writer stayed up late, hallucinating conversations between Ferrini and Olson, he joked.

“That house is filled with vibes,’’ he told the audience of 200 or so at the church. “I haven’t used that word in years without the quotation marks.’’

The Gloucester Writers Center was cofounded by community activist Annie Thomas and Henry Ferrini, a local filmmaker whose work includes documentaries on Olson and Vincent Ferrini, who was his uncle. Encouraged by Paul Sawyer, the UU minister who died of cancer last year, they raised $100,000 to establish the center. Codrescu is on the board of advisors.

In the past year, the Writers Center has attracted guests who consider Olson a direct link between the modernism of Ezra Pound and the so-called New American poets of the past half-century. Poets Diane DiPrima and Ed Sanders have been writers-in-residence; in October, London author Iain Sinclair will make an extended stay.

A few hours before Codrescu’s appearance at the church, he was welcomed at a private gathering of Gloucester writers, artists, and philanthropists. Mac Bell, a real estate developer and former member of the City Council who ran a popular natural food store, the Glass Sailboat, for 30 years, hosted the group at his sprawling home on Gloucester Harbor.

Bell has great affection for his city’s cultural heritage, he said. He recalled a very 1960s moment, a spontaneous party when Sanders and his bandmates in the mischievous New York folk group the Fugs made a pilgrimage to visit Olson in Gloucester.

Over lobster rolls, a few dozen full- and part-time Gloucester notables, including playwright Israel Horovitz and author Mark Kurlansky, talked shop and enjoyed the expansive ocean view from Bell’s backyard. As Codrescu prepared to leave for his speaking engagement, he was introduced to a few guests who had yet to meet him.

One was Gerrit Lansing, a poet and Olson scholar, who smiled, placed his palms together, and bowed slightly in deference to the visitor.

“Gerrit Lansing!’’ Codrescu cried. Now he’d have to revise his comments on Olson, he joked.

At the church, Codrescu was eloquently introduced by James Cook, a young English teacher at Gloucester High School who has become a champion of the city’s literary history.

The guest of honor spoke about working through “The Maximus Poems’’ with his graduate students at Louisiana State University. He recalled his own mentor, the late poet Ted Berrigan, an Olson acolyte who took the immigrant under his wing when Codrescu arrived from Romania in the 1960s. Berrigan, he joked, founded the “Ted Berrigan school of ‘I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say next.’ ’’

Olson was similarly voluble, a prodigious conversationalist whose ideas were as big as his massive physical presence. “For all his struggles with his big body,’’ said Codrescu, “he was mostly head.’’

The late poet’s intimate connection with his adopted hometown was instructive for all writers, said Codrescu: “Because really, what else are poets for than to make the familiar interesting again?’’

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.