Words of the Ancestors Roll Down the Tracks
Ninth year of Beach Bards
Special from the Glen Arbor Sun
For the ninth-consecutive summer the Beach Bards Bonfire is providing Glen Arbor with its transport of words. Every Friday night, on the beach of Lake Michigan, a faint little rumble is audible through the rustling leaves and lapping of water. It's the sound of anxious people inheriting the words dealt them by others around the fire. More than likely, the words tumbled off a tongue of one of the Beach Bards -- five natives of the Glen Arbor-Empire area who seek to keep the oral tradition alive.
And like participants in a new fashion trend, many of the onlookers at the weekly bonfire feel compelled to join the cause, thus upholding the tradition. Over the course of its nine-year existence, crowd participation has increased dramatically at the affair, which takes place on the Leelanau School beach. "It's still the same open forum," Norm Wheeler -- one of the original hosts of the Bards -- said. "But there is more participation by others."
Nowadays Wheeler, Bob Sutherland, Ann-Marie Oomen, Ray Nargis or Bronwyn Jones (the five Bards) may only spend 15-20 minutes apiece strolling around the fire with their timeless words. The Beach Bards bonfire attracts many new poets, storytellers and even musicians. Spot appearances are common from members of Song of the Lakes or the Lizard Lickers, folk singers like Barry Martin and even renowned Suzuki flute instructor Rebecca Paluzzi.
Guest appearances are nothing new to the bonfire, but one who sticks around and becomes and official member is. As it approaches almost a decade of summer rituals, the Beach Bards accepted Jones into the mix late last summer. "I went for eight years and just listened," Jones -- a professor at Northwest Michigan College in Traverse City -- said. "All of a sudden I needed to participate."
The powerful aroma of words grabbed ahold and pulled Jones into an already unique mix of performers. Appropriately enough, after founding the Beach Bards together, Sutherland and Wheeler lead the way each Friday night. The former is the host of the children's hour, which begins at around 9 pm. The latter opens the regular -- but not necessarily X-rated -- portion at 10 with a blow from his conch shell.
"Bobby and I were talking in Arts one time about the Stone Circle and how much fun it would be to start our own poetry circle," Wheeler said. "So we spread the word. I called Ann-Marie and Ray and invited them to come." Oomen and Nargis, who were active in Elk Rapids' Stone Circle at one time, showed up at the first Beach Bards in the summer of 1989. Until last summer, those four were the Beach Bards.
Despite spending almost nine years performing together, however, each Beach Bard's contribution to the fire is unique.
"Ray recites a lot of his own stuff about growing up in Western Michigan," Wheeler said. "He does quite a few Max Ellison and Taelen Thomas (poets from the Stone Circle) poems as well."
Wheeler himself contributes many traditional ballads and myths. He begins each night introducing the fundamental elements of paganism -- cocking his head back and blowing the conch shell into the night-coastal air. To listeners sitting on gigantic stumps and boulders -- strangely reminiscent of Stonehenge -- there is a brief moment of silence afterwards. During it one must strain to hear any more than the lapping of the lake water 50 yards away.
After Wheeler's traditional opening monologue which incorporates different languages like Old English and Chaucerian Middle English, Oomen and Jones usually take center stage. Each carries the voice of a strong and determined woman. Oomen once wrote a play about single women who survived working the fields on Northern Michigan farms.
Lately the duo has been performing volleys, in which one recites a poem and the other follows with a piece which the first one triggered. These exchanges will go on a good four-five turns.
"It's an improvisation almost like in music," Jones said. "It's beautiful because life is a series of small interactive moments. With a volley, you're hearing something spontaneous and in this age of canned entertainment, to be able to hear the genuine human voice is rare."
Despite most of the bonfire being devoted to poetry, the musical metaphors are clear.
"We're different people and we have different voices," Wheeler said. "The key for us is in the interplay of voices like the interplay of the instruments in a string quartet."
While the Friday night bonfire continues to be the focal point of the Beach Bards summer, it is now the third event of each week for the performers. On Monday and Tuesday nights Wheeler, Nargis, Oomen and Jones perform on the Tall Ship Malabar, in Traverse City.
"The nice thing about the Malabar is our audience is captive," Nargis said. "Nobody's jumped off the boat yet."