Island Life

On Fishers Island, New York, you sometimes have to remind yourself that there are no such things as ghosts. A studio report by writer Dan Boehl.

by Dan Boehl — Nov 17, 2015

Dan Boehl, studio visit »Island Life«, 2015
Dan Boehl, Austin, TX/United States Lighthouse Works on Fishers Island, New York, Nov 2015

Writer Dan Boehl was a resident at Lighthouse Works on Fishers Island, New York. On the island, in the off-season, all is slow motion, only the ferry bringing some life four times a day. In a studio report he shares his experience of solitude, thoughts on the real and the virtual life, and projects such as a poem/treasure map or the rewriting of a high-seas adventure novel his grandfater wrote in 1957.

I applied to the Lighthouse Works in January of 2015. The unique setting of the residency appealed to me. The Lighthouse Works is on Fishers Island, New York, in Long Island sound. You can only get to the island by ferry. The year-round population of Fishers Island is around 200 people, but in the summer months the population swells to several thousand.

The island is broken up in two distinct sections, the east side of the island, where there is a grocery store, a post office, a liquor store, a library, an ice cream shop, and a cafe. The west side of the island lies behind a security booth and is full of large houses where families come to holiday during July and August. The entire island has walking paths throughout, and since there is no one around right now, the solitude here is almost complete.

Since I am here in the off season, there is very little happening around the island. The grocery store has limited hours, the liquor store is open two hours a day, and the ice cream shop and the cafe are always closed. My studio faces the ferry landing. The ferry arrives four times a day, bringing school students, workers, construction supplies, and groceries, so I get to experience what constitutes the hustle and bustle of ferry life.


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Mostly I am developing a poetry project based on island life that will unfold like a treasure map with a scavenger hunt. My plan is to create a series of weatherproof flags that serve as clues so island visitors can search for a buried treasure.

I am also rewriting a high-seas adventure novel my grandfather wrote in 1957 entitled »Hells Island.« My poem/treasure map project stems out the intersection of rewriting a treasure hunting novel and living on an actual island. Old observation towers, battlements, and army buildings are scattered around the island, giving the place a distinctive adventurous feel.

Since arriving on Fishers Island, I have been thinking a lot about the difference between the real world and the virtual world of the internet, cell phones, video games, and connected media.

Fishers Island is isolated, cell phone service is shoddy at best, and I don’t have an internet connection in my studio. So, I’ve enjoyed adapting to having less online resources and thinking about what that means for me as an artist and what total digital immersion means to us as individuals and as a culture.

The environment deeply influences the writing. The other night I was in the studio. The sky was moonless, and the ferry landing was totally empty. I went out to the jetty that faces the mainland and sat watching the sky for an hour. I never saw the lights of a car nor were there any people around. I had to remind myself that there are no such things as ghosts.

All the fellows on residency live in a large Victorian-style boarding house that overlooks a cove. We eat dinner together every night, and when we come together it takes everyone about ten minutes to warm up to conversation. We spend most days by ourselves, and to come together as a community takes readjustment.

The last few days have been rainy, which isn’t too bad, but the wind comes with the rain, and the wind is an incredible force that governs all movement about the island. It’s hard to walk or ride a bike. The seas froth into white caps. The trees cry as their leaves are torn from the branches.

My work schedule has been to get up at 6 am, make breakfast and lunch, then leave the house for the studio. I write all morning in the studio, then head back to the house to check email or look up information I need online. Then I go back to the studio for lunch.

I usually take a walk, exploring the beaches and nature trails. Then I write some more.

There are very few distractions on the island, so I always watch when the ferry arrives and I make note of what comes off of the boat. There seems to be an energy delivery day when the gas tankers and oil trucks arrive together. At least four island houses are under construction, so lots of lumber comes off the boat. One day there was a stack of sod and another there were crates of live pheasants. Art handling trucks arrived to take someone’s art collection back to the mainland for the winter.

The days seem long and the nights are very dark, marked by few streetlights and less houselights.

To be creative I like to have a lot of space to explore and people to talk to. Much of my poems are written while walking or taken from direct conversations I have with people. Being on Fishers Island, there is a nice balance of solitude during the day and community at night. At dinner, it is nice to hear what the other fellows learned about the island and the people that day. Interactions are so few here, that each conversation or meeting becomes a very important part of the day.

The emoemoji poems I wrote about the woods around Solitude have been collected and are coming out as an Edition Solitude book this March.

I wrote another emoemoji book about my Solitude sponsored trip to participate in the Wordorrrrrrun / Rečotrrrrrrrrč festival in Belgrade.

Once I am finished at the Lighthouse Works, I’ll put together another emoemoji book with the treasure map poems.

The difference between poems and novels for me is that poems just seem to happen. I keep a notebook in my back pocket, write my thoughts and the statements of other people, and in a couple of days I have a poem. The process is associative and open.

Writing novels is much more time consuming and directed. I have to sit, take notes, read, outline, and write pages of dialog.

I am much better at writing poems than novels.

After the residency, I return to the mainland and will be working with Karsten Krause on an experimental film/poem based on the West Texas Desert. We’re calling the project »Und Frieden auf Erden.«


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