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Laura Menides remembers her commitment to honoring the poetic community of Worcester


For years, Worcester writers have gathered around the Hope Cemetery grave of poet Elizabeth Bishop on the anniversary of her death in October to read her work and honor her legacy. Now that tradition will include a tribute to its founder, Laura Jehn Menides, who spent decades working to bring Worcester’s poetic community together.

Menides, who died July 22 at age 85, wrote her own poetry, served as president of the Worcester County Poetry Association and taught the work of other poets as an English professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Menides’ daughter, Georgia Menides, said that despite a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, her mother still spent as much time as she could around other local poets, from old friends to young newcomers.

“She could leave the nursing home in a wheelchair before [the COVID-19 pandemic] and do whatever she wanted, and the last thing she did before the first lockdown was go to a poetry reading at Barnes & Noble,” Georgia said.

Georgia, who is now a filmmaker, also recalled her mother’s commitment to giving all Worcester poets a chance to share their writing, especially in the town’s cafes, where Menides often hosted poetry readings in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Part of the reason why Bill MacMillan and Tony Brown and the founders of the slam poetry scene [were able to come together] was that my mom and these older poets were already doing poetry readings,” Georgia said. “She was part of the whole beginning. That’s cool, and that’s why a lot of young slam poets know who she is.

Worcester Review editor emeritus Rodger Martin said that over the years he and Menides have bonded through local literature, and the two have maintained that bond even after Menides’ disease took him away. barred from returning to the WCPA Board of Directors.

“The loss for us was the early onset of his Parkinson’s disease, as it robbed the city of many more years of activism,” Martin said. “Up to that time she had always been a driving force and agitator in the poetic scene.”

From left, poets Dan Lewis, Carl Johnson Laura Menides and Michael Hood read poems at Elizabeth Bishop's grave in Hope Cemetery in 2008.

Menides moved to Worcester to teach in WPI’s English department and eventually became department head, inviting poets from near and far to read their work aloud.

In the 1990s, Menides developed a deep appreciation for Bishop, who was born in Worcester in 1911 and lived in the town as a child. Menides organized a conference on Bishop’s life and work at WPI in 1997, and later compiled a book of essays written by several of the writers who attended the conference, entitled “”In Worcester, Massachusetts”: Essays on Elizabeth Bishop.”

The WCPA continued Menides’ work in connecting Bishop’s legacy to today’s Worcester. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, an English teacher at the College of the Holy Cross, used the groundwork laid by Menides to launch her own local history project through Mapping Worcester Through Poetry.

As part of Mapping Worcester Through Poetry, the WCPA currently offers an audio-guided tour on its website that takes listeners on a 20-minute drive or 85-minute walk along Main Street, explaining Bishop’s history with various buildings and sights along the way.

Menides was also passionate about securing greater local recognition for other Worcester-area poets who rose to fame elsewhere, such as Frank O’Hara, who grew up in Grafton and became a fixture on the scene. literature of the 1950s in New York.

According to Sweeney, Menides worked with WPI students to install plaques at O’Hara’s childhood home in Grafton and at Bishop’s grandparents’ home in Webster Square, as well as Charles’ childhood home. Olson near Newton Square.

“One of his main goals was to try to get Worcester to recognize that we have great names in poetry who should be known and respected for their contributions to the national poetry scene,” Martin said.

According to the WCPA website, the association is currently developing audio tours featuring places in Worcester and Grafton that played a significant role in the lives of O’Hara, Olson and poets Mary Fell, Stanley Kunitz, Chris Gilbert and Etheridge Knight.

Sweeney said this year’s Bishop’s Memorial Reading will take place on Oct. 4 and will include a tribute to Menides, as well as readings of poems by Menides.

“His scholarship, teaching and community service to several nationally acclaimed Worcester poets helped inspire my project,” Sweeney said. “I’m literally following in his footsteps.”