Beach Bards bonfire turns 25


Bob Sutherland channels the wilderness during the Beach Bards children's hour.

Bob Sutherland channels the wilderness during the Beach Bards children’s hour.

On Aug. 9, the Beach Bards bonfire rounds out its 25th season of by-heart storytelling, poetry and music. The festival is held every Friday night from mid-June until early August at The Leelanau School beach one mile north of Glen Arbor. Children’s hour begins at 8 p.m. with slapstick, sing-along performer James “ Fuzz” Foster and the occasional appearance by Cherry Republic president Bob Sutherland.

The adult portion of the evening typically commences an hour later with a blow from Bards co-founder Norm Wheeler’s conch shell. He and Anne-Marie Oomen, Bronwyn Jones and Joe VanderMeulen lead the performance, which pays homage to storytelling of old. They recite stories and poems by-heart, according to the oral tradition. Music often makes an appearance around the fire: regular strummers include Les Dalgliesh, Pat Harrison and Bryan Poirier of New Third Coast.

Like followers of a new fashion trend, many of the onlookers at the weekly bonfire feel compelled to join the cause, thus upholding the tradition. Over the last quarter century, crowd participation has increased dramatically at Beach Bards. “It’s still the same open forum,” says Wheeler, who has seen children return year after year, slowly gaining the courage to approach the fire and share a few words, until one day they appear as college students, all grown up and able to recite poems by heart that they heard around the fire for years. Tom Good, who visits Beach Bards every year, started his own monthly fire circle in Grand Rapids. Musician and actor Robin Knott carries on the oral tradition in Kalamazoo.

“Bobby and I were talking in Art’s one time about the Stone Circle (near Elk Rapids) and how much fun it would be to start our own poetry circle,” Wheeler recalls. “So we spread the word. I called Anne-Marie and invited her to come.” Thus began the first Beach Bards bonfire in the summer of 1989.

Wheeler begins each night by cocking his head back and blowing the conch shell into the summer night air. A brief moment of silence follows for listeners sitting on stumps and boulders around the fire— a setting reminiscent of Stonehenge. The pause allows the lapping waters of Lake Michigan 50 yards away to enter the circle.

After Wheeler’s traditional opening monologue, which borrows words from Old English and Chaucerian Middle English, Oomen and Jones take center stage. Oomen is a famed local writer and creative writing teacher at the Interlochen Arts Academy; Jones teaches English at Northwestern Michigan College. The duo performs volleys, in which one recites a poem and the other follows with a piece inspired by the former. These exchanges continue a good four-five turns.

“It’s an improvisation almost like in music,” says Jones. “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.”

Catch the Beach Bards’ final performance of 2013 on Friday, Aug. 9, near the beach at The Leelanau School. For more information, call (231) 334-3666.

Check out this video of the Beach Bards bonfire:

To the people at the Beach Bards’ Bonfire

By Joe VanderMeulen

Take it with you
That sand in your shoes
The mosquito bites and
Pine pitch on your clothes

Take it with you
Those funny faces stretched
To odd shapes in the fire’s eerie light
The twigs caught in your hair
Your sore butt

Take it with you
That moment your eyes grew glassy
And out of focus in the twilight
The songs sung with gusto and some out of key
The sunken ship and drowned sailors
The young couple’s love and lament
A bear in flight over a field of flowers

Take it with you
All the words singed and smoldering
Carry these coals in the creases of your clothes
And deep in your pockets.

Take your secret word, your voice,
And as they turn to you sad or angry
Helpless or bitter — always demanding
Give them a poem of peace
A word of remembrance
The fire’s flicker
Right there
In your eyes.