When award-winning poet, writer and columnist Michelle Gillett died in February after a brief illness, the literary life of the Berkshires lost a guiding light.
As a friend, mentor and champion of culture and conscience, the reach of this much-loved mother of two and soulmate of Chuck Gillett for half a century stretched far beyond the world of words; yet it was through her written observations and reflections that she connected with people throughout the Berkshires.
Friends, family and colleagues will pay tribute to Gillett on Thursday using her own words drawn from poems and newspaper columns. The event will begin at 5 p.m. at the Mount, historic home of another lady of letters, Edith Wharton.
Organized by fellow poet and educator Peter Filkins, the event is part of the Mount's "Poets on Poets" series conceived and co-curated by Gillett and Filkins, now in its second year.
"lt just makes sense to have Berkshire poets reading Michelle's poems," Filkins said. "Her poems are thoughtful, sensitive and lovely, and do what good poems do — they find large and universal meanings in the small and fleeting phenomena of our lives, whether something in the garden, a landscape, an encounter with nature, with other human beings, and are wise, meditative and insightful without being grandiose or ponderous."
Alongside seven readers of Gillett's poetry, three more will read excerpts from her columns.
"She had such a reach and effect as a columnist for The Women's Times and The Berkshire Eagle," Filkins said, "Michelle was very much a public figure in the Berkshires and in many people's lives, and we wanted to capture both sides of her."
Filkins and Gillett had previously co-curated readings by local poets for the Mount's literary festivals. They had known each other for some 30 years, he said, and her passing was a great shock.
"She had written a column saying she had cancer, and then two months later she was gone," he recalled.
Filkins will read from that column at the tribute. Among the other readers will be Gillett's daughter Lisa, an accomplished writer in her own right.
Susan Wissler, executive director at The Mount, had discussed hosting a reception with Chuck Gillett, Michelle's husband of 46 years, when Filkins and Nina Ryan, Gillett's editing partner, presented the idea for the reading.
Gillett's relationship with the Mount went back a long way. Before Wissler arrived in 2001, she said, Gillett was great friends with Scott Marshall, the estate's longtime curator, historian and programmer.
"She gave advice or assistance whenever we sought it," Wissler said. "As we built the literary side of our programming, she was instrumental in terms of which direction we decided to go."
"Poetry was her passion, so her fingerprints are on all the poetry events we've held through the years. Mostly she's been just an incredible ambassador and advocate and supporter out in the community," Wissler said. "She was so revered and respected that having her imprimatur of approval meant a lot to us."
Alongside readings by local and regional poets, each year the Mount hosts a major national figure sponsored by the Amy Clampitt Fund. Slated to appear this September is former poet laureate Billy Collins, who Gillett brought to the Berkshires in 2004 with resounding success.
Wissler always invited Gillett and her husband to the dinner that follows the poet's presentation. "It was very important to me that they had a seat at the table," she said.
Gillett was active on the boards of many nonprofit organizations, most notably the Norman Rockwell Museum, where she added "creativity and wisdom," director Laurie Norton Moffat wrote in her memoriam.
Wissler recalls asking Gillett to join the Mount's board.
"It took her no time to decline my offer, she said she had too many grandchildren and gardens," Wissler said. "She had her priorities very straight, and while she loved the Mount, her time was already spoken for. I completely understood and our friendship remained intact and her involvement remained as committed as ever."
Both Wissler and Filkins expect a large turn out for the tribute, and hope people will stay for the reception afterward. It will be a celebration, Wissler said, "a great opportunity for us all to remember and honor her together."
"Michelle had her own special light," she said. "She was one of a kind. She was always incredibly generous with her time and her thoughts and we miss her."
If you go ...
What: "Poets on Poets: A Tribute to Michelle Gillett"
Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox
When: 5-6 p.m. Thursday
Cost: Free, a reception follows
Information: www.edithwharton.org; (413) 551-5100