Writing has been a lifelong love for Margo Taft Stever but it wasn’t until her years at Harvard that she fell in love with poetry.
All these years later, Stever wouldn’t exactly call herself a prolific poet, but the longtime Sleepy Hollow resident, who founded the Hudson Valley Writers Center shortly after moving to Westchester more than 35 years ago, will see the release of her fifth collection of poetry this month.
For someone who admitted that she doesn’t have a lot of confidence in her writing, Stever has done quite nicely. When her children were young years ago, she would jot down some thoughts while they napped. She continues to use her notepad to create her works.
“I think having a notepad for me, writing at home, is like a symphony, you have to put it together,” Stever said. “Very rarely, do I sit down and write a poem. Maybe a few times. But for the most part, it’s putting together writing, and writing about a consistent theme, a concern about a specific aspect of the world at that time, so it’s not that difficult to put something together.”
In her latest collection, “Cracked Piano,” Stever writes about a piece of her family’s fascinating history. She addresses the sadness and isolation of her great-grandfather, Peter R. Taft, a prominent lawyer, who was institutionalized at the Cincinnati Sanitarium Private Hospital for the Insane more than 100 years ago. Taft, was a son of Alphonso Taft, who served as secretary of war and attorney general of the United States under President Ulysses Grant and was the half-brother of President William Howard Taft.
Despite that history, Stever knew little about it growing up. She was one of 15 children and stepchildren from one of three marriages, a result of the deaths of first her father and then her stepfather. Family history was rarely discussed at home.
More than 15 years ago, one of her sons became interested after discovering a photo of Stever’s great-grandfather on a trip to Asia in 1905. Then she unearthed letters from her family going back to the 19th century, including some from Peter Taft shortly after he had graduated at the top of his class at Yale.
That was the motivation behind “Cracked Piano.”
“It kind of deals with the subject of sanity and insanity and what is defined as sanity in the world, but certainly in today’s world we are grappling with that on a daily basis and trying to figure out how to deal with the future when what looks like the Dark Ages in front of us,” Stever said.
Stever lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s into the early ‘80s while working as a staff for former U.S. senator Ted Stevens. Her husband worked in the Justice Department. During her time in the nation’s capital, the writers’ scene transformed from virtually nonexistent to a vibrant, thriving community.
When the couple moved to Westchester in 1982, Stever said there was similarly no writer’s community. Shortly afterward, Stever applied for and received a $3,000 ArtsWestchester grant, which helped establish the Hudson Valley Writers Center, first with a reading series at local libraries and other venues.
She saw the old crumbling railroad station minutes from her house and had a vision that it would eventually be the center’s home.
“We set this goal of restoring the Philpse Manor railroad station, which was a total wreck,” she said. “It had become a hangout for teenagers. Nothing worked except the fireplace.”
Her husband helped negotiate with the MTA to obtain the property. Of course, they had to raise about $1 million, but by 1996, the Hudson Valley Writers Center moved into the refurbished building. Today, it is a place for wide variety of writing programs, guest speakers and readings.
Stever said she will continue to write her poetry, exploring the natural world, the treatment of animals and other topics that she is passionate about.
“I think that reading poetry and writing, is for me, coming to terms with what life means and how I exist in the world,” Stever said.