A Profile of Poet and Hudson Valley Writers’ Center Founder Margo Taft Stever of Sleepy Hollow
How one woman almost single-handedly created a community for writers in Westchester—and how that’s just one in a long list of accomplishments.
Margo Taft Stever, a “poet’s poet”
You might want to take a deep breath before tackling this paragraph, because there’s a lot to absorb. You’re reading a story about an award-winning poet with a gentle demeanor whose writing is surprisingly tough; the founder of the thriving Hudson Valley Writers’ Center (HVWC) in Sleepy Hollow, where people can learn to craft novels, memoirs, poetry, or attend readings; the originator of Slapering Hol Press, which publishes poetry chapbooks and holds competitions to draw out new talent; one of the saviors of the abandoned and rotting Philipse Manor railroad station, now an award-winning building; an equestrian who’s old enough to have grown children, yet competes at a higher level than many younger people; a person who had one day to arrange and carry out a visit to a prison in order to convince a mother to sign over temporary custody of her talented teen, without which he may have been lost forever in foster care; the co-preserver of a trove of historic photos made by her great-grandfather, who accompanied a future president and many other dignitaries on a diplomatic mission to Asia in 1905; and the co-author of a book about the mission, just published in China (yes, in Chinese).
Okay, you can exhale now. All this has been done by one woman: Margo Taft Stever. On top of all that, the “Taft” is because President William Howard Taft was her great-great half-uncle.
Originally from Cincinnati, Stever has lived in Sleepy Hollow since 1983, when her environmental-lawyer husband, Donald Stever, took a job as a professor at Pace Law School. The couple had met through her sister, who was married to an employee of Donald Stever’s, then an assistant attorney general for New Hampshire. He recalls being enchanted by his future wife’s voice over the phone—he’d called his sister, and Margo, who was visiting, answered the phone—and, he says, when they met for the first time, six months later, “it was love at first sight.”
They married in New Hampshire and eventually moved to Washington, DC, at a time when, Stever says, “a total renaissance seemed to have occurred. It was such an exciting time, with all sorts of interest in writers, and writers were interested in each other’s work.” When they moved from DC to Westchester, she says, “women were still going to luncheons and wearing gloves.” Stever knew there were writers out there somewhere, and she founded the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center (writerscenter.org) partly from her search for a community similar to the one she’d found in DC. “Writing is such an isolating kind of activity. There’s not a lot of knowledge or appreciation of what most poets are doing unless they’re really famous.”
She wanted to bring some well-deserved attention to some unsung achievers.
In 1983, armed with a grant from the Westchester Arts Council (now ArtsWestchester), Stever began a series of readings at Warner Library in Tarrytown. Later the group borrowed space at churches and community centers. The talent was there. “I remember Billy Collins teaching at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor,” she says. “He has subsequently become one of the most famous poets in the country.”
At one point, though, according to her husband, “the Writers’ Center was all in the Stevers’ attic.” To deal with financial realities, a nonprofit organization was formed, with a board of directors that included community leader Nicholas Robinson and poet Patricia Farewell. They tried hiring fundraisers, but ended up doing most of the work themselves. Eventually, says Don Stever, the board “decided to take the great ‘bungee jump’” to restore the abandoned Philipse Manor railroad station.
“The building had been in shambles,” says Margo Stever. “For many years, it was used as a hangout for teenagers, and there were no existing systems except the fireplace. The walls were kicked in. The beautiful American chestnut- wood paneling is from a tree now extinct, so it was exciting to be able to restore this historical relic.” The restoration received an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award from the Preservation League of New York State.
“The mission and future of the Writers’ Center has been cast by the extraordinary efforts and clarity of purpose of Margo Taft Stever,” says Frank Juliano, the Center’s former executive director. “The heart and passion that is the core of it comes from her. Slapering Hol Press, also her creation, discovers and publishes talented emerging poets whose voices might otherwise be unheard.”
Not all of her educational projects—
Stever has an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College—took place at the HVWC. At the Coachman Family Center, which served homeless families, Stever and her group worked for more than 10 years on a Comprehensive Literacy Project. Workshops were given on writing, computers, and art. “It was one of the more exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in,” she says. It was during this time that she helped a talented teenager named Johnnie get into a good boarding school. In order to set him on this path, the Stevers took temporary custody of him, which saved him from being sent to foster care. Johnnie now works in healthcare, and still visits the Stevers. (A homey aroma, probably sweet potatoes, coming from the kitchen as Stevers and I spoke, was, she said, part of the dinner for which they were expecting him that night.)
Along with all her other projects, her own writing has continued. She won the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Poetry for Frozen Spring, her first book. Some of the poems in it, she says, deal with the premature death of her father and brother. “I think writing can help with working through grief, or sorrow, or loss,” she says.
Her latest is The Hudson Line, published by Main Street Rag this past January. One powerful poem in the collection fictionalizes a real case. Called “Splitting Wood,” it expresses the voice of a woman who claimed she had to kill her own husband with an ax in order to protect their children. The poem ends with the lines, “She grew up in the country splitting wood./She knew just how much it took/to bring a limb down.”
“She’s a poet’s poet,” says Suzanne Cleary, a friend and fellow published poet who is a professor of English at SUNY Rockland Community College and is a former co-editor and current member of the Advisory Committee of Slapering Hol Press. “Other poets knew about her first, because they’re avid readers and attend readings, but she writes for a wider audience. She’s been a recognized force in poetry for a long time.” Cleary taught at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center for many years, and says, “Teaching there is a dream for a poet. Interesting, talented people find their way to the Writers’ Center.”
Both Cleary and another fellow poet, Sally Bliumis-Dunn, who teaches at Manhattanville College, spoke of Stever’s generosity with her time and energy. “She’s a very determined person,” says Bliumis-Dunn. “In some ways, she’s quite a relaxed person; in some ways, quite a driven person. It’s an interesting combination. It’s also interesting that she’s an excellent rider. I think if you learn to perfect one skill, you have the tools to perfect another.”
“Last year,” says Stever, “my horse, Game Point, and I were fourth in the Northeast Region for the Adult Amateur World Championship Hunter Rider competition. In the horse shows that are counted—Old Salem Farm, etcetera—the classes are divided by age, but then the scores are rated with all ages together. As an older adult, it is exciting to be able to improve at a sport because age in most sports is generally such a determining factor.”
Stever credits her trainer, Kate Oliver, owner of CEO Stables in Bedford, with much of her success. “A lot of trainers are interested in the young rider,” she says, “but for an older woman, it’s hard to find a trainer who will challenge you to the height of your ability yet also not take you to places that are dangerous and could cause accidents.”
“Margo has been riding with me for at least three years,” says Oliver. “She’s got a great feel for horses and a great love of horses, and I think that really comes across in her riding. I think horses really like her. She has great emotional sensitivity and understanding of how horses think and feel.”
The Stevers have two sons, David, the elder, who is attending Pace Law School, and James, who is currently starting an organic farm in Concord, New Hampshire. Don has a daughter, Heather, who was five when he and Margo married, and they subsequently raised her together. She is now grown, helps run a marina, and is raising a family of her own in Maine. It was son James who, as a history student (he ultimately got a master’s degree from Brown University Graduate School) became interested in a set of historic photos that had been housed in their extended family’s Adirondack camp.
The photos were taken by his own great-great-grandfather (Margo’s great-grandfather), Harry Fowler Woods, on the 1905 US diplomatic mission to Asia. Then Secretary of War William Howard Taft led the group, which included the media darling of her day, Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Woods was not the official photographer, and, as a result, his photos are thought to be more candid.
Stever’s son James expressed interest in preserving and showing the photos. The photographs, she says, “were already silverizing” and would soon have been destroyed by age. The family found help from photographer and restorer Ira Wunder of White Plains. The five original photo albums now reside in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and digital copies became the basis for exhibitions at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati, the View Arts Center in Old Forge, New York, and The Nippon Club in New York City. The latter resulted in a front-page article in the New York Times arts section. (Information and some of the photos can be found at ohiohistory.org/tafttrip.)
The largest exhibition took place at Zhejiang University, where Stever and James presented a paper. A book, Looking East, co-authored by Professor Hong Shen, Margo Stever, and James Stever, was recently published in Chinese by Zhejiang University Press. Right now, if you want to read the full text, you’ll have to read Chinese, but the publisher hopes to bring out an English-language version as well.
Stever’s website, margostever.com, has additional information on all of her activities, including her upcoming appearances at poetry readings. (She will give a reading at the Writers’ Center on October 12.) The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center’s annual gala will take place on November 1 at Tappan Hill, and will honor writer Anita Shreve.