Thea Engst

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Thea Engst is a poet and bar manager in Somerville, Massachusetts. She is currently tracing the route of her grandfather’s World War II infantry unit abroad. Her stories and adventures have appeared periodically on Spiral Bound since October. Read One, Two, Three and Four.

by Amanda Beland

It began with a name and ended with perspective.

For the last two months, poet and writer Thea Engst has been roughly retracting the route of her grandfather’s World War II infantry. From London to Dresden to Vienna, she’s been on a mission to find out the origin of a piece of herself she speaks and hears every day: her name.

Going into the journey, she had eight months of research and a rough set of facts: Thea was a woman her grandfather either dated or knew during the occupation in Vienna. No last name. No birth date.

With a week or so left in her trip, Engst knows little more about her namesake than when she left Somerville in October. Yet, she has gained something she didn’t expect to.

I fully come to terms with knowing this: I will never know who I am named after. And I have to be okay with that.

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“This is when I have a revelation, a memory of an address on an envelope I found as a child,” wrote Engst. “This is when I Google “Thea” and have an actual last name to end it with. This is when I find her, right? No. This is when I am in Vienna, where I always knew I would end up. This is where the sadness of the end of an amazing trip sets in and I fully come to terms with knowing this: I will never know who I am named after. And I have to be okay with that. But I do know a lot more about what my grandpa went through when he was ten years younger than I am now … I understand my grandpa a little better now, I appreciate him even more than I already did, and I really realize how much of an impact he had on my life. Not just in my name, but in everything I became.”

Thee-ah. Tay-yah.

Engst grew up on a farm in upstate New York in a small town called Fabius. She’s one of five, with three older sisters and one younger brother.

She began writing in elementary school and was first published in fourth grade in a creative collection called Inside Out. It wasn’t until she hit her teenage years when she naturally found what her writing would become.

“I was writing in my journal and that’s when it naturally came out as poetry,” said Engst. “It wasn’t much like ‘This is how my day was like’. I don’t even remember making a conscious decision to write poetry, I think it just came out that way.”

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Engst, a natural introvert, initially felt uncomfortable sharing her writing. However, a writing teacher recognized the spark in her and pushed her to share her words.

“I had really great teacher who sort of encouraged me to write that way,” said Engst. “He used to say, ‘You aren’t a writer if no one else sees your writing; then it’s just you writing in a journal’ and I was like ‘Woooooah’. I was always an introvert, very shy, and never wanted to show anybody, but he like made a big difference pushing me like that.”

‘You aren’t a writer if no one else sees your writing; then it’s just you writing in a journal’

Engst eventually studied creative writing in college before moving to Boston for an unpaid internship after graduating.

“It was unpaid, so no good, and I really quickly realized I wanted to go back to school,” said Engst.

She began working as a nanny to save up money and applying to grad schools.

“It wasn’t my intention to stay in Boston, but there was something about it, particularly Somerville, that really sort of held me here,” said Engst.

There was something about it, particularly Somerville, that really sort of held me here

She applied to Emerson College with the intention of either studying screenwriting through their LA program or pursuing a professor track. She was accepted into the LA program, which she turned down. She also took one teaching class.

“I took the class and realized very quickly I wasn’t a teacher, which is a good thing to realize early on,” said Engst, laughing.

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Engst began studying creative writing and three years later, graduated with a MFA in poetry and creative writing from Emerson.

While attending Emerson, Engst was hired as a host at The Independent in Union Square, Somerville.

“My best friend worked there and said I needed a job and they asked ‘Is she clean and not crazy?’ and she said ‘Yes’ and that’s how I got hired,” said Engst.

Engst eventually picked up a bartending shift.

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“I just really loved it,” said Engst. “I had been working three jobs and in school for so long that after I graduated I just wanted to focus on one thing so I stayed on as a bartender. I had the luxury of only having to work four days a week so I took that and really loved it. That’s when I really started publishing more because I would make myself write. I would set a goal of two journals a week or something like that.”

(Read more about her published work here.)

Engst became a manager at The Independent. But with increased responsibility came a decrease in time. She began writing less and less.

“It’s just something that if I’m not doing it, I feel like my soul is dying,” said Engst. “I have to do it.”

Engst moved on to become a manager of Assembly Square’s River Bar, a bar and restaurant owned and operated under the same management umbrella as the Independent.

This is when Engst seriously began researching her trip.

“This name of mine, I always have to repeat it, which is fine, and I always get ‘It’s pretty, where does it come from?'” said Engst. “It’s just a constant theme in my life and has had a huge impact.”

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Engst only knew she was named after a woman his grandfather either dated or knew during the occupation in Vienna. She spent the next eight months or so researching the war and her grandfather’s infantry route.

“Part of why I want to make this trip is to remind people that this stuff happened and it’s really important to remember what my grandfather did and I keep going back to this, but they really were just teenagers,” said Engst.

The obvious challenge of the quest was that the man at the center of her project had died and her grandmother had little to no information about his journey in the war.

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“When I ask my grandmother for information it’s really hard because I think he ended up throwing away a lot of his memorabilia,” said Engst.”He was 80 years old and really soft spoken. I really wish I had pried with these things, but I didn’t want to upset him. You never really knew what would upset up and who wants to make their grandfather cry?”

Engst flew from Boston to London at the beginning of October.

“To get the writing process started,” said Engst.

Then she traveled to numerous cities in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland. She ends her journey in Vienna, where she is currently with one of her sisters.

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“I wonder if Grandpa ever thought I would make it here, Vienna, looking for some pieces of his childhood, when I ended up with ‘Thea’ as a name,” wrote Engst. “I wonder what he thought of when he looked at me. I bet at first it was her, but as I became a new person, my own person, he must have seen less and less of the original Thea. I feel a little bad about that, that I took away some part of her as I grew up with her name and made it mine. But maybe that gave him some joy too, witnessing me grow as he could never witness her. So this is where I leave her: somewhere outside Vienna in a field, flowers to her waist and a blurry face that appears to be smiling.”


Read more about Engst’s journey on her blog.


Jenn Harrington

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by Amanda Beland

Jenn Harrington is a mover and a shaker in the Somerville arts and music scene. While she doesn’t produce records or make art, she’s widely regarded in many circles as a “connector” – she has an innate ability to recognize common ground and interest amongst people and bring them together to bridge the gap of unfamiliarity. You’ll find her behind the scenes and behind the camera – producing, documenting and promoting what she recognizes as gems of the art and cultural scenes of Somerville and Cambridge.

Spiral Bound focuses on storytelling. Typically, interviews are conducted and features are produced with no remnants of the original questions or answers in structured formats. Jenn’s story will be different. Below are the original questions asked and Jenn’s typed responses. I contemplated reworking the answers, but why mess with something when it’s already perfect the way it is?

When and why did you move to Somerville?

Living in Rhode Island, I took a break in college and worked second shift, alone, in a nursing home’s laundry for eight months. After sweating with everything that can leak out of other human bodies for eight hours, it was impossible to sleep so I’d lay on the couch and flip channels. One night I ran into a video show on a local Boston channel playing Madder Rose’s “Panic On.” While I have a massive imagination for the future of others, it’s difficult to be forward-thinking for my own benefit. Watching that video was one of the few times I knew where I would be one day. And though I moved to Maine and then back to Rhode Island for awhile, every day I was aware that I would end up in Boston.

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I’ve lived in the same apartment in Somerville for 13 years now. It’s actually my second stint in this town. The first was a short-lived because I was living near Broadway—an isolating experience. I moved to Harvard Avenue in Allston for a couple of years becoming familiar with puddles of vomit on my doorstep and breakups wailing under my bedroom window, and then moved back to Somerville because it was affordable, accessible, low key—it felt like home. I’ve only been able to stay because the landlord has been very good to me.

What activities and events have you been involved with in Somerville and elsewhere?

I have passion for the written word, music, and the visual arts and gravitate my energies towards them. I’ve curated a number of group exhibits in Somerville including I’ve Been Everywhere, Man: Musicians on the Road, Winter (dedicated to Dave Lamb of Brown Bird), Get In My Shoes, PICNIC, The BIG BAD, and The Beast in Me—Johnny Cash: Art Influenced by the Struggle of a Man. I also organized Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and Frank Black tribute nights in Somerville and beyond for various community benefits. Even though I’m incredibly shy and internal, I enjoy taking the lead in projects that gather people of various backgrounds and locations together for enlightened (and entertaining) purpose.

I’m currently assisting Audrey Ryan with her long-standing DIY music event series at The Loft—booking bands, taking donations for musicians, picking out rad snacks, and cleaning up. We just hosted our first show of the season with Bent Shapes, The Furniture, Roz and the Rice Cakes (Providence), and Audrey Ryan. It was a ton of fun. In November, we’re hosting The Dazies, P. Everett (Brooklyn), Slowdim, and Audrey Ryan; and in December, we’re hosting our annual holiday craft fair.

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The Loft is one of the best rooms for the essence of music in the Boston-area: it’s amazing to see the audience so receptive to the musicians. We’ve been honored to host incredibly talented (and nice) bands, most recently out-of-towners (listen to them, pretty please) Diane Cluck, And The Kids, Death Vessel, O’Death, Run On Sentence, Ravi Shavi, Footings, Jonah Tolchin, and too many talents to list from this area. I can not do Audrey Ryan enough justice for keeping this series going for so long: she is proof that it is not just the room or the bands…there needs to be someone in the center making the magic happen…and she’s been doing it for years.

What’s you favorite part of the arts and music culture in Somerville/Cambridge/Boston?

I’m really interested in people who have equal measure of taste, class, and hard work. I have enormous respect for Audrey, bookers Randi Ellen Millman of Atwood’s Tavern  and Jason Trefts of Illegally Blind and Fuzzstival; Steve Legare of Kitchen Sessions; anyone involved in Fringe Union, Gallery Kayafas, the Flash Forward Festival; the organizers of Starlabfest and Porchfest; I’m growing quite fond of Cuisine En Locale (who will be hosting Last Good Tooth and She Keeps Bees on 11/5); and I pretty much go bananas for the book recommendations of the Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith staff. Others worthy of mentioning: anyone who runs a local culture blog; the bookers of P.A.’s Lounge past: Tony Confalone of the much missed band Tony the Bookie; Jen Guthrie of Band in Boston (an incredible local music archive); and John and Tommy Allen of Fedavees and Drug Rug; as well as Andrea Gillis and Michelle Paulhus of The Dents who booked my favorite times at the Abbey Lounge. And walking by Lesley University’s new Lunder Arts Center puts an extra hop in everyone’s step. I could go on, I should on, but I’m getting tuckered by all the brilliance.

But to completely honest, I have a lot of mixed feelings about the culture of this area. Somerville doesn’t have a bookstore. The Nave Gallery—-which is the only building in Davis Square that the public can hang out in (besides the library) without buying something—struggles every day. Venues and independents are closing their doors in quick succession. It’s increasingly more unaffordable for residents and businesses alike. We’re all feeling the squeeze and we’re not working together to demand attention to the matter—this is not just an artist issue, it is everyone’s issue.

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When you aren’t working, what are you working on or doing?

Trying to:

  • Make my cat famous.
  • Hear good stories / pay attention to work people are doing.
  • Find life balance…sometimes I bring a book to a show even though it’s been frowned upon.
  • Avoid people who claim to “work hard / play hard”—it’s a lazy statement.

What inspires you?

I love to witness people evolve who are already at their A-game. I love seeing underdogs succeed. I love those who find success and try to boost up others who are good at their craft who haven’t yet found recognition. I love when people aren’t afraid to show their depth. I love teachers…you don’t have to stand in a classroom to be one. I love when people volunteer their time for good causes. There is an incredible amount of talented people in this world and the best of them are those that are thoughtful about the world immediately around them.

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I have an immense appreciation and respect for the people that run the Columbus Theatre in Providence. It is a gorgeous and beautiful-sounding space; the booking’s tremendous; and it has a spirit that’s unique to most venues: it genuinely thrives on a love for music…you can feel it from every person on staff and the audience, too. I do not drive and even though the commute can be a challenge, I have seen some of my favorite bands there: Brown Bird, Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons, Sharon Van Etten, Michael Hurley, Last Good Tooth, Cass McCombs, Tallahassee, Death Vessel, Iron & Wine, Ravi Shavi, Arc Iris, Vudu Sister, Charles Bradley, Wanda Jackson,  Haunt the House, Roz Raskin and the Rice Cakes, O’Death, Toy Soldiers…

What roles do music and art play in your daily life?

Some people’s role in life is to create beautiful things. I think my role is to create a beautiful life. And I can have one by appreciating other’s creations.

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One of your main purposes seems to be encouraging musicians and artists to complete their craft. Why is this important to you?

Being a terribly idealistic person can get me in trouble (try it: ouch). But I refuse to drop the idea that we can actually have an exceptional world. The arts is one of the very few ways that we have to understand our struggles and our pleasures—to experience wonder. It’s maddening to see it undervalued.

I was proud to work on some grant projects for a couple of artists this fall. It took me aback when a few friends asked me, “what do you get out of it?” The answer seemed obvious: it is fulfilling to assist. I don’t have a ton of money…I can’t be a patron via massive financial means. But I can do what I can: dedicating time and hard work, putting in a kind word, making an musician or artist or writer know that they are noticed and appreciated (in a thoughtful way). I honestly feel at the end of our days, it is not awards won or salaries earned, it is seeing how we helped those around us to succeed that’s the ultimate of joys.

When I was a kid I loved how Melanie Griffin’s character in Working Girl saved newspaper clippings and connected the dots to create a new idea. Sometimes people are so good at their dot that they forget to connect. I’ll tell you: the four-eyed awkward too tall shy lady standing in the back corner who is terrible at small talk is superior at finding ways to unify.

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High Energy Vintage

Hight Energy Vintage is a vintage game, clothing and music shop in Somerville. It’s owned and operated by Andrew Wiley. Wiley, a New Hampshire transplant, originally began selling vintage items at the SOWA market almost four years when he was “broke” and looking to make ends meet.

“It was immediately successful,” said Wiley.

Wiley continued to operate a booth at the market for two years until he opened up a storefront location on Broadway Street in Somerville in October 2012. Since opening its doors, High Energy has experienced steady a steady clientele.

“I don’t think I’ve done any advertising and I kind of like that,” said Wiley. “I like being under the radar.”

Wiley, with help from a few other employees, acquires the shop’s inventory through yard sales and private buy-outs, among other means. Wiley says he’s always been into records, games and clothes so it just made sense to start selling that stuff.

“I like everything in this store … like this shirt, I like this shirt; if it fit me, I’d have it for myself,” said Wiley. “This store is just an extension of me and who I am. It makes sense.”

High Energy Vintage is located at 1242 Broadway St. in Somerville. Check out their website and Facebook.

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