Medford is often called a "hidden gem," and this description goes beyond its picturesque landscapes and impressive architecture; it's also a hub for a flourishing artist community. This month, we feature another of Medford's local artists, Poet Laureate Vijaya Sundaram. We spent some time with Vijaya to learn more about her Poet Laureate role and what makes Medford the place she calls home.
You grew up in India and moved to the United States in the late 1980s. Tell me a little about your path to Medford.
My husband and I arrived in late December 1988 and headed to Amherst to spend the holidays with his mother, who lived in Shutesbury, near Amherst. After Christmas, we made a trip to Columbia Falls, Maine, where my husband's father and stepmother lived at the time, and we stayed there for about three months. Following that, we moved to Arlington, Massachusetts, where we rented for a while, and in 2001, we found our home in Medford.
What about our city makes you continue to choose Medford as your home?
Moving to Medford was a matter of both convenience and economics at the time. We could afford to buy a house here (that seems harder for people to do now), and it was close enough for me to get to my teaching job. Making a home in Medford was a significant change for me, considering that my family moved a lot when I lived in India; this is the longest I've ever stayed in one place.
We went through quite an adventure while setting up our home here. We found and renovated a house in the Fulton Heights area while still living within the house, surrounded by clouds of dust and particulate matter. My husband, our friends, and I took on various tasks, such as putting up drywall, painting, and even tackling the floors. We did enlist the help of a contractor friend for some of the major work, but we did a significant amount of the heavy lifting ourselves. It was a communal effort, in a way. We also dedicated ourselves to transforming the backyard and the front yard, making this place truly feel like home. We often joke that we've invested so much effort into this house that they'll have to carry us out of here feet first if we ever have to move again.
Our home is situated on Fellsway West, right at the exit off 93, with the woods just beyond the highway. It's a beautiful location, because we're close to everything we need, and we're also close to nature. Our daughter loved to play at Carr Park as a child, and we now take our dog Holly to all the neighborhood parks. We also take walks as a family in the Fells. All we have to do is go across the bridge at Roosevelt Circle and venture straight into the woods near Bellevue Pond, enjoying the best of both worlds: city and nature.
Photos: Bellevue Pond in fall, Vijaya at the City Hall ceremony honoring her as our city's Poet Laureate, Medford's branch of Modern Pastry and Vijaya's darling dog Holly, photographed by John Gallagher,
While there is a great arts community here in Medford, there may be readers who aren't aware that we have a Poet Laureate. Tell us about that journey.
I'm actually the second Poet Laureate in Medford. The first Poet Laureate (2021-2023) is Terry E. Carter, who, in addition to being a poet, has strong ties to West Medford and is actively involved in Medford's events and the West Medford Community Center, among other places.
I learned about the Poet Laureate position during the time I was teaching my homeschooled teenage students online, in addition to my work as a professor at Bunker Hill Community College. For some background, I started teaching online while my daughter, who is homeschooled, became a teenager. (She's now a freshman at UMass Amherst). She and her group of homeschool friends, who are well-read, literate, and passionate about literature, attended my literature and poetry courses for several years. I offered these courses primarily for the benefit of my daughter and her friends.
Just as an aside, this group of students also sought other educators for various subjects, like Milva McDonald in Medford, who teaches creative writing and short story reading/analysis. Anyway, back in 2021, the mother of two students in my online homeschoolers’ Poetry Club reached out to me, told me about the announcement about the Poet Laureate position, and encouraged me to apply. I did so, but didn’t make it the first time.
The Poet Laureate term is two years, so when the time came around again this year, I initially didn't consider applying. However, I decided to submit my application at the very last minute because several people, including Heather Meeker Green, who manages the Medford Farmer's Market, and Ilene Lerner, who is deeply involved in our community and contributes significantly, encouraged me to do so. So, I thought, "Okay," and I submitted my application, along with recommendations from several friends in the community, just minutes before the midnight deadline on the designated date. When I learned that I was named Poet Laureate for 2023-25, I felt really moved and honored. The ceremony in August was at City Hall, and it was beautifully conducted, a real testament to our city’s commitment to upholding the role of poetry and the arts in our community.
What a great testament to the community you've cultivated and are a part of! You'll be doing a poetry reading soon.
Yes! I'll do a combined event with Medford clarinetist and composer Glenn Dickson at the Farmers Market on October 5th, from 3-5 p.m. Glenn and I have given a similar performance blending poetry and music at the West Medford Community Center. Heather Meeker Green invited us to perform at the Farmers Market event to celebrate my role as Poet Laureate.
I was scheduled to perform on Sept. 23rd at the Medford Cultural Festival at the Condon Shell, which Laura Brereton manages, but it was canceled, due to rain.
What are your favorite spots around the city? For folks new to Medford, where are the "hidden gem" spots you enjoy?
Parks are a big part of our routine. As dog owners, we enjoy the parks a lot, which we also enjoyed often when our daughter was a baby. Our dog, Holly, absolutely adores places like Carr Park, McNally Park, Gillis Park, and Hickey Park, all within walking distance of our home. We are also huge fans of the library. My daughter used to go there all the time, and we'd borrow a ton of books.
We also love Modern Pastry in Medford Square, and Chilli Garden is one of our favorite restaurants. I'm also excited to see the music venue, Deep Cuts, which has recently opened up and has a great sandwich menu and good entertainment.
If your best friend told you they were considering a move to Medford, what would you tell them?
I would tell them, "Please, please come!" I've been trying to convince my sister, who's in California, to move, but so far, no luck. What I love about Medford is that there is such diversity. It's multi-racial and has various neighborhoods, like ours in the Fellsway area, plus Medford Square, West Medford, and the Governor's Avenue area with its grand houses. Each neighborhood has its own flavor and distinction. I appreciate the diversity and enjoy all of it. I'm delighted to live here.
In addition to being a poet and educator, Vijaya Sundaram is a musician and singer-songwriter. Her work has appeared in the Rising Phoenix Press, the Stardust Review, and TELL Magazine. Her first collection of poems in print, Fractured Lens, published by Červená Barva Press in August 2023, is available on The Lost Bookshelf (Červená Barva Press’s online bookstore), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookshop.org, as well as at Grolier Poetry Book Shop.
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