Dan Waters ’73 is a printmaker, poet, Aikido black belt, lifelong devotee of music and photography, and year-round resident of the island of Martha’s Vineyard. An English major at Wesleyan University, he went on to become the first poet laureate of West Tisbury, Massachusetts.
In this month’s “Alumni Spotlight,” Dan waxes nostalgic about his childhood in Brazil, describes his life on Martha’s Vineyard, and shares some of his poetry.
Though you are American, you attended Graded throughout your childhood—from kindergarten through graduation. What are your most vivid memories of growing up in São Paulo?
I have so many vivid memories of growing up in São Paulo, and they are all the more indelible because they could not be more different from my later life in the United States.
We spent many happy days in Guarujá! We went snorkeling, enjoyed grilled shrimp skewers and picolés (popsicles) that we bought from vendors on the beach, and watched our parents sip fresh-made caipirinhas as they relaxed by the water. We loved watching the fishermen bring their catch onto shore in their dugout canoes and were fascinated by the New Year’s Umbanda ceremonies along the surf there.
I remember making and releasing balões de São João, the paper lanterns that marked the beginning of June festivities, and I remember Christmas shopping in the sweltering heat of December at Lojas Americanas, where the season decorations included a lot of styrofoam (isopor) snow.
There are dark memories, too. When I was 12, the epidemic of cólera (cholera) landed me in Hospital Samaritano for 10 days, where I almost died. And there was a period in the late 1960s when kidnappers specifically targeted American corporate executives, so my father went to work each morning with a large pistol packed into his briefcase. (The kidnappers likely belonged to leftist groups rebelling against the military dictatorship in Brazil, and against American companies’ support of the government’s oppression.) During the era when American Ambassador Charles Elbrick was abducted in Rio, my father was forced into hiding for about two weeks while the police searched for the suspects.
But the good memories outweigh the bad. I spent idyllic days fishing for jaú and pacú in Mato Grosso. My friend Edith Jafet invited me to her sítio in Campinas once and introduced me to the music of Astor Piazzolla. We spent many nights playing guitar under tropical stars and swaying in hammocks. I could go on and on!
You were raised in a different culture than that of your parents—in what ways did you feel like a third-culture kid?
It immediately became evident that I was a third-culture kid once I returned to the United States to attend college. Transplanted from my home in Brazil to the completely new territory of Middletown, Connecticut, I was ready for New England winters—but utterly unprepared for the culture shock I experienced.
I felt most like an outsider when someone would ask me where I was from. There was (and still is) no simple answer to that question. I avoided mentioning Brazil because the follow-up question would inevitably be, “What was that like?” How can you explain that to someone who has never lived overseas?
I lived in Brazil from 1960 to 1973, when I graduated from Graded. It was a period during which the United States changed tremendously. Our parents, who had lived abroad for years, still had a picture of America as they had last experienced it in the 1950s, and they kept that version of the country alive for us. The only news we got about the US came from TIME magazine's international edition and the Brazil Herald's daily edition.
At Graded, for those of us who had been there for many years, the only glimpse we got of the US was of incoming American students sporting the latest fashions and using the latest slang. Some arrived dressed in bell bottoms, with long, droopy hair and anti-war slogans on their jackets—things we had never seen before. We considered their styles exotic and unusual. When I arrived in the US for college, I discovered I had much to catch up on!
Everyone around me had grown up watching television I’d never heard of (Saturday Night Live? What’s that?), everyday foods that did not exist in Brazil (fresh apple cider—a fantastic new delicacy!), and a whole vocabulary of strange slang. But, as a third-culture kid, I was adept at learning how to fit in.
Dan with a group of students in the former Library.
How did your experience at Graded shape you?
Graded was the only school I attended from kindergarten through grade 12. I was so much a “product” of our school that on my graduation in 1973, my kindergarten teacher, Dona Olga, presented me with my high school diploma along with a pearl, which symbolized the long time I had spent being formed by Graded.
Graded shaped me in at least one significant way: it taught me that I thrive best in a small community where each person has a role and a way to contribute.
Decades later, I now live on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I’ve lived here for more than 40 years. In some ways, it’s very much like Graded, as each long-time resident has a reputation and a role, and we all look out for each other. My role for the past eight years has been as town moderator—I run the town meetings at which West Tisbury’s budget, bylaws, and many other essential government functions are decided. I’m also known as a poet, a photographer, and a musician. I'm not particularly good at these things, but that doesn't matter in a small community. All that matters is that you have enough passion. Graded was much the same way.
Dan poses outdoors with friends on the Graded campus.
Did anyone at Graded really impact you?
My most significant influence was probably Dona Talita Santos, my Portuguese teacher for many years. She was a strict and capricious teacher. (“You’re going to get a zero!” was one of her trademark sentences.) At first, I was terrified of her, but I realized that she truly, truly loved her subject—Brazilian literature, music, and art—and was simply teaching us to love it with the same ferocity and high standards.
I still remember all the regras de acentuação (punctuation rules) that she had us memorize and recite. She introduced us to Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Jorge de Lima, among other writers, who could turn quotidian, quintessentially Brazilian life into poetry. In her class, we studied the Semana da Arte Moderna of 1922—the event that marked Brazil’s entry onto the cultural world stage. When I later began studying classical guitar, I realized many of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ most important compositions dated from that year.
Of all of Graded’s teachers, Dona Talita drew the clearest connection between what you learn in school and how you live within a culture.
Dan and his friend Edith read books together outdoors at Graded.
How did you stay connected to Brazil after moving to the US for college?
I missed the culture I grew up in, but it was hard to stay connected to Brazil at a time during which when there was no Internet. Long-distance phone calls were costly, and American misconceptions distorted any news about Brazil.
I combated this cultural vacuum by creating the show Aquarela do Brasil on WESU, the Wesleyan University student-run radio station. For two hours each Saturday morning, I would play my favorite albums and introduce each song in English and Portuguese. I doubt I ever had more than a dozen listeners, but it was important to feel Brazil around me, even if there was snow on the ground. One of my few listeners was an elderly Brazilian widow who lived 20 miles from Wesleyan. She called in every Saturday just to speak some Portuguese and tell me how much she enjoyed the music on my show. Despite her arthritis, she said, the familiar songs compelled her to dance around her apartment and forget her cares.
By then, my family was living in Rio. Whenever I visited them, I returned to Middletown with my suitcase full of (very heavy) vinyl records that I had purchased at a used record shop in Leblon. Many of these were older recordings, which allowed me to learn and appreciate the music of Noel Rosa, Silvio Caldas, Demônios da Garoa, and other iconic names from the mid-20th century. Needless to say, that music was also broadcast on the radio in Connecticut!
Tell us about your relationship with music and photography.
Music and photography are passions I developed at Graded that remain with me today. In high school, I photographed everything and anything for Aquila, the yearbook. Even then, I realized the importance of documenting everyday life, so I photographed mundane things (telling details!) like Graded’s hallways, water fountains, lockers, and bulletin boards. Today, those images evoke vivid sensory memories of that time.
I have recently embarked on a similar project for the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Using a film camera (because digital information is fragile and too easy to lose), I am documenting events, people, and places on negatives that will be given to our local history museum for safekeeping and climate-controlled storage. People think this is an odd thing to do, but my time in Brazil taught me just how quickly things change and how easily the past can be lost.
Music serves a similar purpose. I play guitar to immerse myself in the music I care about, which is primarily Brazilian. Some songs I play are decades old or date back to my time at Graded. When I play them, I relive past moments, which keeps those memories alive. Like literature, Brazilian music dives into the soul of the country without the need for an apology or explanation.
I do sometimes play Brazilian songs to an American audience. I introduce the song and translate the lyrics, but—really—how does one perform, for instance, Luiz Gonzaga’s Assum Preto, without first presenting a lecture and slide show to explain the culture of the Brazilian Northeast?
Dan plays his guitar while visiting his friend Edith's farm in 1973.
What does it mean to be a printer, and how did you become one?
I was born to print, though it took me several years to become aware of that. In high school, trying to find a way to print an underground newspaper for school, I once tried melting lead fishing sinkers over a charcoal-fired churrasqueira (barbeque grill) in our backyard to make metal type. It was a complete disaster. I ended up printing the newspaper (Ergo) in my darkroom instead, photographing a typed piece of paper, and then making photographic prints to distribute to my fellow students. We published six issues of Ergo in my senior year, all written and edited by a small group of friends.
After college, I briefly held a job selling shoes on Martha’s Vineyard before answering an ad for a local print shop. I knew nothing about offset printing but was so intensely interested that I learned quickly. From there, I went to work as a pressman at the Vineyard Gazette, our local weekly newspaper.
Being a printer means mastering many, many interrelated skills. Especially with letterpress printing (which uses old-fashioned metal type), one needs to know something about physics, metallurgy, electricity, mechanics, engineering, spelling, grammar, punctuation, graphic design, publicity, and marketing. Having grown up at Graded, I was instantly comfortable in this profession where I could invent my identity.
What inspires your poetry?
My understanding of poetry dates back to my classes with Dona Talita, who was deadly serious about poetic form and analysis. My poems have strong rhyme and meter and often use formal structures. I write primarily about common everyday experiences, particularly those of living on Martha’s Vineyard. This is because I see poetry as something that ties people together and shines a light on their common bonds. Many of my poems have appeared in our local weekly newspaper.
One of my favorite poets is Chico Buarque de Hollanda, who expresses everyday life with literary discipline and respect for poetic tradition. Chico’s work is so deeply rooted in the Brazilian psyche that people outside the culture have trouble understanding it. This, too, feels like a valuable model to me, as I live on and write about a small island with a particular lifestyle that even those on the American mainland (seven miles away) have trouble understanding.
What is life on Martha’s Vineyard like?
Martha’s Vineyard is a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. The island is about 20 miles long and 10 miles wide. Life here is bizarre because, during the summer, the population can reach 100,000, but only about 17,000 residents live here year-round. There is a ferry that links us to Cape Cod. Still, in bad weather, the ferry doesn’t operate, and we become stranded—a phenomenon that I personally enjoy, probably because the isolation reminds me of living in Brazil in the 1960s.
In 1989, Brazilians began to arrive on Martha’s Vineyard. Now, approximately 5,000 of the 17,000 year-round residents are Brazilian. There are at least eight Brazilian churches on the Island, most evangelical, and most of the island’s Brazilians are from the same region in Minas Gerais (Governador Valadares, Cuparaque, etc.). When I first arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s, I thought I would never hear Portuguese again. Now I hear it all the time—but with a mineiro accent!
What projects are you currently involved in?
There is no end to projects that one can be involved with in a small town. I take and catalog photographs for my Photographic Time Capsule of Martha’s Vineyard, about which I will soon be giving a talk at the local museum. I practice guitar and play music at local open mics. I am learning to play the accordion. I am the town moderator for West Tisbury, currently running for reelection for the tenth time. I help raise money for the West Tisbury Free Public Library. I am working with my Brazilian friend Juliana to curate an exhibit at the museum about the Brazilian community. Luckily, I am retired because many of these things take up a lot of time!
When you think about Brazil, how do you feel? Do you have any keepsakes from your time in Brazil?
My favorite keepsake from my time in Brazil is my samambaia. It’s a huge, draping fern that hangs in my window and (sometimes) watches the New England snow fall outside. I brought it to the US in my pocket as a muda (cutting) when my family finally packed up and left Brazil for good, and I have been growing this plant for more than 40 years. To me, it’s a symbol of adaptation, resilience, courage, and roots. I can’t believe the fern is still alive, and I have since propagated and shared it with Brazilian friends as well as friends from Graded.
Brazil has changed extensively since 1976 (my last visit there), and I would probably not recognize it. Brazil is often in the news, but rarely in a positive way. I want to return for a visit someday, but I would probably suffer as much culture shock as I did when I moved to the United States. If only it were possible to travel back in time as well!
Dan waves to the camera on the Graded campus.
Poem in Mid-Winter
Today is thirty-eight degrees,
too cold to swim, too warm to freeze.
It's not a Sunday, not a snow day,
just a Wonder Bread John Doe day.
Mother Nature must have slipped
to make a day so nondescript
that if today had robbed a bank
the Wanted posters would be blank.
Fred Fisher's cows, who know no rush,
whose job is chewing hay to mush,
morosely arch their bovine brows
at one more day of being cows.
The ocean spreads a foamy hand
consolingly across the sand
to reassure the ageless bride
he wakened one more day beside.
A hemisphere gelatinous and clear,
it quivers here between reproach and shame
like something from a dream, without a name,
receding waves to grieve its brief career.
This tender slice of optics magnifies
the sand it dies on as the tide's repealed,
apparent yet transparently concealed:
all metaphor, a vitreous disguise.
Beachcombers interpret what they've found,
this crystal parachute, this contact lens,
this breast implant whose milkless mound offends
the children smearing it into the ground
as punishment for gleaming like a jewel
and yet for being nothing like a jewel.