, Salem, MA

May 2, 2013

Words of meaning

Mass Poetry Festival celebrates the written art

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — SALEM — Reading poetry is often a solitary act. But some meanings only come to life when we hear poems read aloud, discuss them with others or meet the people who wrote them.

“We talk about poetry, and people have their ideas about it,” said Beverly’s January Gill O’Neil, executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which is sponsoring three days of readings and programs this weekend. “But when you experience it, and see how poetry is lived in a way — when you can be in the moment with a person expressing themselves — that community is what the festival is about.”

It’s a sense of community that will be created in part through workshops, where visitors can learn from practicing poets how poems are made.

“We noticed two years ago that workshops are extremely popular,” O’Neil said.

After sending out a request for proposals for this year’s festival, the organizing committee got 138 responses and accepted around half of the programs, 28 of which are workshops.

One of these will consider how poems can depict “the inner lives of objects” by imagining their histories.

Another will ponder haiku, which workshop leader Jeannie Martin — a member of the Haiku Society of America — defines as a poem with “no need for verbs,” in which the action is provided by “the interplay between images.”

There are also workshops on poetry and gender, on persona in poetry, on surreal poetry, and on literary collage.

Additional programs will look at the way poems treat the natural world, including one on poetry and global warming, while another set of sessions will explore connections between poetry and performance.

The latter includes several forms of dance — even belly dance — while other programs will focus on staging poems as dramas or dramatic monologues.

In addition to practicing writing, festival-goers can attend readings by several award-winning poets, who will appear at seven headline events.

Listening to poets read their work provides insights, not only through the background they share, but also in gestures and tones of voice they use that can’t be found on a page.

Sharon Olds, whose book “Stag’s Leap” recently won a Pulitzer Prize, will appear in a headline event Saturday night.

“She’s one of the people early on who brought me into poetry,” said O’Neil, who is an assistant professor of English at Salem State and studied creative writing with Olds in a graduate program at New York University.

“Her poems are revealing and personal,” she said. “She talks about ordinary things that happen and we all go through — with our family, with our kids, with our spouses — simple moments that take on a world of meaning.

“She’s good at taking situations or objects or moments and creating connections, and not just stopping with the obvious, but going deeper and expanding and reinventing how to think about it.”

Olds will share the podium Saturday with Terrance Hayes, who won the National Book Award in 2010 for “Lighthead,” and Eduardo Corral, whose “Slow Lightning” was the 2011 Yale Series of Younger Poets winner.

The Common Threads reading, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, is a headline event that will feature six poets with connections to Massachusetts.

They will read and discuss poems they wrote, which were studied in programs held across the state prior to the festival.

Visitors who didn’t attend one of those sessions can check out their poems in a guide, available at the Mass Poetry website, which has suggestions for study along with a cover designed by digital artist Ed Schutte of Salem.

The poems were selected by Jill McDonough, who currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston and will read her own work at the first headline event, tomorrow night.

McDonough’s first book, “Habeas Corpus,” is a sequence of 50 sonnets about Americans who were put to death between 1608 and 2005.

“You could chart waves of how we were becoming American by who we chose to kill, and why,” McDonough said.

Her poems mingle voices of the condemned, or witnesses to their execution — both of which appear in italics — with her own.

McDonough’s choice of the sonnet, which is traditionally used for love poems and forms “a cornerstone of literature in English,” was strategic.

“If we don’t want these guys to be American anymore, and we’re exiling them into death, and they didn’t get headstones, I wanted to acknowledge them, and bring them back,” she said.

Tomorrow’s headline reading will also feature Tracy K. Smith, whose “Life on Mars” won last year’s Pulitzer Prize and ranges from poems on science and science fiction to an elegy for Levon Helms, drummer for The Band.

She and McDonough will be joined by Nick Flynn, author of a memoir and several unique poetic sequences, including one about a blind beekeeper in the 18th century.

There are plenty of programs for families, including one on writing for kids, on making magnetic poetry and on brush calligraphy, as well as a performance by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

The price of admission to the festival is $15, which buys a button that admits the wearer to all three days of programs.

Those who sign up for workshops are asked to pay an additional one-time fee of $5 and are welcome to take as many workshops as they like, but are encouraged to register in advance.

The festival is Mass Poetry’s biggest event, but they work all year to introduce students to poetry by providing schools — especially schools that are underserved — with materials and programs.

Today, they are bringing 800 high school students from all over Massachusetts for a Student Day of Poetry at Salem State.

The students will write in the morning, have lunch, see performances, attend afternoon workshops, then get up onstage and read their own work.

“Last year, we heard stories of students writing poems on the way home,” O’Neil said.

If you go What: Massachusetts Poetry Festival When: Tomorrow, 1:15 to 11:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Where: Peabody Essex Museum, Hawthorne Hotel, Salem State University and other venues in Salem More information: Register for workshops and purchase $15 Mass Poetry Festival buttons, which provide admission for all three days, at or at The Bookshop of Beverly Farms; Spirit of '76 Bookstore in Marblehead; or The Roost, Sophia's, Salem Trolley Depot and Salem Witch Museum, all in Salem.