, Salem, MA

May 1, 2014

'Connected to being human'

Poetry festival enters fifth year

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — The Mass Poetry Festival isn’t just for poets.

Though several sessions at this weekend’s event will focus on matters of craft, even these are well attended by people who’ve never tried to write a poem.

“You explore new things,” said Jennifer Jean, who teaches poetry at Salem State. “A lot of people who come, who are not writers, love learning. It keeps them alive and connected to being human.”

This is the festival’s fifth year, and most of the readings and sessions will again take place at Peabody Essex Museum, while a number will also be held at the Hawthorne Hotel and other venues around Salem.

“This year we pared down the (number) of sessions from 95 to about 80,” said January O’Neil, festival director. “We rely on so many volunteers and venues that we don’t want to put too much of a toll on resources.”

But there are still plenty of programs to attend, on everything from culinary poetry, to poetry and medicine, to “Migrants, Monsters and Mutants” in poetry.

There will be a discussion of sestinas, a 700-year-old form in which “six words appear at the end of 39 lines over the course of six, six-line stanzas and a three-line finale,” according to the festival’s guide.

Other sessions will address general themes such as writing about relationships, and on fluid sexual identities, to another on writing and taboos.

“We’ve also got two good slams,” O’Neil said. “Friday night is a college slam. The Saturday night slam is Boston versus New York.”

Families who attend can also have fun by visiting interactive, poetry-themed installations, calligraphy classes, and book-making activities.

There are 14 headliners reading their work this year, in pairs or groups of three, with many major voices along with a few poets who are just beginning to reach wider audiences.

Two poets from the West Coast, Oliver de la Paz and Susan Rich, will read on Saturday afternoon with Marge Piercy, who lives in Wellfleet and has published 17 novels and 18 collections of poetry.

Piercy has been an activist throughout her life, as a feminist and opponent of the Vietnam War, and Rich has also engaged with important issues.

“She’s worked with Amnesty International, and overseas with the Peace Corps,” Jean said. “That stuff has fed into her work. Her first three books all contain poems that have to do with an international outlook.”

Jean has been teaching a course — “Get to Know the Festival Poets” — for several weeks at the Peabody Public Library, and has led sessions on Rich and five other headliners, including Li-Young Lee.

“I love his work,” she said. “I was so blown away by the faith aspect. You don’t see that in poetry anymore.”

Lee will read Saturday night with Kim Addonizio and Cornelius Eady, both of whom have experimented with mixing poetry and music.

Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine, who will read together Friday night, are both poets laureate — Duffy, from Great Britain, is currently serving her term while Levine previously held that office in America.

“Phil and Carol Ann have read together before and enjoyed it,” O’Neil said. “It takes a lot of effort to make something look flawless — I feel that way about Carol Ann. It’s got humor, and is also very measured, but it draws you in.

“Phil is so direct, I think he speaks for a lot of people. He represents the common man.”

While poets usually write in solitude, they also rely on communities of readers and other poets to help them evaluate their work.

A number of these groups, affiliated by region, place of employment, and personal or ethnic experience will be present at the festival.

They include poets who teach at Lesley College, poets who have published new books, and poets who are or have written about the experiences of special needs students.

“You create communities with people and check out things you weren’t sure about,” Jean said. “I can speak to my own experience: we’re having for the first time ever a Cape Verdean reading, and I have that background from my father’s side.

“You want to know how to talk about certain experiences, and sometimes we need support in knowing how to talk about it. It’s very fluid. Most people are not stuck on one thing.”

While Mass Poetry presents an abundance of programs at their festival, they also bring poetry to the public throughout the year.

They bring poets to schools, and this April they launched Poetry on the T, which allows commuters in Boston to read poems in trolley cars instead of advertisements.

Common Threads is back at the festival this year, a program in which 10 poems by Massachusetts poets are read in schools throughout the state in April, then discussed at the festival in May.

“We’re trying different things,” O’Neil said. “We want to resonate and grow and support a sense of community in the state.”

If you go

What: Mass Poetry Festival

When: Friday, May 2 to Sunday, May 4

Where: Peabody Essex Museum, Hawthorne Hotel, Old Town Hall and other Salem venues

Information: Admission to all festival events requires a festival button: $15 general admission, $7 seniors and students. A $5 workshop fee allows visitors to sign up for as many workshops as they like. Purchase buttons from PayPal link at Preregistration helps to keep workshops small.