On Friday morning I planned to get to Salem early to write in a coffee shop while eating breakfast in preparation for the poetry festival but was too early for my volunteer shift. I ended up running into one of the Salem State English professors I had met outside of a classroom, and he invited me into headquarters early. I did whatever I could to help out before my first volunteer shift started.
My first volunteer shift was as an Info Booth Attendant. The booth was placed next to Wicked Good Books, a bookstore I reviewed in a previous blog post and where I had already briefly visited that morning to kill time. Sadly, this weekend was not the best weather-wise – it rained for most of the weekend, although that did enable Mass Poetry to have raining poetry printed on the sidewalks. While the other volunteer and I were in our (thankfully!) covered booth, we had a few people buy buttons or at least show interest in poetry. We even had someone talk in verse. My favorite visitor was a big gray squirrel that came right up to the booth, looked at me for a few seconds, and then went past my chair on his merry way to the tree behind the booth.
Due to weather, the booth was broken down early which meant I was free to go to the Shakespeare Speakeasy event in the very acoustic-unfriendly Old Town Hall. It was difficult to hear all the words over the musical accompaniment but, from what I gathered, Hamlet was a favorite play (many of the songs I heard starred him), and the presenters were really enthusiastic about putting on a show for us. The Speakeasy was slam poetry meets upbeat jazz and hip-hop, and the performers even changed costumes as if they were in a traditional Shakespeare production.
After that I met up with Editor Joe, to attend Unburying Malcolm Miller”, a film screening of the documentary about Salem poet Malcolm Miller, followed by a Q& A with people who participated in making the film. It was interesting to see how someone who was thought to be a crazy homeless man could make a positive impact in people’s lives and the creative world. According to Rod Kessler, who compiled Miller’s poems and played an important role in the making of the documentary, “He might have been crazy, but he was really alive.” According to Claire Keyes, he was a “combination of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson”. At the end, R. G. Evans, who had provided much of the music in the movie, performed an end song to the presentation titled Malcolm’s Song that incorporated lines from Miller’s poems. It was a beautiful way to commemorate a talented poet.
Editor Joe and I left the PEM auditorium to find seats right outside in the Atrium for the next event, the Friday Headline event! The two headlining poets followed the reading of Claudia Inglessis, who won the 2017 Helen Creeley High School Poetry Contest. And she was fantastic! Powerful imagery, moving content – it was heart-wrenching. Ross Gay followed, starting with his humorous “essayettes” before delving into his poetry. Aimee Nezhukumatathil wrapped up the night with such amazing poetry that I ended up buying her book Lucky Fish. One type of poem she writes that intrigued me was her found poems. The one she read was a compilation of lines from one-star reviews on the Great Wall of China. I mean, who gives a one-star review on a historic landmark like the Great Wall of China?
Saturday started and ended in the library of the Hawthorne Hotel. I never stayed at the Hawthorne, but five stars for having a library! The ceiling was low, the books few, but its skylight windows reminded me of being on a ship, with porthole windows on the doors to reaffirm the feeling. When I arrived, coffee and delicious-looking donuts were displayed on the table. I found one I had been craving for a while, the messiest one with powder all over it and fluffy cream oozing out of the side. In “Doughnuts and Death”, we heard some of Emily’s poems and learned of her love affair with one Judge Otis Lord of Salem in the form of intimate letters she sent him. Gone was the faint idea I’d had that Emily was all alone, the image of her locked away in her house, shunning human company. Instead, I pondered how it must have been for her to be so close to her love yet so far away.
“Channeling the Witches”, which I attended with Editor Sara as she mentioned in her blog post, was history and poetry combined. As a Library Assistant and someone who is interested in learning about different places, I was excited to hear presenter Sherri Bedingfield had stopped into the library in Forfarshire, Scotland to learn about the history of witches there, a place witchcraft had been more ingrained in the culture. Women were valued for their wisdom and role in the communities, and the people often cast spells with their prayers for protection and to keep food away from famine. But one of the main points of the presentation, which is still relevant to today, is that the most powerful person is the one who tells their version of history. I suppose that would explain why so many innocent people were killed – they didn’t have power over their prosecutors. An interesting debate arose on whether or not it was right for poets to give voice to these people. Everyone interprets events differently, especially events that took place hundreds of years ago. I hadn’t given much thought to the ethics of personae poetry before. Can you put words into dead people’s mouths? What about people who were still alive? I’m still not sure of the answer.
One event I did not want to miss was “How I Learned to be a Better Writer by Becoming Editor”. I was interested to hear how other editors are affected by their submitters because as an editor myself, I could relate to the frustration of seeing cliches and repeats of mistakes. Also, don’t resend work that was already rejected. That’s a good lesson. The editors that were presenting at this workshop were all from great weather for MEDIA, a small NYC press. Some of them started as contributors and became editors, which I thought was pretty cool. All of them, and even some of the audience members, gave good advice on writing and submitting work. The most useful tip I heard was to write and edit in separate places.
Once the event ended, I rushed to headquarters to check in for my second volunteer shift as Venue Captain for The Bridge at 221, where I ran into my high school English teacher, for whom I was taking over as Venue Captain. How does that song go again? “It’s a small world after all.” During the first event, I was so stressed about two of the presenters not showing up and still not entirely knowing what to do with myself as Venue Captain that I missed some of the poetry. But the second event, “Writing What We See: Poets of Witness, Emerging and Established” had a similar theme as “Channeling the Witches” in that it consisted of personae poems in the point of view of people who had tremendous experiences such as witnessing a lynching or being a victim of the holocaust. Hearing these experiences was very touching, and it put life in a bit more perspective. When my shift ended, I went to the VIP Reception for volunteers and poets to network with other writers and then grabbed a bite before the nighttime events.
I went back to The Bridge at 221 with which I had become so familiar for Eileen Myles’s spectacular Saturday Headline Event, a reading followed by an interview. I must say, Myles is the supreme ruler of poem endings. As an editor, I find that many writers struggle to end their poems well, but Myles uses the best lines to complete a poem. Some of them were real zingers. The interview turned out to be way more political than I expected, but I will say this – it is clear that everyone in that room cares deeply about the arts. I mean, we were all at the poetry festival! It was truly inspiring to see just how passionate a poet can be about creativity, and how well, despite their strong emotions, they are able to translate that in a creative way in a poem without sounding like a rant (another thing one sees far too often as an editor).
Elle Villanelle’s Poetry Bordello was the event I was the most curious about. What exactly is a poetry brothel? It turned out to be exactly that – sexily dressed people and sensual poetry. The cash bar was another plus. There was a game in which you were blindfolded and had to pick an undergarment from a bag and guess which of the four poets it would have belonged to. I picked what looked like a black corset with pink frill at the top. I wanted it to be Emily Dickinson’s, but I knew based on the photos of the poets, that it would have belonged to Oscar Wilde.
What I didn’t expect from a poetry festival event was people stripping there, but what with the room being downstairs and having no windows directly looking into it, aside from the porthole window of the door where we were admitted entrance by a gentleman in a snazzy suit, I guess it makes sense. The bordello had different nooks and crannies where poets were seated, waiting for us to join them so they could share some sexy poetry. The first poet I visited read from her leather notebook, and after that we used a sexy prompt card to write a group poem. The most memorable poem I heard consisted of dialogue that got more sensual as you came closer to the end.
Alas, the last day of the festival always comes too soon. Due to other engagements this year, I could only attend a couple of the morning events (which finally included a real workshop in which you are given time and prompts to write!).
The Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival was amazing! A popular form in Europe, the poet creates a film and the poem is read in the background of the action, mixing media. Some of the films were footage of real places, some were animations. All were by truly talented artists. Besides learning a different form of poetry, I was introduced to a new(ish) genre in Solarpunk Serenades. One of the many subgenres of science fiction, solarpunk has to do with renewable energy, how technology advancements affect the near future and how humans get back in touch with nature. Margaret Winikates, the presenter, showed slides she later posted on her blog about the genre which included photo prompts we could use to do in-house writing. It wasn’t the big event that usually ends my poetry festival experience, but it was still fulfilling especially since I have the start of some poems that might turn out pretty decent.
Despite the rain, two volunteer shifts, and missing the Sunday Headline Event, the Mass Poetry Festival was a truly inspiring weekend. I met some talented people, learned new genres and poetry forms, and discovered there’s a great debate about writing personae poems. If you’ve never been to the Mass Poetry Festival, I highly recommend you go next year!