Mass Poetry Festival Part 3

This year’s festival was incredibly inspiring for me. Before attending, I had one goal in mind: find a publisher for my chapbook. And while I didn’t complete that task, I did learn a lot from the presenters and speakers.


Factory Hollow Press, and their panel on making chapbooks, was the beginning of my festival adventures. Poet David Feinstein read from his book Tarantula and spoke about how he sees chapbooks. He called them a “dance between perfection and imperfection” where “small moments are pressed.” According to Feinstein, chapbooks – which are designed to fit in your pocket – were the perfect explanation of how publishing is supposed to be less of a monetary gain and more like sharing a piece of yourself with the world.

From there, I met up with Editor Sandy and saw Unburying Malcolm Miller, a documentary focused on the life of Salem native and Poet Malcolm Miller (who died in 2014). It was a fabulous and relentlessly honest portrayal of a man who didn’t make friends easily and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. The film included various community members reading select pieces to demonstrate Miller’s talent – with each of his poems delivering tiny, emotional punches. They were so good, I had to buy a copy of the chapbook the filmmakers made available. (It’s worth noting that Miller had about 800 pages of unpublished poems found in his kitchen after he died. Those poems are being typed, since Miller wrote with a typewriter, and given to McGill University.)

One important piece of advice for writers I learned from watching the film was to send your work to people. Miller would write a poem, mail it to someone and include a note saying, “If you liked this poem, mail $5 to this address.” If you have confidence in your talent, people will recognize that and respond in kind.

My final event Friday night was the headline event of Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Both Gay and Nezhukumatathil had stage presence – the kind that pulls a crowd in, forcing us to hang onto their every word. Gay’s poems were passionate and humorous, infusing life experiences with wit and dry humor. His poem Burial was amazing to hear. Click that link now!

Nezhukumatathil was a little softer than Gay, but she read her poems with a sort of fierceness born of knowing you’re hot shit and that everyone is waiting for you to impress them, again and again. A mix of narrative and symbolic imagery, all of her poems felt extremely organic. My favorite line from her reading was in a poem about being married: “(there’s a) thunderstorm in your heart.”

Saturday morning found me in a reading by WordTech Communications. I particularly liked Susan Roney-O’Brien’s work, which celebrated “moments of glorious simplicity.”

Next, was the “Developing Book-Length Poetry Collections in an M.F.A. Program” panel. Four students, all in the same program, all ready to graduate, spoke regarding the challenges they faced in creating books of poetry. In the interest of saving space, here’s a bullet list of their best nuggets of wisdom:

  • Be introspective and autobiographical in your work
  • Choose one idea and expand all the nuanced qualities of that topic
    • Example: a book on childbirth can include cleaning your house in preparation for meeting the midwife but should not mention baby’s first birthday.
  • There should be an emotional flow to the pieces – start sad, end happy/start angry, end happy/start happy, end sad/etc.
  • Remember who you’re writing these poems for. “I healed by writing this, how does a reader heal by this?”
  • “Be the poet you never could find – write the missing poem.”
  • Workshop groups need to be supportive and welcoming but also willing to give real criticism of pieces.
  • Expose yourself. Your first draft of a poem is told behind a door, draft two is behind a curtain, final version is you, naked, screaming your feelings.
  • Answer this question: can the reader find answers to any question in the body of the poem? (Hint: the answer should be yes.)
  • When revising, be emotionally present in what caused the poem but intellectually in a symposium about writing.
  • “Revising means re-seeing the poem.”


The last event I attended on Saturday was the Small Press and Book Fair. Due to the rain, the fair was held in Old Town Hall, a small cramped building. I spoke with nearly every publisher present, grabbing tons of business cards, pamphlets, and print-outs on upcoming contests (all of which I’ll research some time this month). I was most impressed with Cervena Barva Press and I’m going to keep an eye out for when their manuscript submissions open again.

As I was leaving the fair, I found the Chalk It Up space – an area where poets were encouraged to write their favorite line of poetry on the streets of Salem.


Sunday was bittersweet as the festival began to wind down. I spent the first half of the morning volunteer as a session attendant, stationed in the Hawthorne Hotel. My first panel was “Poetry and Healing” – lead by a doctor and a poet, who discussed how medical professionals use poetry both to emotionally heal patients and to survive the harshness of working in the medical field. The presenters were from the Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine organization and read from their latest anthology.

One of the guest speakers was Dr. Andrew Dimitri, reading poetry he wrote after serving with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (the Australian equivalent of Doctors Without Borders) in Iraq. He read a poem about creating a fully-functioning hospital in a bombed-out town center. It was a powerful piece that quieted the room for a solid minute.


The other guest speaker, Alisha Kaplan (who won first place in the 2017 Hippocrates Prize) read her award-winning poem about weaning herself off antidepressants, which included what may be the best line I heard all weekend: “I am a hollow tree in an empty forest.”

The day ended with back-to-back readings from Fred Marchant, Lloyd Schwartz, Gail Mazur and Richard Hoffman together and then Louise Gluck closing out the festival. My favorite moment of the “Fred & Gail and Richard & Lloyd” reading was Hoffman saying “poetry is passion for humanity.” (They were an exceptional group of poets and I’m glad I was able to hear them.)

Waiting for Gluck was thrilling – she completely filled the auditorium, with attendees who didn’t register for her reading missing out. Gluck, who was named the Poet Laureate of United States in 2003 and won the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry, was amazing. She had a powerful reading voice, never wavering in her control of the room. She read about 10 poems, all of which gave me shivers. My favorite lines from her were “violence has changed me” and “seasonal change is time passing in repetition.”




After the reading, Gluck answered questions from the audience. She mentioned how one book of poetry took five years to write and how she was plagued by a pair of lines that she knew were perfect, but couldn’t find the poem in them. Her advice to overcome writer’s block: get space. “When you love something, sometimes you’re silenced by it.”

The festival was just what I needed to recharge my poetic batteries. If you haven’t read Editor Sara and Editor Sandy’s experiences, check them out now!

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