By James Pouliot
---- — The Tannery Series is back in Newburyport tonight with “Rich, Royal and Powerful,” exploring the lives of kings, lovers and ordinary people with powerful missions.
Newburyport authors Rhina Espaillat and Anne Easter Smith will join Massachusetts native Susan Rich at Jabberwocky Bookshop for readings, discussions and a question-and-answer session.
Rich, a prominent poet and human rights activist based in Seattle, will introduce her latest book, “Cloud Pharmacy,” which deals with love and belonging to another.
Following the theme of “Rich, Royal and Powerful,” Smith will read an excerpt from her fourth book, “Queen by Right,” part of a five-book series on the Wars of the Roses. Focused on the real-life series of civil wars between two 15th-century noble houses, Smith’s novels are works of fiction that track the inner lives of their historical subjects.
Smith is enthralled by the figure of Richard III, whose throne was taken by his enemy, Henry Tudor, at the conclusion of the wars. Richard III has been portrayed by history books, written accounts and even Shakespeare as a deformed and murderous king, but modern scholars believe that his barbarity was largely Tudor propaganda. Smith hoped to show the king’s more human face.
“In my early 20s, I discovered that Richard might not have been responsible for some of the murders that he supposedly had done,” she said. “I’ve made a study of him for the last 40 years. I eventually went on to want to write my own historical novel about the real Richard; the one I discovered was not the hunchback that Shakespeare made.”
Smith hinted that her excerpt would concern Richard III’s mother, Cecily Neville, using the power of faith to perform a “brave act” under “extremely dangerous conditions.” Neville is part of a long line of female protagonists in Smith’s books.
“I really like to write about women,” Smith said, “because most history is written by men, for men, about men. I focus very much on the women of medieval time.”
Though Neville’s thoughts and feelings are all imagined by Smith, their historical context is not: Smith spends months before each book tracing the real-life paths of her characters through history to understand their lives.
“I go to all the castles and villages that I’m going to write about, I walk where my characters have walked,” Smith said. “I don’t put anybody in the wrong place at the wrong time if I can help it.”
Smith will be joined by Espaillat, winner of the T.S. Elliot Prize for Poetry and the Richard Wilbur Award. Espaillat’s 11 books and chapbooks of poems, short stories, essays and English/Spanish translations have appeared in more than 60 anthologies.
She will read from her yet-unpublished works: poems about the feeling of Christmas and her grandson, as well as one that she referred to politely as a “conversation” with God.
Espaillat, a Dominican-born writer who moved to America in 1939 at age 7 and settled in Newburyport in 1990, says that her recent pieces have grown increasingly political.
“What I write is poetry about whatever strikes me as important,” she said. “Some of it is a bit edgy right now. ... There’s a lot of injustice and inequality going on.”
Espaillat is particularly interested in feminism and inequality of opportunity, a problem she sees in the struggles of today’s youths to find well-paying work. Her poetry also attacks what she sees as a wave of privatization of public goods like education. She credits education with “saving her life,” and integrating her and her fellow immigrants into American life.
Espaillat’s speech gives her poems a life of their own: Each work comes to life only when it “wants to” and directs her to the proper words, meter and even language — she often writes in her native Spanish.
“I do a lot of internal listening: I don’t sit down to write at a certain hour every day, the way novelists do,” she said. “When I can hear inside that something this coming through, that something wants to be written, then I listen very closely.”
Since its inception in Newburyport in 2010, The Tannery Series has sought to bring local writers, readers and lovers of literature together to celebrate the city’s cultural richness. According to Kirun Kapur, who founded the series with Dawne Shand, that goal came in response to the lack of attendance at similar readings. Kapur recalls one event attended by only 10 people, all of whom turned out to be poets who wanted to read their own work.
“It got us thinking about reading series and about who comes to them and why,” she said. “We set out to bring writers that you might find in an academic setting who might have that quality and importance in the literary world, but present them in a way that makes them fun and fresh and accessible to anybody.”
She and Shand have brought in a greater crowd of non-writers by staging theme nights with local published authors, allowing a more centered conversation on the overall theme. The greatest thanks, Kapur said, is seeing the writing picked up.
“What we love to hear after an event is, people come up to us often after an event, a few days later ... and say, ‘I’ve never been to a reading before, and look, I’ve bought Major Jackson,’ or ‘Look, I’ve bought January O’Neil,’” Kapur said. “Those are people they probably never would have come across otherwise.”
The third program in the fifth season, “Rich, Royal and Powerful” marks The Tannery Series’ first return to Newburyport since 2012. Last year, the series started hosting a number of collaborative events with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. It returns to PEM this Saturday with “Parts Unknown: The Challenges of Writing Across Worlds,” part of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Espaillat and Rich are also featured poets in the festival.
If you go
What: The Tannery Series presents “Rich, Royal and Powerful”
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Jabberwocky Bookshop, The Tannery Marketplace, 50 Water St., Newburyport
How much: Free
More information: www.tanneryseries.com