, Newburyport, MA

May 1, 2014

'Connected to being human'

Massachusetts Poetry Festival celebrates its fifth year

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — The Massachusetts 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 have never tried to write a poem.

“You explore new things,” said Jennifer Jean, who teaches poetry at Salem State University. “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 the 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 amount 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.

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

Families who attend can also have fun by visiting interactive 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 Institute 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 tomorrow 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 know how to talk about it,” she said. “It’s very fluid. Most people are not stuck on one thing.”

While Mass Poetry presents an abundance of programs at its festival, the organization also brings poetry to the public throughout the year.

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

Returning to the festival this year is Common Threads, 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: Massachusetts Poetry Festival

When: Tomorrow through Sunday

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

How much: Entry to all 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 online at

More information:

Tannery Series at the festival

Newburyport’s Tannery Series will return to the Peabody Essex Museum to present “Parts Unknown: The Challenges of Writing Across Worlds” on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. The program is a behind-the-scenes look at how four poets address the pitfalls and politics of depicting worlds that seem foreign or distant and features Martha Collins, Kirun Kapur, Li-Young Lee and Vivek Narayanan.