By Shelley A. Sackett
Spring has always been an inspiration for renewal and gaiety, especially among poets. From William Blake to Robert Louis Stevenson to New England’s own Robert Frost, scores have praised the magic and charm of the season over the centuries.
And since 2008, the Massachusetts Poetry Festival has offered the rare opportunity to hear the nation’s best poets read and discuss their work in intimate and engaging forums. From Friday, April 29 through Sunday, May 1, historic downtown Salem will become the epicenter of contemporary American poetry for the 8th annual festival, and Executive Director January O’Neil couldn’t be more excited.
“With so many events, everything is new each year. I’m thrilled that the Boston Typewriter Orchestra is joining us on Sunday,” O’Neil, who is an assistant professor of English at Salem State University, said. “There’s a lot of good energy here.”
Student Day of Poetry, which happens Friday morning before the general festival events begin, will host 250 students from across the Commonwealth for a morning of workshops and spoken word. “Money and time are always our biggest challenges. If we had more of each, how many more students could we invite?” O’Neil said.
Nearly 100 poetry readings and workshops take place at five venues in downtown Salem (Peabody Essex Museum, Old Town Hall, Museum Place Mall, First Universalist Church, Howling Wolf and Salem Five Community Room). The festival also features a small press and literary fair, panels, poetry slams, visual arts and open-air performances.
The full schedule is available at masspoetry.org.
O’Neil first became involved in 2008 and 2009, when Lowell hosted the festival. She participated both years as a reader with a group, but decided to volunteer and handle marketing when Salem became the venue in 2011. Since 2012, she has been executive director.
“It’s been amazing to watch this three-day weekend event evolve into a national poetry event. But it still feels very grassroots. We try to be as inclusive as possible, recognizing as many different poets, literary groups, and arts organizations as possible,” she said.
Panel topics range broadly, from the state of poetry, poetry and gender, book publishing and modernism in contemporary art, to the Common Threads Reading, where contemporary poets with Massachusetts ties discuss their literary connections. More than 150 local and nationally known poets engage with thousands of New Englanders each year.
Many presentations have an international and political focus. “The Bravest Women in the World: Afghan Women Speak out through Poetry” has both. Through the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, founded by American journalist Masha Hamilton, Afghan women who live under the oppressive Taliban rule are mentored and encouraged to tell their stories using online workshops. Following readings by two Afghan writers at the Friday afternoon event, the panel will discuss the role of poetry as a “human right.”
In addition to eight headline events, the eclectic schedule includes something for everyone. There are workshops on teaching, writing, editing, and publishing poetry. Some look at poetry as humor; others as mystery, song or science fiction.
“You don’t have to be a poet to have a good time. The Peabody Essex Museum has family-friendly, drop-in activities. From music and readings, to slam and visual arts, there’s lots of wicked good poetry happening in Salem this weekend!” O’Neil said.