By Shelley A. Sackett
SWAMPSCOTT — The path of Swampscott Poet Laureate Emeritus Lee Eric Freedman’s life journey has been paved with happy accidents.
These stepping stones span more than 40 years. While attending Hadley School, his fourth-grade teacher (Mrs. Barrett) opened his eyes and ears to poetry. Her class had to memorize a Robert Frost poem, sparking a young boy’s lifelong love affair with poetry. To this day, Freedman can still recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Frost remains his favorite poet.
Later, when his high school best friend started a basement band, he listened to them play a song they had written. Freedman decided he could do better. His first poem was a song for them, a “rip-off” of Robert Frost and a new-wave band.
“I thought it was pretty good and that I could just keep writing poetry,” said Freedman.
While a biology major at Salem State, he worked as general manager of its radio station. There, he met the editor of the school’s literary magazine, “Soundings East,” who encouraged him to submit one of the many poems just sitting in folders in his dorm room. It was accepted, and he was invited to give a student reading.
“I thought I was the greatest poet ever,” he admitted with a shy grin.
It was the first time Freedman had wielded a microphone, sharing words he had penned with a live audience, and the headiness he experienced electrified him. He was hooked.
He started frequenting open mics in Salem, Marblehead, and Lynn and wrote for Salem’s Deacon Giles Café’s “This Magazine.” He is a charter member and current president of Tin Box Poets, a poetry workshop group that still meets once a month at Panera in Swampscott. “I’ve become such a better poet through them,” he said of the group he helped start in 2017. He remains active in the North Shore poetry scene, performing regularly at the Lynn Walnut Café’s Speak Up and other venues.
Freedman’s love for live readings and for his native Swampscott would soon share common ground. In 2017, ReachArts, Swampscott’s new artistic hub, signed a two-year lease with the town for the former senior center on Burrill Street. When a board member reached out to him about starting an open mic, Freedman jumped at the chance. He has hosted the monthly First Friday Open Mike Night since 2018.
Which leads to Freedman’s most recent “happy accident” and COVID silver lining: The expansion of his open mic from its community audience to a global network that recently included 31 participants from India, Denmark, Greece, Singapore, Scotland, Canada, and the United States. Like most in-person gatherings, ReachArts open mic had to transition from live to virtual meetings after March 2020. Although mastering the ins and outs of running Zoom gatherings was a challenge, Freedman is overjoyed by the rewards.
“We went from this tiny local thing to a global thing,” he said. Freedman has attended open mics in other countries around the world, making connections that yielded additional rewards. His poems have been published in anthologies in Bangladesh through an Indian publisher he met online.
Freedman is no stranger to accolades; the three-time Naomi Cherkofsky Memorial Contest winner has been published in magazines, anthologies, and curated poetry quarterlies. When asked what he’s proudest of, he doesn’t hesitate: being Swampscott’s Poet Laureate.
The brainchild of educator and Swampscott resident Sami Lawler, the town’s Poet Laureate program was launched in 2014. Lawler became aware that many towns in Massachusetts had Poet Laureates and, as an elementary school teacher in Swampscott, wanted to support and encourage her students to enjoy writing while also recognizing community writers.
“Our town was noted for its fine athletic programs and Marblehead was known for its support of the arts. I felt that writing was also a gift many of our own residents possessed,” she said.
Candidates for Poet Laureate would submit three poems that a panel of three judges would rank. Lawler approached the town selectmen and received approval for both an adult and K-4 student Poet Laureate. For the first few years, the winners would open Town Meeting by reading their poems. Freedman, who, as a Pisces, attributes much of his inspiration to Fisherman’s Beach, read, “Fisherman’s Beach Wet.”
Lawler was happy when Freedman was chosen by the panel in 2016. “Aside from his dynamic and versatile poetry writing, Lee Eric is a vital town poetry organizer and supporter through his oral poetry and leading the Tin Box poets,” she said. “Lee Eric’s dedication to the art and expression of poetry makes him a perfect town poetry representative.”
She and Freedman worked together after his Poet Laureate tenure to keep poetry at the forefront in town. Freedman also ran poetry workshops in Lawler’s classes, where the students would create poems and then read them out loud. “It was a blast,” he said.
Growing up, Freedman and his family (parents Norma and Sherman and brothers Gary and Brad) attended Temple Beth El in Swampscott, where he continued his post-Bar Mitzvah education through confirmation. Although Freedman describes himself as “not religious,” his Jewish identity is important to him and crops up from time to time in his poetry.
Freedman is not one of those disciplined poets who set specific times and places to write. “I can’t follow a rule. It doesn’t work for me,” he said. Instead, he waits for inspiration to strike. He has taken lots of notes during his current job as a school crossing guard, and might mine that trove for future poems.
“It’s just the luck of the draw. I don’t plan it. I can’t help it. It’s just the way I work,” he said.
For more information about ReachArts and First Friday Open Mic Night, visit reacharts.org