Sampling Another Poetry Festival

The next Massachusetts Poetry Festival will be May 13 and 14 in Salem, Massachusetts.

January O’Neil and Jennifer Jean, both members of the Salem planning committee for the next Massachusetts Poetry Festival, recently attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. O’Neil has attended several of the biennial events since the festival began in 1986. For Jean, it was her first visit. Both came back excited about what they’d seen and enthusiastic about making the Massachusetts Poetry Festival just as enjoyable.

Although many circumstances of the festivals are different, both women felt their experience should lend a perspective from an older, more seasoned event, which has tested various plans and locations, including Waterloo Village in Stanhope and the Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey, and this year’s more urban setting in Newark’s downtown arts district. “This year’s setting, very close to Rutgers University, was a departure from the rural setting of Waterloo Village,” said O’Neil “I understand that the festival would not have happened without a location change. So if moving to Newark means the festival can continue, I’m all for it. Dodge is reinventing itself without losing its core, I think that’s a good thing.”

What both O’Neil and Jean liked best about the four-day event was the sense of fellowship. “There was a real feeling of good will and community in a diverse and accomplished crowd,” says Jean. “You felt as though you were in the middle of something” – she paused for the right word – “something sacred.”

O’Neil nodded in agreement, “The event was filled not just with poets but with poetry lovers.”

Both mentioned the panel discussion with four of the nation’s Poet Laureates as a highlight of the festival. “Mark Strand opened with a joke about stepping out on the laureate office balcony for the first time and suddenly being able to fly,” said Jean.  “This seemed an important commentary on the so-called ‘career’ aspect of poetry.  In other words, what was most important about living the life of a poet—developing the writing itself, ‘the internal life’ as Kay Ryan called it—was not altered by becoming a laureate.”

Aside from group and individual readings, other sessions included Poets on Poetry, When Politics Is Personal, Going Public with Private Feelings, American Poetries, and Saying the Unsayable.

O’Neil loved the access the audience had to the poets. “They took questions from the audience, which gave the event an active, participatory feeling.”

“Usually there were five or six events taking place each session – readings, craft talks, panel discussions – with the venues close together, good signage so you knew where you were, and 20 minutes between each program for chatting,” said O’Neil. She allowed that the 20 minute break is something the Massachusetts festival may not be able to accommodate since most activities have to be crammed into one day instead of four.

Both poets are anxious to help make the Massachusetts Poetry Festival as communal and stimulating as the Dodge.

Check out O’Neil’s photos and blog about the festival at

See information about Jean’s new book and her readings at