The scuttlebutt on the Mass Poetry Festival


For those of you who meant to attend this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival but didn’t, this story may make you despondent. You missed what many are calling a significant event. The response from attendees has drawn adjectives from “amazing” and “astounding” to Michael Mack’s statement: “You all have put Massachusetts at the center of the poetry festival map. Bravissimo!” Bob Brooks called the event a “fiesta.”

 The festival preached to the faithful . . .

Many of the attendees were poetry stalwarts who have attended other festivals. Karen Decker, for example, has attended the Dodge Festival three times and felt it set the standard high for future events. But she felt the Massachusetts Festival met that high standard. “The committee that planned this festival seemed to have thought of everything: who to invite and an ideal schedule and location.”

 Besides, Decker says, “Dodge is a biennial event and I can’t wait two years to have my appetite for poetry satiated.” She’s already planning to return next year.

Frances Roth has also attended the Dodge several years but felt “the festival had lost its intimacy, which, for me, was an integral part of the event.” “I’m so glad I made the three–hour drive to Salem,” Roth says. “I loved every minute of it”

. . . and brought in converts

But you didn’t have to be a poetry aficionado to enjoy the events. Evelyn McKay, who lives in Salem and was encouraged by a friend to attend, went partially out of loyalty. “I thought the poetry would be a bit obscure, perhaps from a bygone era, and hard to access. I thought I might be sitting wondering what some of the poems were about.” But she found the opposite situation. The rewarding part of attending for her was “discovering that poetry today is powerful stuff!” She particularly liked the poetry of Brian Turner and Mark Doty.

Sandy Johnson, who also came because of her longtime friendship with Michael Ansara, festival founder, and his wife, Barney Arnold, found the festival “much larger and more beautifully organized” than she’d expected. She couldn’t pick just one thing that she liked best, but said the entire event provided “lots of inspiration.”

 Satisfying a range of interests

The festival had enough variety to satisfy a range of interests. Decker went to the Favorite Poem reading, poetry for young adults “(Hannah had great energy”), both night events (“Yeah for Kim Richie!”), Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay’s workshop, and the Poetry Round at the Phillips Library (“I loved Kevin Carey, J.D. Scrimegour, January O’Neil and Colleen Michaels, who read ‘Last Bath after the First Snow’”).” She added, “I wanted to go to Kim Richie’s workshop but didn’t make it.”

Roth attended Celebration of Elizabeth Bishop, the Friday headline reading; Favorite Poems, Grub Street Poetry Generator; The Dramatic Monologue (Patricia Smith workshop), and the Saturday headline reading. She particularly liked “the two headline readings and Patricia Smith’s workshop.” About Smith she says, “She was dynamic. She told rich stories and gave good prompts for writing.”

The ambience of fun

In addition to the events and poets, many people commented on the atmosphere of the festival itself. There were “emanation of good feelings from lots of folks,” Afaa Michael Weaver said. Lawrence Kessenich said, “Few events of any kind are as well run as this one!” And CD Collins said, “Never have I attended such a well-organized event. The venues, the convenience, the timing, the support, the sound, the efficiency, the smiles all around.”

Teresa Carson, Development Director of CavanKerry Press, was surprised to see so many people wandering through the book fair. She was even more pleasantly surprised to “see how many books they bought.”

A plea you’ll never hear at other events

Karen Decker said the only change she would make is to “increase the price from $10 to $25.” What other event can you attend where the customers are clamoring for an idea like that!?

Stay tuned for a review of Student Day at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival!

All the photos in this story are by January O’Neil.