A Celebration of Words in Greenfield

GawfGreenfield is a quaint town in northwestern Massachusetts that, in recent years, has undergone something of a cultural revitalization.  This is due, in part, to the Greenfield Annual Word Festival (lovingly known as GAWF to those in the know) and the hard work of Paul Richmond, the festival’s founder and champion, to keep GAWF running these past four years.

The idea for the festival came about in a very different climate from the one Massachusetts residents know.  Richmond attended the Austin International Poetry festival in Texas four years ago and was struck by the sense of inclusion he found there.  A range of poets, from first-timers to festival and performance veterans, were welcome to open mics and readings over the course of the four-day celebration of words.  The AIP gave artists the chance to throw themselves into the world of poetry and get noticed by their peers.

When Richmond returned to Greenfield—where he had lived for many years before moving to his current residence in Wendell—he approached the Chamber of Commerce about arranging a poetry festival with multiple venues for readings and performances.  Richmond has done monthly readings in the areas for years and had tried to get more going in the past, without much success.  Local readings and festivals created buzz in the local art community for a select number of area “people’s poets,” but there wasn’t enough opportunity for those talented individuals to hear feedback and works from those outside their small community.

The Greenfield Chamber of Commerce was open to the idea of a festival, especially if Richmond agreed to hold his poetry festival around the same time as the popular Brick and Mortar video festival.  With this in mind, Richmond arranged for six venues and the attendance of about sixty writers over the course of one day that first year to coincide with Brick and Mortar.  The Poetry and Spoken Word festival, later the beloved GAWF, was born.

The following year, GAWF got the help of the Literacy Project, naming the worthy organization a beneficiary.  In exchange, volunteers from the Literacy Project helped Richmond monitor venues with more first-time readers and more well-known poets.  When Richmond brought up the idea of expanding the festival to a weekend-long event, the Literacy Project, unfortunately, did not have the ability to help him as much as they would have wished to help.

But, for year three, Richmond returned to the roots of the festival—one man’s dream, drive, and determination—and moved forward with adding a second day of events.  He believed he had the skills to make it happen; it was just a matter of getting to work and ignoring the doubt of others.  For, as he said, if he had asked anyone if his festival could take over an entire weekend and would now span the course of four days, “They would’ve said it wouldn’t happen.”

In 2013, it has happened.  The Greenfield Annual Word Festival will take place this month, October 17 through October 20, and features three days of readings at seven to eight different venues each day and an entire day dedicated to a book fair, where authors can sell their books.  As always, the festival is free to enter and enjoy, though volunteers will ask for small donations after afternoon readings and anything from $3 to $15 after the big nightly reading events.  Spreading the word about the festival has, according to Richmond, inspired Massachusetts poets to represent towns from across the Commonwealth, as well as drawing poets from Boston, New York, and as far away as Wisconsin.  These artists arrive to share their stories, their poems, and their styles, and to soak up what their friends and peers have to share in return.

GAWF has helped revitalize Greenfield by bringing in tourists to frequent the local restaurants and shops, but it sounds like the festival has revitalized Richmond, as well.  He recounts the many times poets have left the stage and told him, sincerely, “You don’t know how much I needed that.”  The festival’s mission is to create venues where writers have the chance to present their work to an audience, as well as to blur the lines between who’s doing what.  Inspiration comes from a quiet lover of sonnets watching a slam poet deliver a raw performance, or from a longtime writer applauding and encouraging a new reader, and that is the magic behind the Greenfield Annual Word Festival’s name.  It’s a celebration of all words, meant to reach all those who read, write, and speak, who communicate and reach their fellow humans through the power of words.

Despite the positivity surrounding the festival, Richmond does face difficulties as GAWF grows.  The festival has received grants in the past, but it is a free event and it’s just $10 to get a table at this year’s book fair.  Better-known poets may sometimes ask for compensation, but the most Richmond has been able to offer to some of those traveling from Boston or New York City is gas money.  Otherwise, travelers must pay their own way.  But, on a positive note, Richmond reports that, often, if he can convince a writer to attend, that writer will often make the effort to return the following year.

Richmond only hopes to expand GAWF’s reach by bringing in more poets, more curious travelers, and more booksellers.  He jokes about the festival turning into a “McDonalds,” a mega force to be reckoned with.  But the end game is truly to entice more people to attend the festival and to be able to compensate those who help organize and carry out day-to-day operations, as well as the poets who read.  The draws of GAWF are the intimate readings given by a variety of poets, all of whom seem to appreciate the true respect and attention they receive from their audiences.  As long as that spirit of inspiration and inclusion continues, a spirit Richmond felt years ago at the Austin International Poetry festival, it seems that the Greenfield Annual Word Festival will continue to be a success.