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September 30, 2008

Talking with the founder of the first-ever Massachusetts Poetry Festival

Organizer and businessman Michael Ansara had been clandestinely writing poetry for years when his friend (and former congressman, but not the guitar player) Chet Atkins encouraged him to start the Massachusetts Poetry Outrach Project, aimed at bringing poetry back into the mainstream (or at least out of the back of the bookstore). It wasn't long before a series of MassPOP roundtables, funded with a seed grant from the state's Foundation for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, birthed the idea of a statewide poetry festival, which will become a reality over Columbus Day weekend. 

The first-ever festival will take place in Lowell from October 10-12, and will feature readings, workshops, performances, and more. I reached Ansara last week via email; here's an edited version of our interview. 

PHX: What of the three-day festival are you most excited for?

MA: Frankly just that we are having it at all. There has been nothing like this – there have been bits and pieces here and there – but nothing that attempts to spotlight the deep talent of the poets in this Commonwealth; nothing that can grow and bring together not only much of the disparate poetry community from across the state but also, slowly and over time, bring families and younger people and older people and various communities together to celebrate and experience poetry. This year we have no idea how many people will attend this very first ever festival – 500? 1000? 1,500? We really do not know. But we are committed over the coming years to building this into an event that will draw first 2,500 people and then 5,000 and someday 10,000. The fact that we have made this first event happen – that we have launched this brand new Massachusetts Poetry Festival and gotten the participation of so many poets and poetry groups and raised $50,000 from so many donors and sponsors – well I think we are launched and that excites me no end.


The other thing that excites me is how much program content we have for so many different people – we have program for teachers, for high school students, for younger kids ( including a poetry detectives program) , for people who want to learn to write poems for the first time and for those who have been writing for years. We have poetry with music. We have a panel on spiritualism and poetry and poets who want to deal with the facts of our time. We have movies. We have performance and slam poetry. Readings in restaurants. We have [Phoenix writer] Lloyd Schwartz on [Elizabeth] Bishop. And we have XJ Kennedy and a group of poets reading humorous poetry. We have amazing headline readings with poets who all in their different ways will shake your spirit [including Nick Flynn, Robert Pinsky, and Marjorie Agosin]. We really have something for almost everyone.


PHX: Why was Lowell chosen as the location for the festival?

MA: We chose Lowell for two reasons. One is that we didn’t want the Festival to be in Cambridge or Back Bay, or even Somerville . No knock on any of those communities each of which I frequent often. But we wanted some place that was unexpected. Secondly and much more importantly, Lowell has an amazing, deep and collaborative set of institutions and organizations and people that really take seriously the notion of the “creative economy.” When you look at the Lowell Folk Festival, the Kerouac celebration, the Cambodian Opera, and the many other events and ongoing efforts, Lowell is right at the top of a place that is using the creative economy to drive real development. I think some places and Western Mass. and Lowell have taken the concept the furthest.


PHX: You’ve been writing poetry for 4 ½ years – what’s that creative process like?

The creative process is primarily – as you undoubtedly know—hard work. The challenge for me was to write many poems and then rewrite them. Not once, not 10 times but literally 40 to 50 times. Also as I am older – I will be 62 this January I found a real change in my learning process. In many ways I find it harder to learn the intricacies of craft than I think I would have in my 20’s. On the other hand I bring all the experience and confusions of my almost 62 years of living into what I write about. But I feel as if I am very much a young – no really an infant – poet. I am learning every day and have so much more to learn. I am really not ready to call myself a poet yet nor to have most of my work published – the work is simply not good enough yet. I do some reading a couple of time a year because I find that I learn a lot doing them.


I do believe that the creative process is in large measure both that hard work I mentioned above and then some element of ,mystery and spiritual experience. I do not know where many of my ideas for poems come from – and when I am revising them, often the fact that I am focused on words, sounds, beat, etc  somehow allows me to lose myself and suddenly find words and images that I don’t really know where they came from – and then it’s time to revise, revise and revise.


PHX: How is poetry relevant in today’s society?

MA: Most people do not think it is relevant. Most remember having to memorize Evangeline or some other too long poem in the 7th grade. And now think of poetry as not only separate from their lives but also the property of abstruse people whose lines are impossible for most of us to understand. So poetry seems distant and no longer accessible. And so many Americans don’t even think about poetry. That is until there are moments of exquisite joy or deep sadness or great trials.


Google "poetry and funerals" – over 7,000,000 links come up. Google "poetry and weddings" – over 4,000,000 links come up. Why ? Because poetry remains our deepest song. It is the sound and imagery and lyrics of our souls. It teaches us to look at the smallest moment and the details of life and learn from them. It can inspire us when we are heavy with grief. It gives voice to all the most important parts of being human – and it helps us struggle with the mysteries and with the awful facts of being human in this awe-inspiring chaos of the universe. Is it chance that most religious texts incorporate poetry?


Of course it is true that much of modern poetry is not accessible. There are poets who disdain being part of the popular culture. There are many poems you would not want students to spend their time studying. But there are so many contemporary poets along with the great poets of the past who can still sing to us, who can still help us make sense of the paradoxes of living, who can inspire, comfort and stretch us. That is why when we bury our loved ones we want poetry. Now we have to bring the great poets and the great poetry of our day out into the light and bring it to people rather than asking them to find it in some cramped back room of a bookstore. Hopefully, the Festival will be a small first step toward that.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with 2 comment(s)
September 26, 2008

Abortion and Life

In this week's Portland Phoenix, I write about Abortion and Life, a new book by feminist author Jennifer Baumgardner. In the book, Baumgardner suggests that by ignoring or simplifying the emotional nuance of a decision to terminiate a pregnancy, we do a disservice, both the women who make that choice, as well as to the movement that protects our right to do so.

In her book, Baumgardner writes about Exhale, an after-abortion counseling service whose founders are "part of a growing group of primarily young abortion supporters who believe that the way we practice and talk about unplanned preganancy and termination has to eveolve, or we risk alienating more women, including those who've had abortion experiences."

Now, in collaboration with the RH Reality Check Web site, Exhale is lauching Pro-Voice in '08, a video campaign that asks women to post a one sentence response to the question: What should the next president say to convey his support and his respect for your personal experience with abortion?

(The RH Reality Check Web site appears to be experiencing technical difficulties right now, so sorry for the lack of link.)

Here's Exhale co-founder Aspen Baker's You Tube call to action:



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by Deirdre Fulton | with 1 comment(s)
September 25, 2008

Peace-promoting literature

Two days after Jon Papernick told me that "I'm not certain that  literature plays any role in the evolution or resolution of international conflicts" (a statement with which I largely agree, though I also concur with his assessment that "literature can hold a mirror up to the world and reflect it back in a more human and less biased way than one might see pictured in the media"), I get an email about the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, which will be bestowed this Sunday in Dayton, Ohio. 

"Celebrating the power of literature to promote peace and non-violent conflict resolution," the prize has been in existence since 2006 and is an outgrowth of the Dayton Peace Prize, created to honor the peace accords that ended the Bosnian war. This year, Junot Diaz will get the fiction award for The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and Edwidge Danticat will get the non-fiction prize for Brother, I'm Dying. Taylor Branch, who wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in the trilogy America in the King Years, will get a Lifetime Achievement Award. 

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
September 23, 2008

Another Get Lit author

Here are some excerpts from an email conversation with Tova Mirvis, who lives in Newton Centre and is the author of two novels about Orthodox Jewish society. She's also appearing at the Get Lit 2008 event. 
On Thursday, she'll discuss the "liberating" effect of reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in high school -- here's a preview:
"But for me, reading it as a student in a tiny Orthodox Jewish school in Memphis, steeped in religious rules and texts, the book had a huge impact on me. 

 Somewhere during one of those high school years, I read The Scarlet Letter. Here was blustery New England; here were other people’s rules which were so strict that they made my own seem giddily free-spirited. The distance from that world to mine: here was escape. Suddenly I could be here and yet not here. It didn’t matter, at least not quite as much, that I was in a school of eighteen girls, six in my class, most of whom I’d known since nursery school; it didn’t matter as much that I was already feeling an exhilarating, terrifying restlessness that I tried to hide as best I could. But I have to think that I loved this book not just for its distance  to my world but also for its proximity. Hester Prynne, I felt like I knew her. Here, finally, was the experience of someone living inside such strict laws, bound by them, marked by them, yet oddly sustained by them. Nothing was stripped away, nothing made nice for the sake of restoring the semblance of piety. Here was sin, but also belief, doubt, compassion and vengeance."

I also asked her what she thinks authors get right (or wrong) in their characterizations of Jewish women.
"I think that authors get it right when they stop thinking about the fact that they are writing about Jewish women, (or any member of an ethnic group,) and think about the individual. The pitfalls in writing about a member of an ethnic group are to exoticize, to see them as other, to focus solely on membership to the group, rather than the individual who lives inside that group. Underneath any semblance of sameness, inside tights systems of shared beliefs and lifestyle, there are individuals lurking, with the usual mix of doubt, fear, passion, ambivalence and contradiction. Sometimes people who’ve read my work will say, “are you saying that all Jewish women do this?” And I just laugh. Of course not. There’s never an “All Jewish women,” just as there is never an “all women.” What I love about writing fiction is that my job isn’t to write about what everyone does. It’s to hew one character from the larger mass and to make them as specific and as real and as alive as I can."
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by Deirdre Fulton | with 1 comment(s)
September 23, 2008

Get Lit 2008

This Thursday, in Newton Centre, the Jewish books Web site JBooks will team up with JVibe, a magazine for Jewish teens, to present Get Lit 2008, a literary event in Newton Centre. The event, which will take place at the Union Street Restaurant and bar, will feature conversations with several Massachusetts-based authors, including Jon Papernick, the current writer-in-residence at Emerson College.  

I reached Papernick, author of the novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood, by email yesterday, and asked him a couple of questions. 

PHX: Obviously the ethnic and political conflicts in the Middle East and in the United States heavily inform your work. What role do you think art – specifically, literature – plays or can play in the evolution (or resolution) of international conflicts?

JP: I'm not certain that  literature plays any role in the evolution or resolution of international conflicts. It's hard to imagine that those holding the reins of power have any idea that most of us writers exist, and they certainly don't have the time to read our works. I think it's a little vain to think that a book can change the world, particularly considering that readership in North America is in the midst of a slow and steady decline.

On the other hand, I think that literature can hold a mirror up to the world and reflect it back in a more human and less biased way than one might see pictured in the media. In that sense, I think that literature represents a truer history of the world we live in than many of the media accounts.

PHX: Are you looking forward to critiquing your published work in front of an audience? What are you most nervous about? What do you think the audience can learn from that experience?

JP: Actually, I am not going to be critiquing a published work in front of an audience on Thursday, but something I self published when I was 19 years old, and that is truly more terrifying than sharing anything that was ever published legitimately.

I'm really most nervous about showing how terrible a writer I actually was at the age of 19. In fact, many of my students Emerson college are significantly better writers than I was at that age, and that is what I think people can learn from this: Stick with it and hone your craft and don't give up, and one day, your work may be published.


Coming up -- a similar short Q&A with another author who'll appear at Union Street: Tova Mirvis.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
September 08, 2008

Yes, please

Via the NYer's Book Bench blog

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
September 03, 2008

On Tap

No pun intended! In advance of her appearance in Portland later this month, I purchased Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania today (it also has a Maine connection). I hope Lisa Margonelli's description of it as "undoctrinaire" is accurate.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
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