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

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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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