Pop Up Poets bring the word to the streets

Poetry on a park bench? I once talked with three New York poets at once from my phone on Spring Street, and it seemed right, because that’s the way they perform their work. As National Poetry Month picks up momentum, here are the Pop Up Poets telling me how poems can be as everyday a bus ride or warm bread or a shoulder to cry on.

At the coin-op laundromat with the washboard in the window — at Carr Hardware, around the corner from the wing nuts — on a bench by the Intermodal Center — you’re on North Street running an errand, and a young man begins to speak.

He stands up from the planter of marigolds and says to the people walking by:

“This man you’ve only met tonight, / who is wearing fake glasses and a black tank top / in a dive bar in Manhattan, has made you laugh / eleven times already. …”

He goes on in a firm voice, and as he comes near the end, people have stopped to listen. And beside you a lithe woman you thought was on her way to get groceries begins:

“When I see a jar of tomato sauce, I smell Mummy’s garden / where we trapped / bees in our glass canisters with holes punched into the lids / so they wouldn’t / suffocate …”

People are listening. People are turning to each other and saying I know that feeling. They are listening to people talking honestly about times they have hurt or healed, loved or lost, in clear words. On the sidewalk, people listening may not know they’re listening to poetry. But they may be. And it may happen anywhere.

Jonathan Sands and Samantha Thornhill, the poets above, are two of the co-curators in the Pop Up Poets (Poetry in Unexpected Places) in New York City, and they and their fellow poet and co-curator Adam Falkner have come to Pittsfield as featured poets in the annual WordXWord festival. (WordxWord is celebrating National Poetry Month now with its annual 30/30 poetry challenge and the Outspoken youth poetry festival later this month.)

The Pop Up Poets want to show people what poetry can be. They bring poetry out of the places where it usually lives: in books, in academies, in performances. They perform live in pizza parlors, on trains, at needle exchanges.

“Something I’m always excited by, that never gets old, is the way it changes people’s definition” of what poetry is, Falkner said. “People say ‘what was that?'”

The words move them, he said, and they didn’t know poetry could be like that.

With WordxWord they have brought unexpected words to Pittsfield, along with poets Ronnie Q. Telfer, Omar Holmon and longtime WordXWord mainstay Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.

She gives the festival’s founder, Jim Benson, great credit for developing this writing community in Pittsfield and getting local writers and readers and listeners together.

“Jim is smart in understanding what this community needs and wants — and going past that,” Aptowicz said. “In the first year, WordXWord had theater, music and poetry, and he found that the poetry really drew people.”

Since 2009, WordXWord has brought together nationally recognized poets familiar with each other’s work who loved hanging out together, and now a growing group of local writers who also know these poets, and know each other’s work — and local people who love words and find the performances powerful. In recent years, Bill Yehle and Melissa Quirk have brought local poets into schools and strengthened a growing network of poets and mentors, slam competitions and workshops across the county.

“You can tell a good reading series,” Aptowicz said, “when you have regular audience members who don’t perform.”

A longtime leader in slam poetry community in New York, she has listened to people of all ages and backgrounds share their memories. “I love hearing people tell heir own stories in their own voices,” she said.

In the city and in the story slam prelims in Pittsfield, she respects people who feel comfortable standing up and talking without a script, being who they want to be.

The Pop Up Poets also have roots in the slam community, though Falkner and Thornhill have found the form of Pop Up Poetry freeing in its own way, because it is not a contest.

“None of us want to be one-dimensionally seen as slam poets, because we’re not,” Thornhill said.

Performing at slam competitions gave her courage and honed her craft, she said. She felt drawn to Louder Arts Project, the writing group where she met her fellow Pop Up poets, because they cared about the craft, about shaping the words, and about working together.

“We’re a team,” she said, “but no one’s competing.”

When the Pop Up poets perform, they take a risk, Falkner said. They make themselves uncomfortable, and when they do, they make the people around them comfortable. People reach out.

“It’s not just a spectacle; it’s a response,” he said.

“They’re looking at each other,” Thornhill said. “Everybody’s here and experiencing something.”

People will stand up and join in, people the poets have not expected. They may speak a poem they wrote a long time ago. They may recognize an experience they heard in a poem and give one of their own. One man once said “I don’t know what to say — I just want to say something.”

Imagine him saying it in a husky, shaken voice when Falkner has quietly spoken his “Poem for the Lovers at Pickerel Lake.” On the grass at the edge of Pontoosuc, maybe, imagine Foster standing barefoot on the beach and saying his own words to the families on the sand.

I offer a few quiet words under my breath. / Wish them courage in their discovery of the inevitable: / nothing stays weightless forever.

He is talking about strength as well as pain. The two young people he sees in the poem, kissing in the middle of the lake, are sinking under the water. But they are also holding each other up.


This post is adapted from a story that first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in August 2013, in my time as Berkshires Week editor, as WordxWord celebrated its fifth year. My thanks to Features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh and A&E editor Jeffrey Borak.

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