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The Carrboro Poetry Festival 

Local and national poets convene in our own backyard

While it may be that the work of poetry is a lonely affair best pursued in the deep hours of night, the Carrboro Poetry Festival, happening on Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, provides an exciting and vibrant alternative that roots the experience of poetry in community. As Patrick Herron--festival organizer and Carrboro Poet Laureate--says, "The most amazing thing about last year was the palpable excitement from the audience, a huge room full of people hanging on every word--there are few places that could support this festival." Last year's audience, which swelled to standing-room-only crowds at times, was equally thrilled. Pittsboro resident Kathryn Salisbury says, "I'd never been to anything like it--the open atmosphere, the diverse crowd of poets and range of poems, some written like old ballads and others like horoscopes and movie reviews ... it was beautiful, and great for my 5-year-old step-daughter."

The success of last year's festival spurred the Carrboro Arts Committee to extend Herron's laureateship for an extra year so Herron could build upon the momentum generated last year. And with assistance from the Orange County Arts Commission and the Carrboro Parks and Recreation Association, Herron has built.

While last year brought together poets from North Carolina and across the United States, this year the festival boasts an international lineup. In addition to a large contingent of U.S. poets, poets will also be arriving from Canada and Mexico to participate.

Joining the festival from Canada is Christian Bök, a poet Herron is particularly excited to see: "Bök's writing is so unusual and interesting and his performance style so compelling." Bök is the author of the poetry collection Eunoia, winner of Canada's highest literary honor, the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. A conceptual artist, his projects, such as a book built out of Rubik's Cubes and Lego Bricks, have appeared in the exhibit Poetry Plastique in New York. Bök has also invented artificial languages for two popular television shows: Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley's Amazon.

Harryette Mullen joins the festival from Los Angeles. Her most recent collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize all in 2002. In 2005 she was awarded a fellowship from the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation to fund research for her next book.

Dan Duffy, a Durham resident and student of Vietnamese literature, is most looking forward to the return of Vietnam-born poet Linh Dinh. Says Duffy, "Dinh is one of the few bridges between American and Vietnamese poets." Dinh, the author of Blood and Soap, Fake House and All Around What Empties Out, has published several volumes of English translations of Vietnamese poets as well as Vietnamese translations of American poets. His own poems have been included in the Best of American Poetry 2000 and 2004.

Raised in Charlotte but living in New York, Lee Ann Brown is author of The Sleep that Changed Everything and Polyverse, winner of the New American Poetry Prize. Returning to the festival a second time, Brown says the festival "is important because it exists in the community instead of just in the universities ... One of the nicest moments was when the cashier at Weaver Street Market complimented my reading while I was checking out my groceries."

What brings so many talented poets to North Carolina? Ravi Shankar, a participant in last year's festival, sums it up, "I'd never seen so many poets reading to such full audiences, poets who wrote all sorts of different kinds of poetry yet creating a community from the experience." Carl Martin, a participant last year who returns this year, echoes Shankar, saying, "Poetry is the point, and the effort to have poetry be thoughtfully and democratically heard."

In addition to the supportive audience, the festival provides an opportunity for the visiting poets to connect with the vast range of talented writers in North Carolina, a community that has, according to local poet Todd Sandvik, benefited from the festival's success: "It created incredible momentum and sustained widespread community involvement in poetry; many local poets first connected during the festival." With that momentum, local writing groups--the Lucifer Poetics Group, the Black Sox Poets and the Friday Noon Poets--have seen increased activity. New poetry reading venues have sprung up, including durham3 and the Open Eye Café readings, which join the popular Stammer series in Raleigh. Durham's Carolina Wren Press has expanded, and the literary journal Backwards City Review was founded in Greensboro. In addition, the Carrboro Book Fair launched the first weekend of this May to enthusiastic crowds.

Local poets who contribute their energies to these ventures and who will be reading at the Carrboro Poetry Festival this year include Daniel J. Wideman, author of Three Rivers and editor of Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence; Andrea Selch, president of Carolina Wren Press and author of Succory and Startling; Joseph Donahue, author of Before Creation, World Well Broken and recently, Incidental Eclipse; Tanya Olson, one of the coordinators of durham3 and member of the Black Sox Poets group; Chris Vitiello, author of Nouns Swarm a Verb and member of the Lucifer Poetics Group; Evie Shockley, author of Gorgon Goddess; Joanna Catherine Scott, author of three novels and winner of the Black Zinnias Poetry Award for Breakfast at the Shangri-La; and Gerald Barrax, professor emeritus at N.C. State and author of five collections of poems.

"What people may not realize," says festival participant Tony Tost when asked about the level of local talent, "is that North Carolina has a long history as a home for innovative poetry: Black Mountain College and affiliated poets like Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and Charles Olson; the Jargon Society Press; the writing program at UNC-Greensboro and Randall Jarrell; and literary journals like the Carolina Quarterly and Greensboro Review." Tost, winner of the 2003 Walt Whitman Award for his book Invisible Bride, sees that tradition thriving with the help of events like the Carrboro Poetry Festival.

So what can people expect to see when they come to this year's festival? As Sandvik says, "Rarely is there an opportunity to see the most compelling art of the day in a welcoming and accessible environment." Herron suspects that one reaction might be something like "This is not my granddaddy's poetry" because, as Herron says, he picks poets that defy "the stereotype that poetry is boring, pretentious and irrelevant. People are wishy-washy about poetry because they're exposed to wishy-washy poetry. Give people something really damned good, and they'll recognize it. Poetry is relevant, entertaining, interesting and good if you present relevant, entertaining, interesting and good poetry."

Ultimately, that's the point of the Carrboro Poetry Festival: to present the best of contemporary poetry in the audience's own backyard.

The festival takes place at the Carrboro Century Center, 100 N. Greensboro St., on Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, and it's free. See www.carrboropoetryfestival.org for a reading schedule.

  • Local and national poets convene in our own backyard

More by Ken Rumble

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