Rich mixture at Poetry FestDates corrected
Belfast — The Belfast Poetry Festival turns 12 this year, a fact that frankly amazes former Belfast Poet Laureate Jacob Fricke, a member of the steering committee since 2009.
“It flies by! I am immensely grateful the event has taken root the way it has,” he said, referring to the inaugural fest in 2002 as “the seeding.”
As is appropriate for an autumn event, those seeds led to harvest — and not just of words. Belfast Poetry Festival also incorporates the visual, performing and cinematic arts, as well as workshops and networking. One of the nation’s few non-academic literary festivals, it offers an annual weekend that attracts poetry makers and poetry appreciators alike … and others, as well.
“There aren’t that many places in the state where you can see collaborative work between poets and performing and visual artists, let alone places where you can see it presented live,” said Fricke, who summed up the BPF as a variety show, film festival, poetry reading and art show, all rolled into one.
The fest rolls into the city Friday evening, Oct. 14, although the Kramer Gallery of Belfast Free Library, 106 High St., already has its related exhibition up for the month. This year’s opening night has moved from the library to the Fallout Shelter at Waterfall Arts, 256 High St.
“The Fallout Shelter is a little ‘showier’ than in the Abbott Room,” said Fricke, who added that the committee likes to switch things around to keep it fresh.
Also switched out this year is the fest-capping Poetry, Performance and Visual Arts Multimedia Show Saturday evening, Oct. 15; it will take place at the American Legion Post No. 43, 143 Church St. The move is somewhat of necessity, to have enough room for the popular showcase’s audience.
“The Legion hall has more than enough seating, and staging room and theater setup; and the stage is a little more accommodating,” Fricke said.
In between, there will be a pre-registered master class Saturday morning in the library’s Abbott Room; a lunchtime Shop Talk at the Bagel Café, 159 High St.; and a Saturday afternoon panel discussion in the library’s second-floor Gammans Room. All events are free, with the exception of the master class, a first for the fest.
“Generally speaking, our response to workshops in the past few years has been that people wanted them to be longer and have more individual attention and more opportunity to really dig in and engage,” Fricke said. “So the scale and the nature of the master class should address that.”
He added that, in his opinion, one of the big strengths of the festival is that it represents such a bold range of styles, range of techniques, “and that’s both artistically and as far as the poetry goes.”
While the poets and artists are of the moment, this year’s festival will begin with a look back. Doors at Waterfall Arts will open 6 p.m. Friday for a welcome reception, followed at 7 p.m. by With Loaded Arms: Readings In Memoriam of Six Maine Poets, a presentation produced by Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance for the Belfast Poetry Festival. The reading will feature works by Kate Barnes, Henry Braun, Theodore Enslin, Kenneth Frost, Russell Libby and Michael Macklin, revered Maine poets who have died recently.
“Those six: the beloved greats! And all in the past five years,” said Fricke.
The reading will be hosted by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, MWPA board president and Portland poet laureate. Readers include Fay-LeBlanc, Michael Alpert, Carolyn Gelland, Gary Lawless, Lee Sharkey and the Midcoast’s Elizabeth Tibbetts.
The seed for With Loaded Arms was planted in 2014, when Braun — poet, teacher and anti-war activist — died a week before the Belfast festival “and it was mandatory, obligatory — how could we not pay tribute? Even just a small, direct mention. So we did,” said Fricke.
The Belfast tribute was noted by MWPA Executive Director Joshua Bodwell, who inquired if the festival would be interested in a formal memorial reading. Belfast Poetry Festival brings poets and lovers of poetry together from all over the state, Fricke said, so it seemed a natural idea, “to be able to both honor the departing greats of the poetry scene and also to keep their work in the conversation.”
When planning for this year began, the fest contacted Bodwell to see if he was interested in pulling such an offering together. He was.
“This is going to be a fantastic reading,” said Fricke. “I am so entirely looking forward to this, it’s going to be really powerful.”
At 8 p.m. Friday, the fest will have its traditional reading and remarks by the judge of the annual Maine Postmark Poetry Contest, followed by the winners and finalists reading their poems. This year’s judge is award-winning poet and nonfiction author Connie Voisine. The Fort Kent native lives and teaches in New Mexico; four years ago, she was a Fulbright Fellow in the other Belfast — Northern Ireland.
“With the exception of Gary (Lawless), we’ve always had an out-of-state judge for the poetry contest so there’s enough of a remove that contestants can feel that their entries are being judged impartially, blindly,” said Fricke. “It seems like the right way to do things.”
While the committee’s network of national contacts is understandably smaller than of Maine, Belfast Poetry Festival has been able to pull in some heavy hitters over its dozen years.
“Ellen Sander pulling in Laurel Ann Bogan in 2013, that was a great. Joel Lipman has had some great national connections and Arielle [Greenberg] — she wrote the book on great national poetry connections! We have no shortage of options,” said Fricke.
Sander, Greenberg and Fricke are on the festival’s steering committee, as is Belfast Free Library’s Brenda Harrington, Belfast Poet Laureate Toussaint St. Negritude (who is not hosting this year) and Leah Kuehn of Portland, new to the fest and a whiz at graphic design and general organization, according to Fricke, as well as having “some great poetry and art contacts and some great ideas.”
Kuehn works at the Maine Humanities Council, whose grant funded last year’s panel discussion. The event is back, but this year is supporter-funded.
“We didn’t hunt for grants this year, easier on our sanity, but we remain hugely grateful for all the support we get from Off the Coast, help with the contest and everything Valerie and Michael do,” said Fricke, lauding the quarterly poetry journal’s editors, Valerie Lawson and Michael Brown.
Lawson is among the panelists this year; the event, set for 2 p.m. Saturday, proved very popular in last year’s debut.
“We had a great turnout, better than I expected, and people really got invested in the conversation,” said Fricke. “It was lively, and people weighed in strongly about things they cared about.”
This year’s panel and open discussion is titled Bright Stars!: A Panel on Extraordinary Contemporary Poets, exploring what Fricke calls contemporary poetics “and possible directions for near-future poetics.” In addition to Lawson, participants include Greenberg, columnist and critic for American Poetry Review; Shana Youngdahl, poet, professor and co-director of the Longfellow Writers Center; and John Rosenwald, “sort of a legendary publisher and editor” at Beloit Poetry Journal.
A more casual themed discussion is set for high noon at the Bagel Café, facilitated by poet Bruce Pratt. Said theme is purposely loose, as Shop Talk could range from writing technique to publicity to publishing. The offering is inspired by the kind of interstitial networking that has occurred over the years during poetry festival weekend. Fricke said that some of the most welcomed developments, intentional or unintentional, happened when different poets from different parts of the state working in different styles connected. In 2012, for example, “the most honored, established figures of Maine poetry — Lee Sharkey, for example — really got together and clicked with the youth poetry slam collective.”
The 2016 festival is less slam-oriented than in recent years, in part because previous Portland connections have moved on to other projects, but also by intent. Fricke said the steering committee likes to keep things fresh by keeping both participants and approaches in rotation. And there is plenty to rotate.
“It’s a rarity to have such a wide cross-section of Maine poetry all together in the same place,” said Fricke.
Pair that rarity with visual and performing art and the result is, well, a real happening come Saturday evening — a one-night-only showcase of live collaborations that will begin with a food and drink reception at 4 p.m., followed by 11 teamed presentations beginning at 5 p.m. There has always been poetry paired with art projections in the showcase, and there are some powerful entries along those lines. But there also will be dance, film and a fair amount of overall improv this year.
“There are some exciting dance collaborations this year, Kea [Tesseyman] with Wesley Sidon of Seal Harbor, and we’ve got Katherine Ferrier,” said Fricke. “Kea, of course, is just flat-out amazing, and Katherine Ferrier and dancer Pamela Vail will be doing something very interesting.”
Ferrier, a dancer herself, and Vail’s presentation will be totally improvisation-based, both in the text and the dance, said Fricke.
“They’ve got great sense and intuition, and they very much tailor their performance for the actual context of the event itself,” he said.
Another improvisation will be offered by poet Wren Pearson and musician Jamie Pearson, who have a music-and-art venue in Pownal called Fuego Diablo.
“They’re doing a fascinating collaboration that consists of a recording of Wren’s voice reading some text, which will then be cut up into audio samples and, on-site, remixed as a musical composition, using segments of the words as pitches,” said Fricke. “I’m really, really looking forward to that!”
The aforementioned Sharkey is back this year, teamed with visual artist George Mason, who capped a year as the Georges River Land Trust Artist in Residence in May.
“George is actually going to do a live, physical art installation while Lee is reading,” said Fricke, calling Mason’s work “bright, bold color and texture-based, material-based stuff.”
Also in the works are poet, editor and photographer Ann Arbor’s documentary photographs from her time in China “with poetic, pithy captions by John [Rosenwald].” Youngdahl is paired with meg willing, who will bring both her collage-based artwork and erasure poetry to the fest.
“She does a lot of very interesting work in a lot of styles,” said Fricke. “She’ll be taking Shana’s text and transforming it into secondary or additional text through erasure, while the readings are happening.”
Sally Jaskold, also first-place winner of the Maine Postmark Poetry Contest, is working with Rockland artist Elaine Ng. The showcase is rounded out by Michelle Lewis and Spruce Head’s Ariel Hall; Penny Guisinger and Heather Lyon; Elizabeth Kirshner and Rockland’s Jacinda Martinez; and Frank Giampietro and Belfast’s Jaap Helder.
“Some of the poets will be doing things that are sort of documentary and realist; some of the things will be actually quite abstract; and some things will just be sort of delightfully and playfully odd,” said Fricke. “There’s a lot going on; we pack a lot of rich material into a single evening.”
The Belfast Poetry Festival is produced with support from Off the Coast, the city of Belfast, Belfast Free Library, the Belfast Co-op, Front Street Shipyard, the Belfast Downtown Merchants Association and the office of the Belfast Poet Laureate. For more details about this year’s festival, see the preview linked below or visit belfastpoetry.com.