Millay Arts & Poetry Festival

A capital undertaking

By Dagney C. Ernest | Sep 06, 2017
Source: Library of Congress United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith headlines the premiere Millay Poetry & Arts Festival in Rockland.

Rockland — The Millay Arts & Poetry Festival runs Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 7 to 9, at venues around downtown Rockland, the city in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet was born 125 years ago.

The first-ever fest is presented by Millay House Rockland, the literary nonprofit sparked by the rescue and restoration of the house on Broadway where Edna St. Vincent Millay was born. The family also lived in Union and, famously, Camden, where a young Vincent, as she was called by family and friends (pointedly not, however, by her Camden grade school principal), read her Mount Battie-inspired “Renascence” and was soon on her way to the wider world.

The festival offers a daily bookshop in the lobby of the Strand Theatre, which also will host the featured events. Those begin Thursday night with an 8 p.m. performance by The Edna Project, Liz Queler and Seth Farber’s eclectic collection of songs setting Millay’s poetry to music that spans folk, bluegrass, rock and jazz; continuing Friday with the world premiere of “Vincent,” a play with music written by festival producer Alva Hascall, at 8 p.m., preceded by a gala reception in the main gallery of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

Saturday’s featured events are many, beginning with a talk on Millay and readings of his own work by Maine’s Richard Blanco, the 2013 Inaugural Poet, at 10 a.m. At 12:30 p.m., the festival’s keynote address will be delivered by Nancy Milford, whose best-selling 2001 biography “Savage Beauty” has served as the gateway drug for many a 21st-century Millay addict.

Milford’s address will be followed by a remarkable gathering of Millay biographers and scholars on the Strand stage, moderated by Maine poet, critic and writer Carl Little. In addition to Milford, the Biographers’ Roundtable will include Daniel Mark Epstein, author of “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” (2002); Jerri Dell, author of “Blood Too Bright - Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay” (2017); Krystyna Poray Goddu, author of “A Girl Called Vincent” (2016); and Holly Peppe, scholar, editor and Millay’s literary executor.

“Holly has worked with all of those people as they wrote their biographies,” said Millay House Rockland board member Lisa Westkaemper, who is married to Hascall. “She was involved in all of their research, and in some cases she did prefaces and et cetera, so she knows all of them extremely well.”

She added that she believes the Millay Arts & Poetry Festival is the first time this group has “ever been together in the same space at the same time, so that’ll be interesting!”

“The books are all very different, highlight different things, have different takes. They’re all very excited about coming. Carl’s just going to guide them and keep them on track and make sure they all have an equal voice and all that sort of thing,” Westkaemper said.

Of course, there are many older biographies and scholarship of Millay as well, going back to her Pulitzer Prize fame days of the 1920s and ‘30s. She is a poet whose work and life continue to fascinate and inspire. The festival’s final event is another Pulitzer Prize-winner and the current U.S Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, speaking about poetry’s power to make healing sense of the world and reading from her work Saturday at 8 p.m.

Flowing around the featured events are three days of poetry-centric readings, workshops, Biographer’s Talkbacks and open mics. The latter take place at Rock City Café, which also will host the latest generation of Midcoast poets in a 5 p.m. Saturday presentation dubbed The Fearless Ones, Stories of the Up and Coming. Curated by Camden Hills grad Lily Bonarrigo — who, with current Rockland Poet Laureate Joanna Hynd, introduced regular poetry slams at Rock City this winter, The Fearless Ones jam will have a second act following the “Vincent” performance.

“Lily will read, too, she’s fabulous, and Randy [Mercer], who works at Rock City, is a spoken word artist, also fabulous,” said Hascall.

Mostly local poets are featured in half-hour Figures of Speech readings throughout the festival in the library of the Farnsworth Art Museum. The Figures of Speech poets are Linda Buckmaster, Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum and Kristin Lindquist Thursday; Mihku Paul and David Paffhausen Friday; and Karin Spitfire, Steve Luttrell, Dave Morrison and Elizabeth Garber Saturday.

Millay was a playwright, librettist, prose writer, actor and musician in addition to poet, and music is woven throughout the festival. On Friday, there is a noontime concert on the sculpture garden roof of Harbor Square Gallery; and at 1:30 p.m., The Edna Project’s Liz Queler and Seth Farber will lead a Words to Music and Music to Words Roundtable in the Farnsworth’s auditorium.

Workshops will include a Thursday information session for teaching artists interested in working with The Telling Room; and a Digging for Poetry session. The Telling Room of Portland, an acclaimed nonprofit writing center focused on young storytellers age 6 to 18, has long wanted a Midcoast satellite and will have one, thanks to Millay House Rockland.

“We wanted to have our major partners be part of the festival,” said Westkaemper. “They’ve got three fairly young teaching artists, one is a spoken word artist and another is an LGBT specialist writer, and they will do a reading immediately after the workshop.”

Other workshops include a Saturday session on The Purpose of Poetry by Steve Luttrell, founder and publishing editor of The Café Review. Also in the auditorium, at 3 p.m. Friday, will be a Mainly Maine Poets reading by Penobscot tribal member Carol Dana, Becca Glaser, Kendall Merriam (the city’s first poet laureate), Hynd and Rebecca Irene Bondellio.

The Millay Arts & Poetry Festival is built somewhat on the Camden International Film Festival model in regard to scheduling and admission passes. The pass and individual event ticket prices reflect the cost of mounting the fest and are suggested for those who can afford them, but the festival is officially Pay What You Can. Passes, event tickets and the updated schedule can be found online. Some events are free, including the open mics and something that promises to be one of the fest’s more unusual presentations. After Friday’s play premiere, sight and sound artist Nate Davis of The Steel House will host Appearing as Words, a created digital poetry event at the Strand that will involve attendees’ smartphones. Davis promises “a social, spatial polyphony that dissolves distinctions between audience and performer.”

In addition to the full slate of festival events, there is a separate fundraiser Poetry Concert 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Harbor Square Gallery featuring professional actor Sarah MacDonnell and the DaPonte String Quartet, both also featured in “Vincent”; Millay-inspired artworks; and an In Good Company-catered rooftop reception. Tickets for the stand-alone fundraiser are $125, with proceeds benefiting Millay House Rockland.

And what of the house itself? It has come a long way from the crumbling structure of a few years ago. On the outside, the refurbished structure is just about done; the so-called double house has two side porches again and new steps were being added in the weeks before the fest. Inside, the house is down to studs in some places, where the original plaster was too far gone, and cleared of post-Millay fixtures, cabinetry and too-vintage wiring.

“You can see the original red brick chimneys,” said Hascall; he and Westkaemper live a couple of doors down.

“Construction projects always take longer than you think, but we do hope to have some kind of presence for The Telling Room in the fall,” said Westkaemper.

For information about the house and related nonprofit; and details and tickets for the three-day festival, visit Media sponsor for the Millay Arts & Poetry Festival is VillageSoup/The Courier-Gazette.

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