Attending local literary events has become one of my favorite ways of pursuing and nurturing my writing passion. I’ve gone to the Boston Book Festival every year since its inception in 2009, and also to the AWP Conference in Boston this past March. These have all been immensely enjoyable learning experiences that convince me to return the following year. So, for this reason, I finally made plans to go to the 2013 Massachusetts Poetry Festival. This year’s edition was held in Salem, Massachusetts from Friday, May 3 through Sunday, May 5. I was only able to go on Saturday, but what a nourishing – and gorgeous! – day it turned out to be.
After an easy drive to downtown Salem (I live about 1 hour south of Salem, but the directions weren’t complicated), my friend and I picked up our festival buttons, programs, and maps at the Museum Place Mall. Then we walked around for a bit to get our bearings. All of the festival venues were within walking distance of the mall, which is located in Derby Square (along Essex, Derby, and Washington Streets). So we were able to go from one event to the next without running late or getting lost.
Our first event that day was Make Your Own Magnetic Poetry at the Peabody Essex Museum. We picked through a platter of words cut out from magazines, glued our selected words to magnetic strips, then cut them out and let them dry. And the best part: We could take the magnets home with us! What made this activity even more fun was that these single words already started sparking ideas for future poems. I’ve bought a small magnetic whiteboard since the festival, and I’m really looking forward to moving the magnet words around and seeing what inspires me.
Our next event was Soul-Lit: A Panel of Spiritual Poetry. Several published poets read original works that they consider to be spiritual in nature. And by “spiritual,” I don’t necessarily mean “religious.” Topics discussed in the poems varied, from family traditions and favorite places of escape to personal tragedies and social observations. The common denominators in all of the poems, however, were a deep sense of self-awareness and a focus on emotional impact rather than smart wordplay. The event also celebrated the upcoming third edition of Soul-Lit, a literary journal of (what else?) spiritual poetry edited by panelists Deborah Leipzieger and Daniel Berard. Not only did I enjoy the readings, but I also identified with Soul-Lit’s mission – so much that I told Leipzieger after the panel ended that I plan to submit work to her journal.
The Soul-Lit panel was held in a fitting location, too. The festival organizers had chosen The Gathering, an old bank that’s been converted into am interdenominational Christian church that welcomes visitors of all faiths and backgrounds. Once you set foot in this building, you feel its history and mysticism gently wash over you. It set the perfect atmosphere for the panel and complemented the poems that were read that afternoon.
No literary festival or conference would be complete without a Small Press & Literary Magazine Fair. My friend and I made a point to check out the fair inside the Museum Place Mall during a gap between our afternoon events. Representatives from about 30 literary magazine and independent publishers advertised their publications, sold chapbooks and back-copies, and gave away freebies ranging from pens and postcards to magnets and bookmarks. I could give more details about who I talked to and what caught my attention, but let’s just say that I found more possibilities for publication submissions.
For our final event of the day, we returned to the Peabody Essex Museum for The State Of Poetry, a panel discussion about the current state of poetry: publishing and craft trends, the impact of technologies such as the Internet and social media, and how readers still connect with poetry today. What struck me as interesting was that despite all four panelists being poets, their opinions and stories ranged because of their related backgrounds (poetry slammer, journal editor, English professor / MFA instructor, and Academy of American Poets chairperson). They all agreed on one thing, though: Regardless of what critics may say, poetry is not dead. And judging from the attendance at this year’s festival (about 1,000 people over 3 days), I have to agree with them.
Here are some of the other highlights from the day:
- Lunch at Gulu-Gulu Café, at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets. A festival volunteer suggested it and told us we couldn’t miss it because of the huge bulldog insignia on one of the windows. She was right – on both counts. Gulu-Gulu serves all three meals, with the lunchtime selections covering a wide range of soups, salads, and sandwiches, including savory crepes. My friend ordered a mushroom and spinach crepe, while I asked for the chicken pesto one. And we devoured our meals, almost cleaning our plates. If you ever visit Salem, I highly recommend going to Gulu-Gulu. It’s relatively small inside, so make sure you get there before the crowds come – and despite its size, it has great acoustics and doesn’t get too noisy.
- Taking pictures next to the Bewitched Statue outside the café. Who doesn’t want to be photographed next to the iconic TV character played by Elizabeth Montgomery?
- Gaping at the piles of books inside the Derby Square Book Store. And when I say “piles,” I mean it! Towers of used and new books start on the floor or on counters and tables, and climb up towards the ceiling. I’ve lost track of how many bookstores I’ve been to in my life, but Derby Street was the first one to leave me flabbergasted. And it’s almost a crime for me to walk out of a bookseller without buying something. But despite the enticing storewide 50% off sale, I was too afraid of accidentally knocking a stack of books three times my height to choose anything!
I’d never been to Salem before the festival. And in hindsight, I have to say it’s an interesting town. Most of the buildings in Derby Square are made of brick or stone; and the street itself is more like a cobblestone and brick walkway, its age defined by the unevenness of the stones as the ground underneath has moved. Only the Peabody Essex Museum has a more modern appearance of steel and (lots of) glass windows. Also, many of the businesses and attractions in Salem play on the town’s history of witch hunts. Every other storefront advertised psychic and tarot readings as well as new age, Wiccan, and Halloween-themed memorabilia. This merging of traditional, contemporary, supernatural, and spirituality set the perfect ambiance for a full day of poetry.
I should mention that the Massachusetts Poetry Festival is fairly inexpensive. It cost $20 to register for the festival, which included admittance to the Small Press & Literary Magazine Fair and to as many workshops and activities as I wanted to attend. (Seniors and students received discounts on their registration.) Since MassPoetry is a non-profit organization, it also welcomes additional donations on top of these registration fees to help pay for the festival. However, $20 is not a bad start. You’ll need to bring additional cash to the festival for parking, dining, and book and merchandise purchases. But that’s the case at any literary conference or festival, and I thought all of the prices (especially the $6 for all-day parking) were reasonable.
Also, MassPoetry.org makes it easy for festival-goers to plan their day(s). The organization allows you to register online at the festival website and sign up for your desired activities ahead of time. The website also has a list of recommended hotels in the area (in case you’re from out-of-town and want to attend multiple days) and a map of all of the festival venues, nearby parking lots, and restaurants. In other words, it’s a “one-stop shop” for making the necessary arrangements for your Massachusetts Poetry Festival experience.
All in all, I was thrilled to have gone to the 2013 Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I went home that evening with a bursting heart, a head full of percolating poetry, motivation to continue sending work to literary journals, and lots of goodies. Oh, and the desire to go back next year! And why not? As a writer, it’s vital not only to work on your craft and projects, but to get out every now and then and feed your writer soul. And if you’re an aspiring writer in any genre, I highly recommend you check out any literary festivals or conferences happening in your area. You’ll feel nothing short of rewarded afterwards.
Visit MassPoetry.org for more information on the Massachusetts Poetry Festival as well as other programs to help Massachusetts-based poets connect with larger audiences.
Coming Soon: My recent nomination for a Liebster Award!