The bards are back in town
By Wendy Insinger
Six-fifteen. Any Wednesday night. The main street of rustic arts and crafts Sugar Loaf Village are dim, but back in Romers Alley, Milkweed Gallery glitters with twinkly lights. There, surrounded by fine art and handmade artifacts, Richard Kersting, the 23-year-old co-host of Milkweed Poetry Workshop, sets wooden chairs in a circle, heats water for tea, and prepares for the arrival of whoever happens to show up for the seventy-ninth session of “Make Poems-Hear Poems-Share Poems.”
The others filter in, socialize, read and discuss two poems, write to a prompt for 20 minutes and share their work.
“After receiving the prompt, there is quiet,” said one Milkweed regular, visual artist John Simon, Jr., whose work is in collections of national museums such as the Whitney. “The energy in the room doubles. Everyone is creating, a sangha, deeply meditating, and then emerging to read their surprising and wonderful works.”
A financial analyst by day, Kersting might seem an unlikely poetry host, but one thing becomes clear as this community assembles. There is no typical poet.
“Poetry is an art that can fit, organically, into the cracks of an already full farmer’s day,” said farmer Jess Clark of High Breeze Farm in Vernon, NJ. “A phrase might just pop into my mind and no matter where I am, I can find a scrap of paper to begin a poem. I started going to Milkweed Poetry to connect with creative people who are intelligent and thinking, but also very warm and nonjudgmental.”
For others, the art form provides a space to talk about things that get drowned out in our culture.
“I was deeply angry after an experience of sexual harassment,” said Farrell Brenner, program specialist at the LGBTQ Community Center in Kingston, NY. “The mainstream lexicon for sexism, homophobia, and other forms of f***ery is limited to the words and phrases of people already doing the talking. With poetry, the conversation is expanded outside of these boundaries.”
Poetry is blowing up online, too from Twitter’s Twihaiku to Facebook’s AllPoetry.com, the world’s largest poetry website, to the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem A Day” that hits 350,000 inboxes.
But in an increasingly electronic and alienating world, there’s something about being there in a venue where you can feel a human response that’s only getting more powerful. “Our monthly open mic is usually standing room only,” said Walter Pahucki, owner of the Montgomery Book Exchange in Montgomery, NY. “We have people in their 80s and people in their early 20s. There is rhyming poetry, stream of consciousness, everything.”
“It’s grown enormously in the past five years,” said Robert Milby, poet laureate of Orange County. “A lot of people are upset by the environmental and political landscape of the Western world and want to give voice to that.”
Souls are feeling the whispering of the muse from Dumbo to Seattle, both of which have exclusively poetry bookstores. “There is a lot of momentum from younger writers adding their energy and it’s very intense, diverse, and vibrant across the country,” said Jared White, owner of Beryl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, which runs three to four events weekly.
Some Milkweed poets are practiced wordsmiths. “I’ve been writing poetry all of my life,” said Neil Bostick, a retired court reporter. “The supportive, challenging, and fun environment has really helped my writing.”
But it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to serve a purpose. Animator K. Kypers, another Wednesday night regular, puts it this way: “Poetry has become a way for me to put a semblance of structure on feelings and to memorialize specific moments, observations, or thoughts. It’s always cathartic – even when the poem ends up being trash.”
Most of these events are zero-budget. Small, pay what you can afford donations mainly cover the cost of heat and electricity. “The poetry scene is not part of commercial consumerism,” says William Seaton, who ran Orange County’s Poetry on the Loose series for 21 years. “It’s about creating art and sharing it with your neighbors. There is a kind of wonder in doing that.”
Poetry events in Orange County, NY
Calabash Poetry Open Mic
Creative Pen Craft, Goshen
Hudson River Poets, Newburgh
Megaphone Series, Sugar Loaf
Milkweed Poetry Slam, Sugar Loaf
Milkweed Poetry Workshop
Montgomery Book Exchange, Montgomery
Noble Coffee Roasters, Campbell Hall
Poetry at the Church, Goshen
Host: Ted Gill, 845-294-5010
Poetry at Jones Farm, Cornwall
Poetry Café at Florida Free Library, Florida