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December 11, 2017

Fifth annual Poetry Festival reading

Collegian File Photo)

It was a warm Saturday evening. The crickets in the darkness harmonized with the passing of cars and idle chatter of guests who had come to the Emily Dickinson Museum to hear poetry spoken aloud. Although the speakers had yet to take the stage, the Fifth Annual Amherst Poetry Festival was already well underway.

The events officially began Thursday evening with a screening of the film “Emily Dickinson: My Letter to the World” at Amherst Cinema. The documentary on the famous poet was narrated by actress Cynthia Nixon who portrayed Dickinson in the 2016 film, “A Quiet Passion.” A poetry reading was also held Friday night in Amherst College’s Bassett Planetarium. Poets Dara Wier, a University of Massachusetts professor, and Bianca Stone read their work under a projection of stars. With similar events at the Hampshire College Art Gallery and Hope & Feathers Framing and Printing, the Festival was a town-wide affair.

The weekend began bright and early Saturday morning at 6 a.m. with the start of a marathon reading of Dickinson’s poetry. For the 13th year in a row, the words return once more to the home where they were written. In a monastic-like setting, members read all 1,789 poems written by the Amherst poet. The reading, which lasts for over 14 hours, showcases the love that this town has for one of its native daughters.

Illuminated by soft Christmas lights, the James Tate Memorial Stage architectonically consisted of nothing more than a podium, a few amplifiers and a pair of pumpkins. But there was an aura around the simple platform. An energy originated in the stage’s namesake, the late poet James Tate, and flowed forward through the performers, penetrating the ears and souls of all who attended. This ambiance—coupled with the looming presence of the museum—set the tone for the readings that took place at 8 a.m.

Sahar Muradi opened the evening readings with a mellow recitation of her poems. With themes of race, immigration and love, her well-crafted poems came to life with her voice that rose with euphoria and descended into darkness. Muradi typically uses a diverse range of images, from fish bowls and subway cars to refugees escaping their homeland, to reflect on her own life.

Similarly, Kaveh Akbar’s breathless inflection brought a level of complexity to his (often) punctuation-less poetry. His poems tackle themes of cultural identity in an era where being from the Middle East means being “the other.” That is not to say that his poems are politically confrontational or condemning in any way. Akbar’s words celebrate connection, with memories such as a diner in Chicago that he frequented with his family and a lost romance with a childhood friend that still creeps into his thoughts.

Akbar also candidly connected with the live audience outside his works. At one point during the reading, an ambulance siren was loud enough to stop Akbar mid-poem. Unperturbed, he laughed it off, joking that the siren was “like [his] mixtape.” Later on, he jested about how performing artists have enough power to captivate the audience even when simply taking a drink of water.

Akbar’s final poem of the night was entitled “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus.” Prefaced with explanations of space gear and reminiscing about watching the film “Speed” with his brother, the poem reflects on events in Akbar’s life that seemed to come from an unbiased alien source outside of him. The said source touches on melancholy and loss and ponders what could have been.

What stuck out during the finale was the brief pause Akbar took between the humorous introduction and the somber tone of the piece. It didn’t last for long—maybe 15 seconds—but you could see Akbar looking at the poem as if preparing himself to once again dive into the feelings that spawned it. It was a humanizing moment that showed the sacrifice creative writers endure to produce truly mesmerizing works.

Sahar Muradi’s first chapbook [G A T E S] will be published in October of 2017 by Black Lawrence Press. Kaveh Akbar’s first full-length collection, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” was just released by Alice James Books.

Edward Clifford can be reached at edwardcliffo@umass.edu.

Comments
2 Responses to “Fifth annual Poetry Festival reading”
  1. James Thomas says:

    Glad to see this article and its length and content. Usually Poetry readings are given short shrift. Well written.

  2. Brenda McNamara says:

    Great article. Very interesting.

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