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Poetry power

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Now hear this: The rise of spoken-word events signals the dawn of a new day of verse by and for the common man and woman.
By MEREDITH GOAD, Staff Writer
Annie Finch reads last week at the Portland Public Library during the library’s poetry festival. Finch, a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, says, “I think there’s actually a documented increase in the excitement about going to poetry readings, poetry slams.”
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Annie Finch reads from her poetry collection, “Calendars,” last week at the Portland Public Library. Finch would like to see Portland’s poetry scene become as prominent as its music and art communities.
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hear poetry read by:

Steve Luttrell - founder and publishing editor of The Café Review, a Portland-based quarterly journal of poetry.

Annie Finch - published poet, professor of English at the University of Southern Maine and director of the Stonecoast MFA in creative writing.

Maine Poet Laureate Betsy Sholl

Michael Macklin - The Café Review

Port Veritas performers:

Gil Helmick

Brianna Crusan

Juba Zaki

Jake Wartell

SPOKEN-WORD EVENTS

APRIL 22

Port Veritas presents its hip-hop open-mic night at the North Star Cafe, 225 Congress St., Portland. There will be an open reading before the hip-hop portion of the evening. The event features local hip-hop artists backed by DJ Graymatter, house DJ for Una and the White Heart. Signups begin at 7:30 p.m., with Graymatter spinning at 8:30 p.m. Suggested donation $2.

APRIL 23

Author readings and book signings with Moon Pie Press poets Nancy Henry, Michael Macklin and Kevin Sweeney from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Rines Auditorium in the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square.

APRIL 28

Lecture with David Kastan on “Believing Shakespeare: Religion in Shakespeare’s World and in his Plays,” from noon to 1 p.m. at the Rines Auditorium in the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square.

APRIL 29

Moon Pie Press poets Jay Davis and Bruce Spang will appear at the North Star Cafe, 225 Congress St. Open mic at 7 p.m. with featured poets at 8:30 p.m. Suggested donation $2.

Poetry workshop from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. with Patricia Hagge, Annie Finch and special guests in Room 316 of the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square.

APRIL 30

Author reading and book signing with April Ossmann, author of “Anxious Music,” from noon to 1 p.m. at Rines Auditorium in the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square.

MAY 3

Winners of Poetry Contest 2008 will read their winning poems at 2 p.m. at the Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square.

Trying to organize poets is “kind of like trying to organize minnows or something,” says Gil Helmick, a local writer active in Portland poetry circles.

Yet whenever poets come together, as they have in April for National Poetry Month, something wonderful and unexpected happens.

Teenagers who wouldn’t be caught dead reading Robert Frost have found themselves expressing their innermost thoughts and feelings at confessional open-mic nights and poetry slams. At a poetry reading at the Portland Public Library last week, Heather Tiffany noticed people being lured into the room merely by the sound of the spoken word.

“People who came to the library who didn’t actually come to see the poetry were engaged in it and joined in the program, which was neat and unique,” said Tiffany, director of programming for the library. “Poetry catches your ear like music does.”

At a time when literary pundits are wringing their hands over the decline of interest in reading, poetry seems to be doing just fine, thanks.

Annie Finch, a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine who has published several collections of poetry, said poetry is different from other forms of literature because it is “based on the ear.”

“I think that may be one of the reasons poetry seems to be somewhat going counter to the other literary trends,” Finch said. “While there’s a decline in reading, I think there’s actually a documented increase in the excitement about going to poetry readings, poetry slams.

“Poetry online is one of the most searched-for terms on the Internet. There are huge numbers of poetry Web sites.”

The poetry scene is thriving in Portland. Every Tuesday from 7 to 10 p.m., local poets and wannabe wordsmiths step up to the microphone at the North Star Cafe on Congress Street to share their spoken-word creations with an ever-growing audience.

The weekly gatherings are sponsored by a group called Port Veritas Inc. and include hip-hop nights and poetry-slam competitions. An average of 60 people a week show up for the events, and during National Poetry Month, that number has climbed to 100.

“There’s not many venues that can say that on a weekly basis, on a Tuesday night,” Helmick said. “That’s just the public speaking.”

Last year, Martin Steingesser became the city’s first poet laureate. This year, for the first time in 16 years, Portland will be sending a team to the National Poetry Slam in Madison, Wis., in August.

The poetry contest sponsored by the Portland Public Library this year drew 241 entries, and its poetry festival has drawn an “astounding” amount of interest, Tiffany said. The library has alternated the poetry festival with a storytelling festival from year to year, but the poetry festival has become so popular, it may become an annual event.

“If anything, I think we need to think about incorporating poetry more and offering it throughout the year, because the reaction has been so positive,” Tiffany said.

A cornerstone of Portland’s poetry scene has been The Cafe Review (www.thecafereview.com), a quarterly journal of poetry based in the city. The journal has published such notable poets as Charles Bukowski, Donald Hall and Philip Levine.

“We are very fortunate to have published arguably some of the greatest poets of the 20th century,” said Steve Luttrell, founder and editor of the review. “…The whole purpose has been to sort of bring Maine poets to the world, and bring the world poets to Maine.”

Luttrell thinks interest in poetry is as vital and alive as ever; “it’s just taken on a different set of clothes, so to speak.”

“Performance poetry is really very much in the public eye now, whereas in the ’30s or ’40s, poetry was mainly the purview of the academics and guys in tweed coats and bow ties, and they kind of held onto it for a long time,” Luttrell said.

“But now it’s kind of broken the bonds of academia.”

Performance poetry is as old as Orpheus and his lyre, and has evolved through the confessional poetry of writers such as Anne Sexton and the modern slam movement, which started as a cross between stand-up comedy and poetry, “sort of like Rodney Dangerfield meets Allen Ginsberg,” Luttrell said.

Finch thinks people taking to the slam stage today consider performance poetry to be an art that requires practice and skill, and they want to master the form. The rhythmic restraints of the poetry come to the fore in such performances, she said, and fledgling poets find taking it on an exciting challenge.

“I think this competitive angle has been really good for poetry,” she said. “You can tell who is a really good slammer and who is not, and it’s sort of easier to tell than opening up a magazine and looking at a bunch of poems on the page.

“I think people really like arts where skill and effort and talent and dedication are rewarded with good art, and poetry is becoming more like that than it was a few decades ago.”

Portland still has some growing to do as a poet-friendly city, Finch said. The poetry scene here, while active, is not as well-developed as the art and music communities.

The city needs a serious literary series outside a university setting that attracts national, mainstream writers on a regular basis, she said.

When that arrives, Finch said, “that will be a sign that we really have arrived as a cultural center.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:mgoad@pressherald.com

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