The festival, founded by resident Miles Coon, provides in-depth instruction to poets, who register in advance. It also offers readings, craft talks, panels and other public events.
But to demonstrate the diversity of the art form, we’ll concentrate on two poets. Robert Hass, a former United States poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, and Marc Kelly Smith, who founded the worldwide Poetry Slam movement of competitive readings 30 years ago in Chicago.
Marc Kelly Smith
Smith was raised in a lower middle class home in the shadow of a steel mill in southeast Chicago.
He didn’t read a book until he was in high school — probably because of an undiagnosed reading disorder, he said. The main reason he started writing poetry was to impress his poetry-loving future wife.
He tried being a writer for a few years, but when the rejection slips piled up, he went into construction. Finally, in his mid-30s, he quit his lucrative construction job to pursue his dream of being a poet.
There was just one problem. At the readings he attended, poets droned in a monotone for small audiences of other poets. “They were so stupid, boring and closed off from regular society,” he said.
He decided to change that. “The principle I started with was that I was going to create poetry readings for everyday people from all walks of life,” he said.
He made a deal with a small jazz club in Chicago, where the first performance poetry readings were held in 1984.
“I was relentless,” he said. “If I saw one person yawn, I got the guy off the stage.”
In 1986, he moved the readings to the Green Mill tavern in Chicago and introduced the idea of competitions judged by audience members. The Uptown Poetry Slam continues to be held weekly there.
His own readings blend original work with poems by famous writers such as D.H. Lawrence, E.E. Cummings and Carl Sandburg.
“Performance poetry takes the art and technique of poetry and blends it with the art and technique of theater,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a higher art form than just text on a page.”
If Robert Hass wanted to rest on his laurels, the bed would have to be very high indeed.
Hass’ poetry is celebrated for its “clarity of expression, its conciseness and its imagery, often drawn from everyday life,” according to the Poetry Foundation.
Hass writes every day, even if he can spare only 15 minutes to scribble thoughts in a notebook he carries for that purpose.
At 74, he’s attending a lot of memorial services lately. He’s been writing poems about death. Well, maybe not death exactly, but how he feels about certain deaths.
“It’s a task I set myself as a way of getting at my experience,” he said.
A staunch environmentalist, he’s also crafting poems about the months of the year in Berkeley, Calif., where he has lived for 45 years. In his other career as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he recently team-taught a course with an environmental scientist titled “The Earth and How to Think About It.”
He writes poems because “I love the practice of the art and the challenge of it,” he said.
That reminds him of a story he once read about Rembrandt, who went out into the streets covered with paint when a patron summoned him. “I looked at the late portraits,” he said. “His skin is smeared with paint. That’s the way to grow old as an artist — to be soaked in your medium.”
Does poetry matter? Absolutely, he said. “We are invisible to each other unless we can say what the world means to us.”