The Underline: West End Poetry Festival, Carrboro’s free annual poetry festival
By Arshia Simkin, via the Orange County Arts Commission
On October 15 and 16, the City of Carrboro hosted its annual free West End Poetry Festival, a two-day event that celebrates all things poetry. With a workshop and poetry readings, the festival was a vibrant celebration of the ways in which poetry enriches a community. According to the festival’s website, “The West End Poetry Festival is sponsored by the City of Carrboro and is planned by the Carrboro Poets Council… with assistance from Jackie Helvey and staff from the Carrboro Parks and Recreation Department and the support from the Carrboro Arts Committee. “
While last year’s event was entirely virtual, due to concerns about Covid-19, this year’s festival included both virtual and in-person components. The event kicked off on Friday October 15 with an evening Zoom workshop by local poet Crystal Simone Smith. In his opening remarks, Smith pointed out the rarity of having a festival that is free and open to the public. In his lecture, Smith introduced participants to several classical forms of poetry, including sonnets, terza rima, haikus, and haibun. The lecture was an excellent introduction to the many formal structures of poetry: I had never heard of a ‘haibun’ before and learned that it is a ‘genre of Japanese writing that mainly mixes autobiographical prose and haiku ”. Smith also touched on more experimental forms such as blackout and erasure poetry.
As a decidedly prose writer who hadn’t tried poetry since probably elementary school, I was nervous about attending a workshop full of poets, but my concerns quickly dissipated when Smith gave clear explanations, supported by illuminating examples. She reassured participants, “The only way to become good is to be a practitioner. Regarding haikus, Smith said, “I wrote one haiku a day for a whole year,” and his current scholarship at Duke University focuses on haikus that deal with slavery. Regarding occulted poems, Smith cautioned: “The stronger the original text, the stronger the obscured poetry. Smith’s three blackout poems – which are published on the prestigious Poetry Foundation website and which engage with the Black Lives Matter movement and racial injustice – do just that; they transform the novel by George Saunders in 2017 Lincoln in the Bardo powerful effect. His poem entitled King Rodney opens with the haunting lines: “It was an open book. An opening book. It had just been a little more open. Out of grief.
Participants also had the opportunity to write their own poems and share them; Unfortunately, against Smith’s advice, I had no proper text to correct, so I picked up an old copy of The New Yorker. While I was trying to make a blackout poem from the magazine’s “Briefly Noted” section, which featured a review of Lauren Groff’s new novel, Matrix, I realized how difficult it was to extract meaning from an established text. Nonetheless, it was so much fun to try that I continued to work for an hour after the workshop ended, unsuccessfully trying to turn other book reviews into art. (Reader, I was unsuccessful, but the opportunity to engage in a new – and highly addictive – art form was a blast.)
MatrI X, by Lauren Groff (Riverhead).The author, whose previous fiction hasprobe contemporaryAmerican communities, sets this novel in an impoverished 12th-century English abbey, where the protagonist, Mary, was sent at the age of seventeen to be prioress. Ahalf- Royalorphan accustomed to courting life, she sees the role as aUndead but becomes adept at eliding medieval restrictionsof faith and kind. Struggle with multifaceted devotion – tenuous piety,the thirst For power,love for his sisters at the abbey-she creates an “army of nuns” who sell male scribes at lower prices and rout unscrupulous tenants. Through Marie, Groff explores howa the religious and gendered swindle of societyvoltage s can be rotatedto the Ir head to create a utopia.
(Arshia’s attempt at a blackout poem using the “briefly noted” section of the New Yorker)
The event continued on Saturday, October 16 at the Carrboro Town Commons, where the local farmers’ market usually takes place every weekend. Under the open-air wooden pavilion, community members disguised themselves and gathered for the “Poetry in the Round” session, during which participants read poems in a circle of poets. Abigail Browning, a poet and member of the Carrboro Poets Council, then read the “Community Poem,” which was a collective poem made up of verses that members of the audience had submitted on the themes of “United”, “Poetry” and “” Service. “
The closing event, which began at 5pm, was the ‘Featured Poets’ reading, during which past and current Poet Laureates from Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill read a selection of poems. (If you missed it, you can still hear a sample of the readers on the West End Poetry Festival YouTube channel.)
Among the festival’s readers was William Davis, 2016-2018 Hillsborough Poet Laureate and Oral Artist. In her opening remarks, Davis highlighted the impact poetry has had on her life and the many doors it has opened for him, especially after a troubled upbringing with a mother in prison and a father struggling with addiction. His lively performance style and emphasis on hope and renewal in his poems drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Fred Joiner, Chapel Hill-based poet and curator, current Carrboro Poet Laureate and Chairman of the Orange County Arts Commission, read several poems in a manner inspired by his jazz musician father (who was also present) – improvising which selections to share as inspiration struck.
Of the festival, former Carrboro poet laureate Gary Phillips and also festival reader, told Aaron Keck of 97.9 radio station The Hill: Sense. And what we want to do is reiterate that poetry is essential, that it is one of the things that unites us, one of the things that allows us to think outside the box, one of the things that allows us to open up our perceptions and our hearts to understand how we can move forward.
What I appreciated about these two days of being at the festival is how much art seems linked to the very fabric of Carrboro; the emphasis on inclusiveness and diversity at this event; and open access to the public. Despite the sometimes gloomy weather, which threatened with rain and high winds, it was wonderful to see so many people come together, listen and share. Whether you are a poet, a budding poet, or just looking to bring more art into your life, the West End Poetry Festival is a must see event. Learn more about the festival and the poets featured at http://www.westendpoetryfestival.org/.
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