Over the weekend, New Hampshire poets came together to celebrate poetry. The celebration came at a time when poetry itself is losing popularity. A National Endowment for the Arts survey last year shows fewer and fewer people are reading it.
But if you spent a couple of days in Manchester this past weekend, like I did, you would have found a community of poets whose passion for the poem is as strong as ever.
“Poets who are competing in the slam: we are going to do the draw for order, so if you join me in the hallway by the FedEx box over here, we’re going to do the draw…”
At the microphone under the dim lights of Milly’s Tavern, Mark Palos attempts to rally the poets. There are ten of them, and they gather around him in the hallway outside. Nearly all of them fidget with pre-performance jitters. They rock back on their heels. One poet plays with a yo-yo.
“Why don’t we all come in a little closer? Okay, so I presume that all of you have had an opportunity to read over the rules…”
Palos runs Slam Free or Die, a New Hampshire-based poetry organization dedicated to slam and performance poetry. He passes around a purple Crown Royal bag filled with poker chips, each with a number.
Then they huddle like a football team ready to take the field.
“I’m going to say one, two, three, and we’re going to say Vox Pop, okay? one, two, three, VOX POP!”
Vox Pop is the name of tonight’s competitive event. Most of the crowd and the performers seem to be in their twenties. Lots of hipster scarves, tattoos, and pink hair. These are the punk rockers of poetry.
The first performer is a guest from Providence, Rhode Island, Chrysanthemum Tran, who calls herself a "Vietnamese queer trans woman poet."
“French cognates stained the Vietnamese language. For example, the Vietnamese..." Tran recites. The crowd is enthralled. People nod and shout out when Tran hits the right note.
Palos says he was shocked years ago when he started running these things to find so many writers in New Hampshire, "where you have these people who are creative and living maybe outside the lines of conventional thinking and are fiercely individual, but they all kind of want to share, but maybe don’t know how to do that, so a lot of people write.”
People like Hannah Dutton, who is a volunteer for Slam Free or Die from Merrimack. She’s been coming to these events for more than six years, and says the poets here have become like family.
"Here if you write a really sad poem and you read it on the open mic, there are people you get an immediate reaction from," she says. "It’s not like you email it to someone and like a week later they get back to you. It's immediate. People are clapping...It’s just been a huge emotional outpouring."
The following morning, at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire Poetry Festival Director and poet Jennifer Militello kicks off the festivities. It’s a much different crowd. There’s more gray hair than pink. No beer, just coffee and pastries. If last night’s poets were punk rockers, these are the classical musicians.
"I don’t need to remind you that New Hampshire has a rich poetry tradition," Militello says from the podium. "It’s a state full of U.S. Poets Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winners. A state gifted with poetry lovers and inspiration…"
Militello says the festival is meant to celebrate poetry, not serve as a networking opportunity for professional poets.
"I wanted it to be pure," Militello says. "I wanted it to be about coming together for the sake of poetry and for that celebration aspect and that honoring of poetry.”
Still, like last night at Milly’s Tavern, most of the people here are more than just readers of poetry. They were writers, or publishers, or students in a writing program. This is an issue serious poets discuss: how to get more non-poets interested in poetry. A panel at the festival was focused on "poetry and community."On the panel was New Hampshire Poet Laureate, Alice Fogel. She wondered who might show up to the festival.
"Would somebody in the community just come in and listen to that the way they would listen to music in the evening?" Fogel said. "I wish people would think about it in those terms.”
She says people may balk at a festival like this because of the stigma poetry carries, a stigma people learn early in life.
"How people were brought up, in schools, having poetry bludgeoning them with too much academic terminology, poems maybe they can’t relate to and so it just shuts them out," she says.
It’s a sentiment shared by Maudelle Driskell. She’s the Executive Director of the Frost Place, a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts based at Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia. She says most of the so-called "canon" of poetry is not directly relevant to our modern lives, and if it’s not relevant, it’s not a great gateway into the form.
"You don’t have to have a decoder ring that you order with eight boxes of cereal. Poetry speaks to you or it doesn’t," she says.
And she says that when you hit the right poem—the poem that speaks to you—you’ll absolutely know it.