Roses are red, violets are blue; when you think of poetry, think Kalamazoo

A lot of poetry is being created in the Kalamazoo area. The Kalamazoo Poetry Festival was created to make sure everyone knows about it. Zinta Aistars talks with the organizers about the area's first festival for poets, poetry lovers, and the poetically curious. 
Think poetry and thoughts may wander to big cities, the east or the west coast. Think poetry, and the first image that comes to some minds are thick, dusty tomes filled with dense, difficult-to-understand language. Think poetry and the poets that appear in imaginations are solitary individuals bent over their paper littered desks in ivory towers.

The Kalamazoo Poetry Festival, April 4 to April 5 with events throughout Kalamazoo, is about to dispel such notions. The festival coincides with National Poetry Month, so Kalamazoo Poetry Festival is encouraging regional groups to schedule their own celebrations of poetry, ranging from writing workshops for youth to readings and performances.

"Poetry is flourishing in Kalamazoo more than most of us realize," says George Martin, one of the founders of the new festival. His hope is that the festival will become an annual or bi-annual event. "Our idea was to recognize and celebrate poets in Kalamazoo, and to let people know what a thriving community of writers we have here."

While some of Kalamazoo’s poets have earned regional and national attention, garnering awards, others are not yet as well known, Martin says. Literary organizations bustle each in their own niche, he says, but may not realize what others are doing to create and promote poetry.

"We want to celebrate the power of poetry to connect people," says Marsha Meyer, program director at Portage District Library and steering committee member of the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival. "We want this festival to create partnerships and raise awareness. We want to open poetry up to the wider community. In that sense, it’s much more than a two-day event. Our hope is to spark more poetry events throughout the year."

Throughout the weekend, the Festival will offer readings, craft talks, and workshops featuring some of the region’s most celebrated writers, including Traci Brimhall, Danna Ephland, Diane Seuss, John Rybicki, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Susan Ramsey and Denise Miller. Joining the local pool of talent are nationally acclaimed poets Aracelis Girmay and Ilya Kaminsky.

"We chose Aracelis Girmay and Ilya Kaminsky because they are wonderful poets, but also because of their enthusiasm for sharing their ideas and insights," says Meyer. "They won’t just be giving readings. They will be going out into the community to mingle with students and others to talk about poetry."

Aracelis Girmay was born and raised in Southern California, with roots in Puerto Rico and Eritria. She remembers loving books so much as a child that she slept with them tucked in beside her, and before she could read, she was already memorizing her favorite stories to recite to her siblings.

Girmay has taught youth writing workshops in schools and community centers, is on the faculty of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and has been an assistant professor of poetry at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 2011, she was presented with the Isabella Gardner Award for Kingdom Animalia. Girmay is the author of the collage-based picture book changing, changing, and the poetry collection Teeth, for which she was awarded a GCLA New Writers Award.

Guest poet Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. He lost most of his hearing at age 4, and moved at age 18 to the United States with his family when they were granted political asylum in 1993. He began writing poetry in English in 1994. Kaminsky told the Adirondack Review, "I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it; no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is."

Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa, and Traveling Musicians, a selection of his poems originally written in Russian.

The opening event for the festival will be held at the Kalamazoo Public Library in the Van Deusen Room, on Friday, April 4, from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and will feature readings by local poets.

The guest poets will read their work at the closing event of the festival at the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts on Saturday, April 5, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., but that event will be but a grand finale to a weekend filled with events. To see the full schedule along with related events throughout the area, visit the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival website. All events are free and open to the public.

"Poetry is such a versatile and accessible art form," says Meyer. "There are so many different kinds of forms. A poem can be just one sentence. It’s a way to communicate our emotions, even when we don’t always understand the language. We’ve had readings in different languages at Portage District Library, and people enjoy hearing the poems even when they don’t understand the words."

"Poetry is universal," adds Martin. "It’s not just for academics or for the elite. We hope to get feedback from people during the Festival for future festivals. Poetry is a community thing, and when you look at 19th century history, it’s fascinating to see how the town blacksmith, the doctor, the store clerk … everyone participated in poetry."

Meyer nods in enthused agreement. "Anybody can sit down and write a poem. We have third graders involved in the Festival who have written beautiful pieces. You can just have fun with words, noodle around and see what’s inside of you. It can be a healing art form."

The Kalamazoo Poetry Festival is possible thanks to the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, its primary funder, and the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation. Additional support comes from Arcadia Institute, Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Public Library and Portage District Library many individuals and other corporate and organizational supporters.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

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