By Michelle A.L. Singer
You could reasonably argue that as a skill, poetry isn’t as useful as CPR. In other words, poetry doesn’t save lives. And yet, consider Tom Martin from Franklin, Vermont, who comes to Montpelier every April to experience PoemCity, Kellog-Hubbard Library’s celebration of National Poetry Month. In 2006, Martin was in two serious car accidents. Medical care restored his body, but it was poetry that saved his soul.
In his poem, “Dear Rachel,” which will be displayed in the window of Kinney Drugs on Main Street this year, he describes his body as limbs & head/Velcro fixed. He goes on to write: Lastly came a rope, its/fibers held lost poems/wrote on pulp. It’s dedicated to Rachel Senechal, Program and Development Coordinator at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, who launched PoetryALIVE, the precursor to PoemCity, 10 years ago. The last lines of Martin’s poem give thanks to Senechal and her team: For it has truly helped/to heal me.
At the heart of Senechal’s vision for PoemCity is that everyone can be a poet. “People have told me that PoemCity inspired them to write poetry for the first time,” she says, “and that includes me.” At first intimidated about sharing her poems, she grew in confidence over the years to begin using her own name. Nor is she alone. “Last year,” says Senechal, “We had 66 poets who were new to PoemCity.”
What began with 70 poems 10 years ago has blossomed into 500, representing poets from 88 Vermont cities and towns, and over 50 programs, including poetry readings, workshops, and exhibits. “This is a major undertaking for the library,” says George Longenecker, president of the Poetry Society of Vermont, “and Rachel works tirelessly on PoemCity…It is one of the most extensive National Poetry Month events in the nation, all the more amazing coming from a small city and a library with a staff of 15.”
“This vital literary program is like no other I have experienced or witnessed as a poet or reader and teacher of poetry in my career,” says Poet Laureate of Vermont Chard deNiord. “The broadsides that hang in business windows serve as windows on windows into the memorable news of townspeople’s lives, memorable local experiences, and creative expressions that cross over from the citizen-poets to strangers and friends alike.”
PoemCity relies on community collaboration, something Senechal understood from the beginning. She reached out that first year to Montpelier Alive to make the important connections to downtown businesses and worked closely with Phayvanh Luekhamhan, a poet with connections to local poetry networks. Luekhamhan was instrumental in designing the inner workings of the program, such as having poets submit poems through the online portal Submittable. Poems are reviewed, accepted, and made into broadside posters that are delivered to businesses by volunteers.
PoemCity’s poems become a walkable anthology, hanging in the windows of 100 Montpelier businesses such as AroMed on State Street, which will also host a workshop on poetry and scent, and Bear Pond Books, a longtime partner of PoemCity. “PoemCity provides a great opportunity to showcase a wide range of poets at our independent bookstore,” says Samantha Kolber, Bear Pond’s marketing and event coordinator. “We really beef up our poetry programming, and we stock up on books of many of the presenters because we know the added visibility from PoemCity will bring more poetry readers to the store.”
PoemCity 2019 will kick off on April 1 with a new collaboration of poetry and dance, hosted by Lost Nation Theater. Former three-term governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, will read poems from her memoir Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties as well as new poems slated for publication next year. Kunin says her poetry comes from a place she didn’t know existed when she was in politics. She will be joined by Alana Rancourt Phinney, a local dance artist, who is working closely with Kunin to design a performance that responds to and accents her poetry. PoemCity will wrap up on April 30 with a 10th anniversary celebration at Down Home Kitchen.
In between the kick off and cake, PoemCity will feature LGBTQ poets; a Native Abenaki musician and a poet; poets reading in benefit of migrant justice, in memory of Cora Brooks and Mary Oliver; and one reading that will take on the entirety of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Workshops will be offered on form, point of view, how to write a slam poem, and how to mix origami with haiku. There will be readings about sexual assault, kindness, connection, racial injustice, inspiration, nature, saving the world, and politics.
Group readings will include the Vermont Studio Center, the Community College of Vermont, the Montpelier Senior Activity Center and Westview Meadows, Beth Jacob Synagogue, Washington County Mental Health, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. They join featured poets on the calendar such as Kerrin McCadden, Major Jackson, and Elizabeth Powell. Rick Agran, who will record poets during PoemCity for his radio show, Bot Mot, on Goddard’s WGDR says, “Nowhere else in Vermont can you read your way, literally and literarily, from place to place.”
Looking ahead, Senechal is already excited about next year’s PoemCity programming. She plans to bring in poets from widely diverse backgrounds and places. “It’s not about outdoing ourselves,” she says. “Artists create, and that’s what we do, create new experiences.”
For more information about PoemCity go to kellogghubbard.org/poemcity or stop by the Kellogg-Hubbard Library to pick up a PoemCity program with a full listing of events and poems.
Michelle A.L. Singer is a journalist and poet who lives in East Montpelier. She is the Program Assistant for PoemCity. She has been working with Rachel Senechal for five years.