Five Questions with Michael Ansara
Massachusetts Poetry Festival Co-founder and poet Michael Ansara (far right) with poets Regie Gibson, Jennifer Jean, and Julie Batten at a Mass Poetry Fundraiser.
Every community needs its advocates, and certainly none is more passionate about poetry in Massachusetts than Michael Ansara. He is the co-founder of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and the driving force behind MassPoetry, the organizing nonprofit behind the festival. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.
1. We know about the upcoming festival in Salem, May 12-14, but would you tell us how the festival came into being?
In late 2007, I had been attempting to learn how to write decent poetry for three years. I had also been amazed both at the wealth of poetry talent in Massachusetts and at how disconnected poetry was from the overall culture and popular awareness. I would go to a reading in the back of a bookstore and the organizers would be thrilled that there were 20 people to hear poets who should have been performing before 2,000 people.
I had lunch with an old friend of mine, former Congressman Chet Atkins who challenged me to use my old organizing skills (I had spent more than 20 years of my life as an organizer). Chet had just left the board of what is now MassHumanities. With support from MassHumanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, I drafted a paper about possibilities. Then, Charles Coe and I organized seven roundtables of poets in each region of the state. One of the possible ideas I floated was for a statewide poetry festival. Poets loved the idea. UMass Lowell and the City of Lowell volunteered to make it happen in record time and Massachusetts Poetry Festival was born.
2. You’ve also created an organizing structure behind the festival. Talk a little about the work that MassPoetry does year-round.
MassPoetry is dedicated to supporting poets and poetry, to creating new audiences for poetry and to taking poetry to people rather than asking them to always search it out. We are especially interested in taking poetry to the people who in some sense need it the most and have the least access to it. So we run a series of programs:
- Poets and Poetry to the Schools: at the moment we have poets working in after school programs with Citizen Schools in three low performing middle schools in Revere, Charlestown and Roxbury. If we can raise the money we would like to expand that to 15 schools in the fall and 25 in the spring of 2012.
- Of course, the first day of the Festival is the Student Day of Poetry. This year we have more than 670 high school students attending and another 35 teachers who also spend the day in workshops. We then will run at least one and possibly two Summer Institutes for Teachers – working with them on how to better weave poetry into the classroom.
- At the Student Day of Poetry we are unveiling our new interactive Poetry of Place website where poets of all ages and all skill levels can post either original poems or the works of others. You can post by cell phone texting (text 41411 and then MASSPOETRY), by email, by Twitter (if you can keep the poem to 140 characters;) and by web post. Your readers can get a head start if they want to try it out.
- We are also working with a new group of spoken word poet/educators to explore a much broader youth outreach program using spoken word. One possible model is the Louder than a Bomb program in Chicago.
- Common Threads: this year we launched, a program to promote group reading and discussions of poems by a wide variety groups – book clubs, senior organizations, church organizations, public libraries, schools and colleges. We produced a downloadable guide to reading the poems and had more than 330 groups explore the poems by a cross section of seven poets connected with Massachusetts. Next year, we are hoping to have more than 500 groups and even richer materials for them to use.
- We want to take poets to communities. If we can raise the money we want to send poets to read into senior housing, community settings and workplaces. Why shouldn’t companies have a Friday brown-bag lunch where everyone hears and talks to a poet?
So an enormous amount to do. We have many other ideas. The problem, of course, is that it takes money to do all this. We are adamant about paying poets for their creative work and their time. So our biggest challenge is to find ways to raise money in a culture where most people and frankly most foundations, government agencies and individual funders do not take poetry seriously. They see it as an inaccessible, arcane art form that has retreated to the academy. I love it when theatres get $10,000,000 grants. But we could transform poetry in Massachusetts with a $250,000 grant – and right now we cannot find the funder who will do that. So everyone at MassPoetry does their best relying primarily on volunteers.
3. What is your hope for MassPoetry? How will it grow?
There is no question MassPoetry will grow. The challenge of course is to grow the funding. We hope to continue the festival, each year getting it a little larger and a little better until soon there are 5,000 people at it and then one day there are 2,000 high school students kicking of a festival of 10,000 people. We can get to those numbers over time.
More importantly, we want to see MassPoetry reach tens of thousands of people through programs such as Common Threads, the youth spoken word initiative, the poets to the communities and workplace initiatives. We can do that—but only if we solve the funding challenge.
4. What do you think about the poetry community in Massachusetts?The poetry community in Massachusetts is remarkable. Remarkable for the wealth of talent that resides in this state. Remarkable for its diversity of voice, style, approach, age , language and self- conception. And remarkable for its balkanization, silly divisions, and its low level of ambition. I hope MassPoetry can help throw a spotlight on the talent and rich diversity and at the same time overcome the divisions and raise the level of ambition.
At MassPoetry, we insist on supporting the full range of poet styles and voices. And we insist that scale matters. It is not enough to have 20 people hear the best of our poets – young poets just starting out or 80 year old poets with a life time of work to share. We need to give thousands of people the experience of engage with the great talent that we have here. That won’t happen until poets set their sights higher, are determined to reach more people, refuse to accept marginalization despite all the economic and cultural forces arrayed against them.
5.You are a very good poet, Michael. Will you be reading your poetry at some point during the festival?
Well, thank you for the compliment! I feel as if I am still learning the craft. Despite my chronological age, I am a very young poet. I do not think it would be right to read my own poetry at a festival that I organize. To start with I do not have the depth of work that even many 22 year old poets have. Therefore, I would really be reading because of my role as co-founder and one of the organizers of the festival – and that to me would be an abuse of my position. So, no, I won’t be reading. But I would be happy to share a poem on your blog.
Michael, in fact, is a very good poet. Too humble for his own good. I'm having trouble formatting the staggered lines for Michael's fine poem. My apologies.
A Poem For My Friend, Kim Clerc
The flies of Yellowstone in winter live
within inches of water.
Heat breaks through,
heat alive within the mineral speck;
a life chain that climbs hot and frothy
up finally to flies, persistent, precarious.
An unexpected gust can send any one
soaring toward the sun. Too high.
I was in the white cold
of Yellowstone watching flies,
when you slung that rough rope
over the rafter
in a bare Montana cabin,
when you chose to tilt that chair.
It makes all concrete poetry
techniques survive the wash.
The blogger software knows about it.