Monday, March 14, 2011

Poets Mike Ansara and January O’Neil Bring on the Massachusetts Poetry Festival This May.

Poets Mike Ansara and January O’Neil Bring on the Massachusetts Poetry Festival This May.

Interview with Doug Holder

Come May 13th and 14th, 2011 the Mass. Poetry Festival will arrive at its new home in Salem, Mass. This should be of great interest to Somerville poets, and all others, as there will be a plethora of readings, workshops, musical events, book fairs, etc… to satiate the hungriest Somerville Bard. I talked with the founder of the festival Mike Ansara, and his right hand woman, the accomplished poet and organizer January O’Neil on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: So where did the germ of the idea for the poetry festival come from?

Mike Ansara: About six years ago I wanted to see if I could write decent poetry. Along the way I went to these readings of these incredibly talented poets. As you know Doug—a great turn out is 30, and everybody says “Wow!” I began to say to myself: “This is a shame.” I was having lunch with a good friend of mine former congressman Chet Atkins. He just retired and got off the board of the Mass. Humanities Council. I was talking to him about the state of poetry. He reminded me that I was once an organizer, and that I really needed to do something about it. With a little bit of support from Charles Coe and the Mass. Cultural Council, we had a series of roundtables around the state with poets. We had about 7 meetings. We ran a bunch of ideas by poets about what they would like to see happen to help provide more opportunies, and to create new audiences. And out of that came a series of projects that we were implementing now. The poetry festival is just one of them. We are also going to the schools. We have a poetry program in the Citizen Schools. These schools are after school programs that work with low performing Middle Schools. We have poets in Roxbury, and Revere. We hope to improve literacy skills.

DH: January—You say you want to connect “Poetry” with the mainstream. Where is it connected with now?

January O’Neil: Well… I think that poetry is an art that has not been widely publicized. It used to be before the internet, and TV. But now it has taken a back seat to other things. People use poetry for weddings and funerals—they find it for big and small moments. We are out now having conversations in the community—and the interest in the art is out there. I think RAP music has played a role in reviving it.

DH: You guys are going to have a Small Press Book Fair as part of the Festival. What is the importance of the small press to the poetry community?

MA: We know how important the small press is in the life of a poet. Small presses struggle, go under—yet, they have enormous creativity. They are responsible for most of the poetry that is published today. And they don’t get the recognition or support that they should get. Even people who are writing poetry don’t understand the world of the small press. Our attempt will be to create a venue on Saturday ( The festival is held Friday May 13—and Saturday—May 14)—where 30 or 40 small presses from Mass. and elsewhere can come meet each other—and sell their books and broadsides. We are going to have presses like “Off the Grid” from Somerville, Mass., Tupelo Press, to everything in between.

DH: There is a lot of collaboration with other groups in your efforts to bring the fruit to your labors?

MA: The festival itself is going to be a grand experiment. We have 60 organizations that are poetry partners. And most of our ideas come from them. We hope they spread. We don’t have a big budget. We are always looking for donations, however large or small.

JO: A portion of the money that we raise goes to pay the poets. Usually no one thinks twice about asking poets to read for free. This is our core principle. Their creativity should be valued. Unless you teach there is no way for a poet to make a living in any way connected to poetry.

DH: What will be happening on Friday at the Festival?

MA: Friday, during the day, 700 high school students from around the state will read in our program. Friday evening we are going to have some amazing poets and music. Brian Turner, a soldier poet will be reading, on Saturday there will be panels, a small book fair, celebrities—things for kids.

DH: So it is going to be fun?


JO: May is a tricky month for weather. But if it goes as we hope there will be events inside as well as outside. We will have panel discussions forums about Anne Bradstreet to Hip Hop.

DH: Any big name poets?

MA: Steve Almond will be running a Bad Poetry Contest—bring your own worst poem. Steve does this because it is funny—he demystifies writing— you have to have bad poems to get good poems. Other poets like Richard Hoffman, and hopefully Major Jackson will read. We have established and emerging poets. We are also going to have a reading for poets 35 and under.

We are also going to have a Somerville Bagel Bards reading organized by Poet Lawrence Kessenich, as well as readings by Boston’s Carpenter Poets, the African-American poets of Cave Canem; we have an Asian American poetry organization that are going to write poems about the history of and the objects in the Peabody/Essex Museum.

DH: The question I pose to both to you—when do you sleep?

MA: Thank God we have this collective of volunteers: retired people, students, teachers, etc… who help.

JO: And you couldn’t have a better ring leader than Mike Ansara.

DH: Does all this work detract from your own?

JO: This is a labor of love. My writing will take a back seat. And that’s OK. It’s giving back. In order to get the word out about my work, I have to keep telling what’s going on in the poetry world at large.

** For more information about the Mass. Poetry Festival go to

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