By Doug Holder
I have known these two dynamic poets for a number of years now and have seen them branch out into the poetry community—starting their own series, releasing new books, winning awards—and now these talented women are instrumental players for the Mass. Poetry Festival to be held April 20 to 22 in Salem, Mass. Jennifer Jean has been on the English faculty at Salem State University for awhile now and O’Neil left a plum post at Babson College to join the faculty as an Assistant Professor of English at Salem, in addition to being appointed the Executive Director of the Festival. Jennifer Jean has recently released her third collection of the “Archivist,” and O’Neil will be releasing a new collection of poetry “Misery Island” (Kavan Kerry Press) in the coming months. I talked with them on Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer on Somerville Community Access TV.
Doug Holder: So what’s happening this year at the Mass. Poetry Festival?
January O’Neil: The question is what’s not happening. We are going to three days instead of two—Friday, Saturday, Sunday-- April 20 to 22. Salem is a great city and they are experienced hosts—they have been a tourist attraction for many years, and can handle this event easily. We will also have events Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights—as well as the day—of course. We will probably do a kickoff event at Salem State University, and the Peabody Essex Museum is even getting more involved this year. We will have quite a few events and exhibits happening there and we are glad they are letting us use their space. They have a really wonderful Native American art exhibit and we have a Native American poet feature: Joy Harjo I expect we will have 1500 people attend the festival over the three days.
Some of the featured poets we will have include Major Jackson, and Robert Pinsky—former U.S. Poet Laureate. We are going to have 20 events, including a “Favorite Poem Project.” This will be tailored to poetry lovers to celebrate their favorite poem. Also: as part of the tie in the National Poetry Month we are creating a collection of poems that will be distributed to book clubs and libraries that we call “Common Threads.” It will be an anthology of nine poems: by poets who are alive and poets who have passed. Included will be very the very much alive: Sam Cornish, David Ferry, and Frank Bidart--to name a few.
Jennifer Jean: We are going to have a lot of music and poetry mixtures going throughout the day. We will have panels on "songology." We are going to have Slam poets as well and a lot of poetry paired with music.
Doug Holder: Can you talk about the Small Press Book Fair?
January O'Neil: I think at this point we have 35 to 40 presses participating. It is a terrific way for local presses to get the word out to an audience. The Loom Press, Ibbetson Street, Salamander Magazine, Tuesday: An Art Project, and Zephyr Press are just a few of the presses that are participating.
Doug Holder: Jan, you are now an Asst. Professor of English at Salem State University. It is one thing to write poetry--it is another thing to teach it--right?
January O'Neil: You are absolutely right. It is a learning process. I have a lot of friends at Salem State. Jennifer included. I find that students are eager to learn. Like all writers students they have trouble starting a poem and trouble ending one. I teach Creative Writing which is really in my comfort zone. I am learning to get them to talk about poetry, and helping them get inspired. I am also teaching them to give constructive feedback.
Doug Holder: Both of you seem to be all about community--and this of course is strongly expressed in the Mass. Poetry Festival.
Jennifer Jean: I love what other organizations and the Mass. Poetry Festival are doing in helping create community. I feel connected to this greater thing...we share our poetry--our hearts.
January O'Neil: Yes. We go into the schools and talk to students who need help. We help them with their literary skills, and at the same time we broaden our connection to the literary community.
Doug Holder: I have seen both of you grow as poets over the years. I am impressed with your friendship and how you compliment each other.
Jennifer Jean: Jan is very helpful with all kinds of community organizing--nurturing. She has a natural ability, and a good and gracious heart.
January O'Neil: Jean is a talented poet. She is a good friend to have when you get your seventh rejection in one week. A high tide rises all boats. We are there for each other.
Doug Holder: Jan, you have a new poetry collection coming out " Misery Island." Can you talk about it.
January O'Neil. The title is named after an island in Salem Harbor. The poems deal with my divorce--two people clashing, and other themes.
*** For more information about the Mass. Poetry Festival go to http://masspoetryfestival.org