Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cambridge Community Poem: Bringing Poetry to The People

Former Cambridge Populist Peter Payack sent me the introduction to his book project (Cambridge Community Poem) that should be released in Feb. 2011. I am very pleased to be included:

Bringing Poetry to The People

As Cambridge’s first Poet Populist, one of my first initiatives was to create a poem, by the people of Cambridge. Instead of me writing about Cambridge, my idea was to let the many voices of Cambridge write a poem about their town. The result is now in your hands.

What makes this collection, this poem of 231 parts, unique is that it is not written exclusively by poets. It is written by the very people who make up Cambridge itself.

This volume includes poems by octogenarians, third graders, college presidents and professors, city workers, Pulitzer Prize winners, elected officials, Grammy Award winners, teachers, All-Americans, All-State athletes and a five-time NFL Pro Bowler, comedians, street performers, carpenters, high school students, scientists, researchers, lawyers, actors, doctors, artists, nurses, coaches, bicycle mechanics, marathoners, Poet Laureates, firefighters, pharmacists. And even poets and writers, if you can imagine that!

I put out a call asking for poems with up-lifting themes of city life, peace, community spirit, and the past, present and future of Cambridge. This was followed up with several news stories including a front page piece in the Boston Globe (February 20, 2009). I received hundreds of poems, from people down the street to people around the planet.

I attended various city events, like the Cambridge River Festival, the Revels RiverSing and Fresh Pond Day, went to visit the Kennedy-Longfellow School, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, and Haggerty schools, gave numerous poetry readings and talked with people that I ran into on the street.

Then out of the blue, the idea itself was endorsed by one of the living legendary poets of our time, John Ashbery. When on a visit to Harvard to receive the University’s Arts Medal, he said when asked in the Boston Globe: (Q) “Cambridge’s Poet Populist, Peter Payack, is asking residents to submit a few lines of poetry for a ‘community poem.’ Do you think this is a good idea?” And to tell the truth, I held my breath wondering what Ashbery was going to say! (A) “I like the idea of many voices contributing to a single poem. The 19th century proto-surrealist French poet Lautreamont once wrote that poetry should be made by everybody, and that sounds like what this project is carrying out.” Phewww…. But, I already knew the answer, anyway.

For forty years I have made it my mission to bring poetry out of the hands of strictly the academics and bring it back to the people, where it belongs. I have done this with a number of projects starting with Phone-a-Poem, The Cambridge/Boston Poetry Hotline, (1976-2001), which some weeks would receive up to 50,000 calls. And most recently Poet Populist Peter Payack’s Poetry Cookies that you can still buy at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. (Find complete list of my major public poetry projects in the addendum.)

Cambridge has always been seen as a special place. And what makes Cambridge that special place is the people who have at one time or another called it their home, from the Wampanoag Tribes, the first European settlers who re-named the area Newtowne, George Washington and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to our venerable senior citizens and our school children of today.

As intended this collection, this poem, has a symphony of voices. I tried to give artistic freedom to each writer and so did very little stylistic editing. These are Cambridge voices through and through.

I hope the Cambridge Community Poem brings some poetic light to the special place we call home.

Peter Payack
January 29, 2011
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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