Poetry Communities in Massachusetts
In a society where the average person isn’t going to launch into an in-depth discussion of the latest poems in The New Yorker, poets need a place where they can kick back in the company of people who will. The following stories are about poetry communities across Massachusetts, places where you can get involved and grow as you swap opinions, likes and dislikes, enthusiasms, poems, and new ideas.
The Writers House, Merrimack College
by Katie Crawford
Since opening its doors in September of 2013, the Writers House has become a creative community for writers, filmmakers, playwrights and poets in North Andover, Massachusetts. As a part of Merrimack College, the Writers House creates a niche space for students to write, read and create. It is the “president of the college’s investment of the imagination,” says Andrea Cohen, poet and director of the program. The Writers House fosters imagination and ingenuity across several mediums. In order to reach out to as many students as possible, the Writers House offers a variety of programs and workshops.
Students can participate in courses at the Writers House, two of which Cohen teaches: Poetry and Creative Nonfiction. Students also host their own workshops, referred to as writer’s circles. The writer’s circles give students the opportunity to critique each others’ work. Students and members of the Writers House community put together a literary journal, The Merrimack Review. The Merrimack Review can be read here. The Writers House also hosts movie nights and open mics to showcase talent and foster a sense of community.
Students have the opportunity to work with writers in residence. The list of previous writer’s in residence is impressive, considering the two-year period the Writers House has been open, including Jamal May, who read poetry for the Writers House opening. Many talented individuals have contributed to the Writers House they include: Naomi Wallace (journalist), Robert Pinsky (poet), Jorie Graham (poet), Anna Schuleit Haber (MacCarthur Award winning artist), as well as a number of Pulitzers prize winners. The writers in residence hold workshops, that encourage students to strengthen their craft.
Cohen enjoys many different aspects of working at the Writers House, especially the interactions between students as they learn what is possible through the written word. Watching students realize that they can become writers as they connect with language is most satisfactory for Cohen. She works closely with Danielle Jones- Pruett, poet and program director at The Writers House. Both Cohen and Jones-Pruett are accomplished writers. Jones-Pruett being the recipient of the 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.
The events coordinated by the Writers House inspire many different people. The speakers invited to present at the Writers House are critical and innovative thinkers. Andrea is inspired by individuals with backgrounds that cover a wide range of areas and expertise. Students and the creative community are welcome to these public events. A full schedule can be accessed on their website.
Special Thanks to Andrea for her time. Andrea’s poetry can be accessed at AndreaCohen.org
The Writer's Room
A room of one's own in the middle of Boston.
You can walk right past the Writers’ Room. Located at 111 State Street in downtown Boston, it’s in a tall office building like any other in the area. But the minute you enter the quaint, slow-moving elevator—accompanied by a Writers’ Room member with the magic key to get you to the fifth floor—you can tell that there’s something worth stopping to look at here.
The Artists Foundation of Massachusetts established the Writers’ Room of Boston in 1988, first as a project and later, in 1993, as an incorporated non-profit. Today, the Writers’ Room is the only urban writers’ retreat in New England and can boast that it is both the second oldest such space in the country and the least expensive option in an urban setting. It’s open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and authors are welcome—and encouraged—to take advantage of the space as often as they like. Rural areas across the mid-Atlantic and farther south may boast lower membership dues, but they don’t have the operating costs a round-the-clock refuge in downtown Boston must cover.
To the authors and intellectuals who have become members of the Writers’ Room, it is a sanctuary, a home away from home, and, at least in part, a storage unit. Stepping off the elevator, members enter a foyer that houses bins for the current thirty five members of the Writers’ Room, as well as bookcases atop the storage space packed with books on various subjects, both real and imagined. The bins are like elementary school cubbies for the authors who come in and out of the Writers’ Room every day, at every hour of the day, filled with research materials, favorite mugs, and whatever else a writer may need to get through that next chapter.
Through a door around the corner from the elevator is where the magic happens. In here is the true Writers’ Room of Boston: ten cubicles with lamps, comfortable office chairs, and plenty of desk space, a work area that is available to members on a first come, first serve basis. The room is lined with floor to ceiling windows, allowing writers to contemplate the State Street cityscape of hustling commuters and usually unnoticed architecture. There is also, of course, a kitchen with the most necessary of writing tools, a coffee machine.
As it gets easier to ignore the writing to be done at home, with the distractions of television, the internet, and the influx of information we view and process every day, place like the Writers’ Room become more precious, more luxurious, and more necessary. The mission of the Room (as it’s affectionately called by those in the know) is to provide a secure writing space for those who want to finally push through the end of the larger writing projects for which they may not otherwise have the time or space. But the unofficial offerings are space, sunlight, and silence, a cocktail that has led to both private and public successes for some members, from the completion of countless works to the winning of prestigious awards.
Having your own space—and knowing you’re paying for the opportunity—is also a major motivational factor. If you become a member of the Writers’ Room, you’re afforded an incredible space in which to do incredible work. It would be a shame to let that go to waste. And with the financial factor there, you’re more likely to work hard and truly use the space to its potential, to feel that you’re getting your “money’s worth” and making the most of the membership you earned.
Despite the solitary nature of writing, the Writers’ Room has helped to develop a community of local writers from all disciplines and representing all genres and backgrounds. Membership usually hovers around a group of forty, though the Room is always looking to expand and open the door to local writers in need of space. The largely distraction-free space (that only just updated from a slow, procrastination-discouraging Ethernet) is the draw for many to the Writers Room, but the sense of community that members discover there is just as important. It’s a built-in workshop and a network of support, centered around an organization dedicated to encouraging collegiality among its members and strengthening Boston’s arts community.
Memory Blake Peebles, administrator at the Writers’ Room, joked that you “know people by the back of their heads,” chatting at the sign-in sheet near the elevator or for a moment before you settle into work, but the opportunity to discuss works-in-progress is always there. Every June, the Room also hosts a summer reading series at various universities and spaces across the greater Boston area, allowing members to come together—and see each others’ faces. In addition, those at the Writers Room hope to do more to help emerging writers, in particular, to ensure that these young talents are able to find and keep their feet in the writing and publishing realms. To that end, the Writers’ Room offers four fellowships to writers, open to anyone currently working on a project they need the extra push to complete. The first fellowship is the Ivan Gold, named for a local writer and founding member of the Room. The other three are awarded to one nonfiction author, one poet, and one emerging writer.
The sense of community continues into the board of directors who oversee the activities of the Writers’ Room and the day-to-day staff on State Street. Memory, the administrator, is herself an author, who joined the Room in August 2010 when she and her husband moved into a small proctor suite in a freshman dorm at Harvard. The economic break allowed for full-time writing, but there just wasn’t the space or quiet to truly focus. Luckily, Memory found the Writers’ Room and got to work on her story, “The Sugar Bowl,” then spent the next two and a half years editing. This past summer, “The Sugar Bowl” won Ploughshares 2013 Emerging Writer Contest.
If you’re a writer working on a collection of poems, a novel, or even a doctorate thesis, consider applying to the Writers’ Room and reap the benefits of space, sunlight, silence—and a dictionary on every desk. For more information, check out www.writersroomofboston.org to learn how to apply. The Writers’ Room will also be hosting an open studio night on November 14, beginning at 5pm, for interested parties to enjoy light refreshments and speak to current members about the benefits of membership.
A place to feed your desire for improved writing skills.
Grub Street can’t do anything to satisfy lunchtime munchies, as the name may suggest, but the organization can help you hone your writing skills. Founded in 1997 by Eve Bridburg, Grub Street began as a writing workshop with a “Can’t we all just get along?” attitude. Bridburg was in the MFA program at a local university and found herself dismayed by the competitive atmosphere. In response, she created Grub Street, a writing center featuring rigorous courses and workshops that would give supportive, helpful, and kind feedback to the writing community.
It sounds like the dream has become reality at Grub Street’s new location downtown, on the fifth floor of 162 Boylston Street. The guiding principles of the organization have been kindness and support, two traits that have allowed writers to let their voices be heard and have their work taken seriously, creating a true community out of the craftspeople who joined Bridburg in Grub Street’s early days. And, as Development and Communications Director Whitney Scharer says of Grub Street today, “We have a lot of fun.” There’s work to be done in the Grub Street halls, but writers have to approach it with a level of cautious optimism and a smile.
In the beginning, Grub Street was a place that ran two workshops with about six students each. Today, the organization boasts 600 classes and events this year alone, with about 2500 students walking the halls. Grub Street’s course catalog is the largest and most comprehensive in the country, offering workshops and seminars for writers of both poetry and prose, as well as hosting fun (and free!) events for members, such as literary field trips, publishing evenings to allow writers to mingle outside the classroom, and book clubs featuring instructor-led discussions and chats with the local authors of the chosen works.
Most classes take place at Grub Street headquarters, in cozy conference rooms in a beautiful old building, though they are now working to expand their online course selections, as well. The entire course catalog is online, as well as instructions for registration. Though registration for fall courses has closed, the new line-up of winter classes will be posted within the coming week, for all interested writers to check out.
Poets are well represented in the winter round-up, with such courses as Ten Weeks, Ten Poetry Revisions, which is exactly what it sounds like—ten weeks dedicated to revising ten poems; Jumpstart Your Poetry; Reading Poems Like a Writer, Writing Prose Like a Poet; and the Personal is Poetic. There will also be openings in a poetry master class, though an application is required to be considered. Though it won’t be offered this winter, also keep an eye out for the popular Six Weeks, Six Poems, as well, a course that gives students an open-ended prompt each week and results in six poems to revise and, possibly, submit for publication.
Incubators are another exciting class option, though they are currently only offered to novel and memoir writers. These incubators are yearlong intensives in which novel or memoir authors with a completed manuscript bring in their draft and work with the same instructor and workshop group on revising the draft for submission to an agent. The incubators allow for a group of like-minded writers to focus their attention on an entire, completed project, something that isn’t often allowed in the MFA workshop setting. The novel program is in its third year now, with a first-year incubator alum having landed a two-book deal and a second-year student with a book being published by Penguin, after a fierce auction.
Members at Grub Street get a slew of perks, as the free and exciting events above may have hinted. Additionally, for the $60 (and tax-deductible!) fee, Grub Street members get a small discount on course pricing, which runs $300 for a six-week course for non-members, $455 for ten weeks, and $550 for master classes, which are more intensive.
The bulk of instructors and consultants working at Grub Street are working writers, who bring a unique mix of teaching ability and personal experience to each conference room table, and some also teach at local universities. Grub Street asks that applying instructors fulfill two of the three criteria: a completed MFA, publishing experience, or teaching experience. This allows instructors of varying experience levels—from those just starting their publishing journeys to seasoned veterans—to share whatever they have with students from a wide variety of backgrounds and stages in their own writing careers. Grub Street also makes sure to pay their instructors a good wage, so these talented writers can both share their wisdom with their students and still have the time and financial stability to work on their own projects and passions.
Grub Street can also boast an impressive record of work outside the classroom, for instructors, students, and employees alike. The seminars no longer solely focus on the craft of writing. At Grub, authors can learn the business side of it, as well. In addition to well-respected instructors, students in the community have access to a series of professional development services, from one-on-one consultations with writers in their field, to a lawyer who does pro bono contracting work, to a new squad of Grub Geeks to aid with any and every technical issue and coach new authors through the social media hoops and the plethora of blogging platforms available to them. The Muse and the Marketplace Conference is a staple of Grub social life each year, which has expanded in recent years to include a more focused presentation of the publishing side of writing, aiding writers in their struggle to promote their books and market strategically. Grub Daily, the organization’s blog, also offers helpful advice from Grub staffers, as well as relating the top news stories to writers’ lives. Not sure how the Affordable Healthcare Act will affect you as a writer? Check out Grub’s analysis.
Recently, Grub Street also teamed with a number of literary partners and won an Adams Planning Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to create a literary cultural district in downtown Boston. With this grant, Grub Street and its partners have two years to use that funding to plan and implement resources for local writers. This new district would include a walkable area in the neighborhood of Grub Street headquarters, with a focus on highlighting the literary history of the surrounding area, as well as promoting the enthusiastic resurgence of interest in Boston’s literary community today. Powered by this new energy and interest, Grub Street and its partners hope to harness their joint might to create a full calendar of exciting events, spanning the city with new programs for writers.
An exciting feature of Grub Street is their dedication to inclusion. Pricing for the classes may seem daunting to struggling writers, but the organization does offer half-tuition scholarships to help cover the costs of any class. To apply, scholarship hopefuls only have to send a letter to the Grub Street staff requesting consideration, as well as a sample of their work. Luckily, Grub was able to expand the amount of scholarships given out this year, and they hope to continue to expand, to ensure that all those who are interested are able to participate at Grub Street. Fundraising efforts help fund both this scholarship program and the wages of the talented instructors and consultants on staff.
Above all, Grub Street is dedicated to helping writers hone their craft, complete their manuscripts, and successfully navigate the publication and promoting processes. As employees and instructors understand, those who are willing and excited to take part in a writing workshop most likely hope to turn their passion and skill into a worthwhile career, and the focus is on giving writers a product that will catch the attention of publishers.
The Calliope Reading Series @ West Falmouth Library
A muse to its members and the community.
Alice Kociemba is the director of Calliope (CAH-LIE-OH-PEE), a poetry group held at the West Falmouth Library in West Falmouth, MA. Since there was a need for a reading series in the area, Alice began the poetry series in January 2008. Over time, it has progressed to include not just readings by published poets, but also open mikes for the general public and unique writing workshops as well. The readings and open mikes are held approximately monthly on Sunday afternoons from mid-September to mid-May, excluding December. Workshops are held approximately monthly on Saturday afternoons.
Calliope’s name was difficult to come up with, but Alice says, “Calliope was the eventual choice because Calliope is the muse of epic poetry and eloquence.” She also notes, “Everybody needs a muse and Calliope can be that muse.”
Alice was excited to say that Calliope is most definitely a “community for poets.” She feels that “poetry is for everybody” and that Calliope’s environment allows new and seasoned writers alike to open up and improve their writing. The meetings are run for a suggested donation of $5 and begin with three (generally established and published) poets reading as the feature: usually one person from Cape Cod, one person from off the Cape, and one person from Boston. The features generally bring their books, which they are able to sign for audience members. The meetings then end with an open mike, where everyone is welcome to read a poem, including brand-new poets. Alice says you can hear a “thud” in an audience when a poem needs more work, which is why it can be very helpful to read your poetry to a group like Calliope. Many poets who attend the readings also attend the workshops, which are $25 for a full 3-hour session with a senior poet teacher. The workshops are limited to 12 people so they are a great environment to learn in and expand your poetic abilities.
Alice says, “The main purpose of Calliope is to provide a supportive environment for poets. The organization is able to support poets by allowing them to ’try out‘ their poems at an open mike to see if they need more work, by providing the opportunity to meet other poets from around the state, and through the workshops, which strive to teach the poetic art in interesting ways.” Examples of some upcoming workshops include “Poetry as Practice,” taught by Susan Donnelly. Calliope’s website states “This workshop will focus on getting started, recognizing the censor and finding the poem’s truth.” Another interesting upcoming workshop is called “How to Be a Good Public Reader of Your Own Writing,” led by Patrick Donnelly. This workshop will dedicate most of the time to one-on-one coaching.
Calliope is open to everyone in the community, and one does not need to become a member. If anyone has financial hardship, Calliope is able to provide the workshops and readings at a lower cost or no cost at all. Calliope pays each featured poet a $50 stipend and pays each workshop leader a $100 stipend. Alice was excited to talk about the first ever Calliope meeting, which was held on January 27, 2008. She says, “There had been a snowstorm, but 17 people still showed up for the reading.” Now, Calliope generally has an audience of approximately 35 people per reading. Alice says that Calliope plans to host a tribute reading for Seamus Heaney in December, and that they also plan to have an additional summer reading because of the grants they have been awarded.
Some advice that Alice gives to new and emerging poets is to form a writing practice and be disciplined about it, to join a writer’s group in your area (or start one at your local library if there is not one already), and to find a “publishing pal” to help you edit your poetry and tolerate the inevitable rejections. She says that some great journals to seek publication in include Plainsongs,The Aurorean, and other online journals.
Calliope is a poetry partner of Mass Poetry, and Alice Kociemba is on the advisory board and is part of the festival program planning committee for Mass Poetry. To learn more, visit their website: calliopepoetryseries.com.
The Concord Poetry Center
A community for poets outside of Boston.
It’s easy for poets in hubs like Boston or Cambridge to find like-minded artists and places to share their work. But where can Massachusetts poets outside the metro area go to read their work, participate in workshops, and find the feedback and support they need to practice their craft and hone their skills?
One answer is the Concord Poetry Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to building the poetry community beyond the limits of Massachusetts’ probably best-known cities. Founder Joan Houlihan created the Concord Poetry Center because, quite simply, she felt the need for such a place. Most of the poetry activity in the state centers on the City of Boston and many of the college campuses scattered across the state, leaving those in the suburbs with little access to a strong community of writers. Houlihan founded the CP in March 2004, and began by staging major events such as a Tribute to Donald Justice; a Remembrance of Jane Kenyon with Donald Hall, a favorite poem reading by Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart and more, followed by receptions that showcased local merchants’ food and wine. It also began a Sunday afternoon Community Reading Series that opened the creative floor to readings by center members and local poets from high schools and colleges. Members also led workshops on occasion while Houlihan began (and continues) a Wednesday evening workshop.
Houlihan was seeking space in which to hold a workshop at the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts in Concord, a non-profit organization itself, which has worked since the early 1980s to build a vibrant art community and provide space for artists of all disciplines to work, learn, and present their craft. When Houlihan brought her concerns about a lack of community—and her ideas for rectifying them—up to the programming director, he offered use of the Emerson Umbrella’s space. Houlihan had a place in which to begin building her organization. Her initial organizational meeting drew over 50 poets and poetry lovers from the area, and from this group, Houlihan asked for volunteers for various start up tasks and brainstorming. The Concord Poetry Center was built on the hard work and support of local volunteers and the backing of the Emerson Umbrella, which acted as a fiscal agent in the early years of the center. The founding members included Susan Richmond, Joan Kimball, Mary Zoll, Mike Perrow, Steven Cramer, Rebecca Winborn, Donna Johnson, Tayve Neese and others, and continues today with volunteers Kate Desjardin, Denise Bethle-Stacke (Tarsha), Barb Crane, Tom Daley, and Johanna Pittman, among others.
From the CPC’s founding in 2004 until about 2008, Houlihan sought ways to fund raise, seek grants, and build the Center’s volunteer base. The Emerson Umbrella offices and staff at the arts center helped with event-related administrative tasks such as ticket sales and handling of finances that would have otherwise bogged down Houlihan’s hard work. With the help of a dedicated interdisciplinary student at Lesley, Melissa Morris, the Center earned non-profit status in 2006. Houlihan took a step back in 2008, focusing primarily on building another organization, the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, and running workshops and starting open mic readings, hosted by another member, Barb Crane, at the Center.
Today, the Concord Poetry Center offers two to three poetry readings each year in the fall and in the spring, followed by an open mic. The CPC also holds readings in conjunction with other organizations and local events, including Concord’s RiverFest and the Concord Festival of Authors, to expand their members’ community. CPC also hosts a Massachusetts Poetry Festival Seven Threads discussion group in the spring.
Poets from across Massachusetts are welcome and encouraged to join the Concord Poetry Center. Yearlong membership costs $50, which gives members free admission to any CPC readings and events and a discount on any workshops put on by the Center. The 200 or so members are also the core group from which readers are chosen, meaning members get to showcase their work for their peers in an environment built by like-minded artists.
If you’re interested in becoming a part of the Concord Poetry Center community, please visit their website at www.concordpoetry.org for more information about the Center’s history and how to become a member.
Powow River Poets
Local poets have wide influence.
An interview with founding member Rhina Espaillat.
Rhina Espaillat is a founding member and former director of the Powow River Poets. She writes poetry and prose both in English and in her native Spanish. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Lyric, Poetry, Sparrow, Orbis, The Formalist, and The American Scholar, as well as some forty anthologies. Espaillat has eight poetry collections in print, including Where Horizons Go, which won the 1998 T. S. Eliot Prize; Rehearsing Absence, which won the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award; and most recently, Playing at Stillness. In 2004 she became the first winner of the Tree at My Window Award from the Robert Frost Foundation for her Spanish translations of Robert Frost and her English translations of Saint John of the Cross and César Sánchez Beras. That same year she also received the Dominican Republic’s Salome Ureña de Henríquez Award for service to Dominican culture and education.
How, when, and why did the Powow River Poets get started?
We began with a small nucleus of some five or six local poets in 1992, meeting at first in one another’s houses, and then in local cafes, then in the Newburyport Art Association and finally in the Newburyport Library once a month, to exchange poems with each other and trade comments and ideas. By then some of the earliest members had moved away or gone on to other interests, and new members had joined.
What was the purpose of the organization?
The chief purpose has always been the same: to get better at what we do by giving each other useful criticism. Additional purposes are the exchange among ourselves of such useful information as publication venues, contest news and so forth, and also the presentation of poetry to the reading public, especially but not exclusively in the local community, and the fostering and encouragement of local students. We run a free reading series that brings well-known poets to Newburyport to read every two months at Jabberwocky Books. We also present readings occasionally at other venues in and around Newburyport, individually or in small groups, often at events sponsored by other cultural groups in the area, such as the Newburyport Literary Festival, the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, the Whittier Home, museums, galleries and book stores. The person in charge of setting up those readings is currently Michael Cantor: you may want to contact him for details about that (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Has the purpose changed or expanded over the years? If so, why?
No, we’re still committed to improve as poets, and to serve the community by enriching its cultural and educational life to the extent that we can.
How does it support local poets?
By helping them to hone their craft, hear other poets and gain access to their books and recordings, and attempt new forms and techniques, such as polyphonic readings (readings by several voices), melopoeias (readings with musical backgrounds) and other combinations of two or more arts, including the visual and dramatic arts. I’m happy to report that the group has won a disproportionate number of national and international poetry awards, and has drawn attention and positive commentary from poets out of the area, including Dana Gioia, X. J. Kennedy and Lewis Turco. From eight to twelve of us attend the yearly West Chester Poetry Conference, the largest poetry conference in the country and the only one devoted specifically to the study of poetic craft. Almost all of us have published at least one book, and several have quite a few; a number have also published translations, both of the classics and from the work of contemporary foreign poets.
How many members do you have? How does one become a member?
We currently have twenty-five active members, of whom some eighteen or nineteen attend every meeting. We’re not actively seeking new members, as that’s a large number, and we like to give each poet as much time as possible at each of our monthly meetings. Poets seeking membership are asked to visit a reading first, without any work to share, to see if the group seems right for his needs, and then, if he chooses, to ask Don Kimball (email@example.com), the current workshop time-keeper and head of the membership committee, about membership.
What are some of the more exciting things your organization has done in the years since it began?
In addition to the workshop meetings, the bi-monthly readings by guest poets are our most exciting activities. We have presented to the public readings by several former U. S. Poet Laureates, including William Jay Smith and Richard Wilbur, as well as dozens of poets celebrated nationally and internationally. We have taken part in civic events, appeared at the Firehouse Center for the Arts, the Actors’ Studio and other cultural centers, and consistently mentored the work of Newburyport High School’s outstanding creative writing group, Poetry Soup, at the invitation of its director, teacher Debbie Szabo. As individuals, of course, our members have also done quite a few exciting things.
Deborah Szabo adds: The Powow Poets are at the core of a group of poets who serve as featured readers for Poetry Soup, the monthly poetry readings the kids hold at Newburyport High School. Several of the Powows have served as major inspiration for my students, especially, of course, Rhina, whom we fondly refer to as the “grandmother of Poetry Soup.”
What are your plans for the future?
We are considering, at the invitation of Newburyport Art Association Director Elena Bachrach and jointly with Debbie Szabo, the possibility of some shared activity bringing together the literary and the visual arts, and harnessing the talent of the area’s young people. Aside from this project, of course, we hope to continue doing what we’ve been doing so far, and whatever future challenges lead us to accomplish.
Szabo responds to what the Powow Poets are doing in this initiative: The project Rhina mentions will launch in the fall. Students from my Creative Writing class will write dramatic monologues based on the art work being shown at the Newburyport Art Association. It was Rhina’s idea! Not sure yet how the Powows will fit in, but I’m hoping we can use poems they have written from the point of view of inanimate objects as models for my students to read and study before going to the Art Association to write their own.
The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers
A month-long celebration of female creativity.
March 2014 marked the 103rd year of International Women’s Day in America, the start of a celebration of women that blossomed into Women’s History Month. For those in Massachusetts—and, specifically, the Berkshires—this March will also mark the fourth annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long festival packed with daily events and workshops designed to help women of all ages embrace their creativity and step into the spotlight to share their insights. It is the initial activity for writers sponsored by the Berkshire Women Writers.
Dr. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez (pictured left), founder of the festival and chair of the organizing committee, was inspired to develop a month-long program in 2011, after having helped organize the International Women’s Day Conference since 2002. For the conference, speakers would come to Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA, and talk about international women’s issues. Browdy de Hernandez realized that the women in the audience had just as much talent to offer, and more than one day would be necessary to allow each woman to use her voice. She set out to build a festival of creation and discovery, with at least one event to mark every day of Women’s History Month.
Every March in the Berkshires since the festival’s inception, women and men from across Massachusetts gather to take part in writing workshops, hear speakers talk about their own creative experiences, and explore what untapped potentials live within them. The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers has maintained the same mission since the beginning—to open up spaces for ordinary women to have their voices heard in the public sphere. This isn’t a highbrow literary festival; the creators aren’t big names that take months of planning to bring to the Berkshires. This month of events is about tapping into the creative potential of women, largely local, and some of them seemingly beyond their “creative years.” An estimated 3000 attendees came to the daily events last March, and that number can only grow as time goes on.
As Browdy de Hernandez notes, “It’s not just a local hunger we’re feeding.” Some of the attendees have traveled many miles to take part in the festivities. After lives full of friends, families, and careers, some women just need a nudge to embrace their artistry and take themselves seriously as writers.
This year, Browdy de Hernandez has focused the festival’s purpose: “Writing the Self, Righting the World.” This “cheesy, but true” outlook is close to Browdy de Hernandez’s heart, as she truly believes that writing and creativity can change the world, when that energy is nurtured and given a public outlet. Every person on the planet is needed to make changes for good, especially in Browdy de Hernandez’s special interest, climate change and environmental causes, and the festival is just one way for women to embrace their power to be heard and initiate change.
There will be a total of 58 events next month, with about 150 women presenting various activities and talks. Every event is free and open to the public, though there are three events this year open only to women, in order to create a safe space in which writers may freely express their thoughts and creations. Men are absolutely allowed—and encouraged—to attend all other readings, talks, and workshops, because, as Browdy de Hernandez put it, “When men give a reading, they expect women to come. So why not the same for women?”
The majority of the presenters are local or have some connection to the Berkshires, with some coming in from New York and three international speakers—Raquel Partnoy, Alicia Partnoy, and Ruth Irupé Sanabria—featured in the International Women’s Day panel entitled “On the Side of Justice” on Sunday, March 9. Browdy de Hernandez cites the amazing talent Massachusetts can boast, right in their own backyards, for the local popularity. The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is an amazing example of the community that can grow up around writers at every stage of their careers.
Each year, the festival hosts a writing contest, once essay-focused but which now also encourages poets and prose writers to respond to a prompt. Lyrical prose is something that interests the festival’s founder, who feels that really great prose becomes poetry. Browdy de Hernandez said that the reading of the winning selections is a powerful experience, often ending with the audience in tears as everyday women share stories from both their lives and their imaginations.
On Thursday, March 6, one of the festival’s women-only events rook place. “The Belly Monologues” is a workshop inspired by The Vagina Monologues, meant to write and celebrate a largely maligned, but truly important, part of the female anatomy—the belly. Another exciting part of this year’s lineup was a series of partnerships with the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home, where several festival events occurred. One of the most popular was “Women Writers of a Certain Age,” which relocated to a larger space to accommodate the high demand and took place this year on Sunday, March 16. This event wass aimed at women over 40, who, Browdy de Hernandez noted, get gutsier with sharing what’s in their hearts as time goes on.
Beyond the festival, Browdy de Hernandez hopes to create a community of writers that can keep the creative energy of March flowing all year long. She thought she would be exhausted at the end of the first festival, but instead found herself—and the attendees—exhilarated, energized, and ready to spend the year until the next go-around writing and sharing. Out of this excitement grew the Lean-In Group, a monthly meeting of any woman interested in stopping by the Berkshire Museum on a Sunday afternoon. The Lean-Ins are meant for women to share their work and experiences, as well as helping them to find an understanding and supportive community of fellow women writers.
Browdy de Hernandez is also proud to have spearheaded a series of writing workshops for 2014, the first of which happened in January. In February, there was a workshop focused on writing about love, “Writing from the Heart,” held at the Mount on Thursday, February 13. This workshop brought together six different writers and allowed women to explore the theme of love, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Browdy de Hernandez had promised different perspectives than the lighter fare that comes around at that time of year, a chance for women to search deeper for their own words about love.
An exciting opportunity for poets arrives in the Berkshires this June, with another writing workshop lead by local poet and this year’s Berkshire Festival of Women Writers program coordinator Jan Hutchinson. Hutchinson wrote a poem every morning for over a decade, but was only recently published through the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire. She now has two volumes of poetry out and will hopefully inspire some other waiting poets to pursue their passions this summer.
Browdy de Hernandez notes that through her time developing the festival, she’s come to know many women like Jan Hutchinson, who have the talent and drive, but chose to focus on other aspects of their lives. Now, they have the time to create and their voices are only getting stronger with age and experience. Browdy de Hernandez hopes to “shake the bushes” and bring out these local talents, whose endeavors may have been sidetracked, but need not be put aside permanently.
Browdy de Hernandez believes that the festival that happens in the Berkshires is something that could absolutely be replicated in cities across the region, if not the country. Even a few days during the month of March could make a world of difference to a woman desperately searching for her voice.
There are a number of events that feature poets or poetry at this year’s festival. The full listing of events at the fourth annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is now available online. Alternatively, if you’re in the area, printed programs will be available throughout the Berkshires in coming weeks. Upcoming events at the Mount can also be found online at their website. For more information on attending a lean-in meeting or workshop, get up to date information from the festival website.