Reflecting on the 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival

by Woody Woodger | May 2017

It’s a little sad, but I’ve gotten so jaded, at this point I judge the merit of something by my ability to emoji it—to accurately assign my emotional experience one of the little pictograms your mother finds funnier than you do but only sends the worst ones. For instance, reading a BuzzFeed article: frustrated emoji, any Dunkin Donuts attached to a gas station: queazy emoji, the movie “Magic Mike”: embarrassingly, eggplant emoji.

I do this with restaurants, people’s handwriting, scones. More troublesome, I’ve come to start doing this with people and poems. Those things I should grant more weight—my passions, the friends I’ll lose after this year—all have begun to appear as part of the clutter, those many things I have little time tend to, let alone enjoy.

It was a three hour trip to reach Salem from Westfield. I had not been back since attending the Salem Poetry Seminar two years ago and it was only because of the Seminar that I was driving down the Thursday before the Festival. I was invited to participate in the Seminar alumni reading with poets who I honestly had no business elbowing with. Lisa Mangini, Joey Gould, Shari Chaplin. These were poets I’ve read for class, used as models works.

I illegally parked on Chestnut Street behind the Salem Athenaeum where the reading was to be held. White-knuckling the steering wheel a bit before getting out, I had to brace my chicken arms against the cold coming off the harbor. One the ride, the dull terror in my stomach had fully coagulated somewhere over the Zakim.

But there is something about the Salem Athenaeum that immediately feels like slippers. Every alum of the Seminar agrees that the Athenaeum holds an infinitely indefinable quality. You’re forced to appreciate. Appreciate the moment and the history of a place best imagined by candle light.

As was to be expected, every reader—all alums of the Seminar—were wonderful. Insightful, engaging, polished, and desperately thankful to have come to experience the night. By some terrible clerical error I was slated to finish off the night. With wine-teeth and my nasally tenor, I shakily tried my best to imitate all those who read before me.

The Salem Town Hall clearly used to be a church. On the second floor, the morning careens through the high windows. From here, you’d think the whole world was made of brick and light rolls off the roof shingles like loose change.

It’s Student Day of Poetry and I sit to the side, watch as high schoolers from around the area bring themselves to share what they’ve been working on in class. The ceilings are so high the room probably has its own whether and the mic it turned up high.

One girl in Doc Martins and a sleeve of rubber bands comes up. She’s eager and nervous and persistent. She reads a prayer to god, her mother, the police that she didn’t put her hoodie on for target practice. A boy, Nikes and a Polo, wondered when someone besides a kid with a microphone would be brave enough to speak with him. I still can’t find an emoji for that.

Their words got caught up in the rain from the ceiling. I saw grass grow through the floorboards.

While I tried to write in a cafe on my down time I saw some high schoolers who must have snuck away making out next to me. It would have been more aggravating if they were any good at it. They seemed to be enjoying themselves anyway. I glanced over to see them shuffle the books they bought around their coffees, a passage already booked marked with a napkin.

I was a floater for most of the festival. A volunteer to be ready if any a spots needed filling.

The festival was already so well staffed that my only real assignment was assisting with the “Gratitude and Grief” workshop with the aim to help current or former caregivers work through and document their grief through poetry. Salem State Professor of literature and writing Elisabeth Weiss Horowitz headed the class—a former caregiver herself. I took attendance to the best of my ability, but the Essex room at the Hawthorn Hotel filled to max capacity almost immediately.

I needed to facilitate Horowitz’s first activity—the grief chain. You don’t really see a person’s hands until they are shaking, gingerly taping a strip of construction paper with their husband’s name to the end of a long chain of names. Those hands shake like a fish freshly surprised by their first breath of air.

One woman, when asked to share a painful memory, broke down as she recounted the first time her mother forgot her name. She made it through the entire story, and once she did a stranger next to her held her by the shoulders. She cried that kind of breif, strong cry. The kind that believes it deserves to be there. The kind of cry I wish I had in me.

I left the Festival late Friday night. The three hours in silence, no Spotify, no podcasts. I let the blurry road hum in my ears, still simmering from that heavy dose of humanity—the greatest dose of homecoming.


Woody Woodger’s first chapbook postcards from glasshouse drive is currently forthcoming from Finishing Line Press and his poetry has received publication in Barely SouthExposition Review, 2 Bridges ReviewSoundings East, and (b)OINK, among others. He will attend Western Washington University’s MFA program in Fall 2017 and was a graduate of the Salem State Poetry Seminar. He currently resides in New England.