1st Poetry Festival is Large, Local, and Unique to the U.S.

Apr 3, 2014

Kalamazoo writer and poet Bonnie Jo Campbell
Kalamazoo writer and poet Bonnie Jo Campbell
Credit Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

There must be something in the water that attracts so many writers and poets to Kalamazoo.

Local poet Susan Blackwell Ramsey has written a lot of poems about our little corner of the mitten. She says asking why there are so many poets in Kalamazoo is like asking “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” 

Poet Susan Blackwell Ramsey
Poet Susan Blackwell Ramsey
Credit Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

“I think the fact that we have so many poets is one of the reasons we have so many poets," Ramsey says.

"You can always find someone to work with. You can find a large enough group of people who have some things in common with you, but enough things different from you to keep it interesting.”

The Kalamazoo Poetry Festival this weekend will feature about 20 local poets representing about 15 different local arts and cultural organizations.

Ramsey says if you want to go to a poetry festival of this size, you usually have to make a trip to Washington or New Jersey.

There aren’t that many big poetry festivals and until now, Ramsey says, none of them were in the Midwest.

“When I worked at the Athena Bookshop our little joke was, ‘You can’t throw a brick in this town without hitting a poet and some days it’s tempting.’ And that’s why this festival is different from any other poetry festival I’ve heard of," she says.

"This one is to celebrate the local poets and the two big bug poets from out of town are being brought in as a treat for the locals, as a reward for the locals.”

The two guest poets Ilya Kaminsky and Aracelis Girmay will read Saturday night at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Ramsey helped bring Girmay to the festival. 

Kalamazoo Poetry Festival guest poet Aracelis Girmay
Kalamazoo Poetry Festival guest poet Aracelis Girmay
Credit Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

“I tend to shy away from political poetry and she makes her poems so beautiful—they sound so wonderful, they’re so focused on individual people—that before you realize it you’re through the poem and she’s broken your heart. And you didn’t have a chance to escape, you didn’t see it coming,” Ramsey says of Aracelis Girmay.

“I’m also looking forward to hearing Ilya Kaminsky who’s 6 foot 4, largely deaf since birth, Russian, who always gives people copies of his poems in advance and reads in the high Russian declamatory manner. And everyone has stories about him and they always end and everyone loves him.”

George Martin, who spearheaded the poetry fest, isn’t a poet himself, but he realized that the Kalamazoo poetry scene needed something bigger than a few scattered readings.

Poetry groups weren’t talking to each other and some talent wasn’t being recognized.

“It also seemed that a lot of the poets who weren’t so well known were not aware of the ones who had been doing it for some time. And that there are a lot of poets out there that none of us know about, that a lot of people are writing poetry. That it’s really a community enterprise," he says. "It’s not just something that people in the academy do, it’s something that everybody does.”

Martin says like many people, he struggles with some poetry. He says he doesn’t think in metaphors, and he doesn’t always get the literary and historical references.

But with so many poets reading in all different styles, you’re bound to find something up your alley. And who knows? Ramsey says you might be inspired to scribble something down yourself.

“Oh I think everybody better come with a piece of paper in their back pocket and a pen. In a pinch you can always write on your hand,” Ramsey says.