Reading series interview: Voices of poetry
a conversation between Frances Donovan and host Neil Silberblatt
How did Voices of Poetry come about?
I began organizing Voices of Poetry series of poetry readings in 2012 due to what I perceived as a dearth of opportunities for poets and writers who were serious about their craft (but who were not well known) to share their work with people who might not be familiar with, or receptive to, contemporary poetry.
There were–and still are–many venues (bars, restaurants, etc.) which host open mic events (which are wonderful), but there were–and still are–very few which host readings by contemporary poets and writers. The Connecticut Poetry Society was not hosting or presenting any such events, and I very much wanted to hear and present the work of poets and writers who were deeply committed to this craft.
Since (like nature) I abhor a vacuum, I approached local libraries in Connecticut (where I then lived) to see if they’d be willing to host such events. After considerable begging, they finally relented and agreed to host some. Eight years later, we’re still at it, though with less begging.
Did you develop it on your own, or do you collaborate with others?
Any creative endeavor is an act of collaboration. Even the composer who locks himself into a room to write a symphony must depend on the person outside that room to occasionally feed him/her. As Donne wrote, “no man is an island entire of itself.”
I was and remain the sole founder and director of Voices of Poetry. I am responsible for organizing all of our events, including finding the venue, inviting the poets, preparing press releases and posters, etc. But I could not, and would not pretend to, claim to have done all this “on my own”. Our Voices of Poetry group on Facebook (of which I am the host and administrator) – which I believe is one of the largest poetry sites on social media – has almost 8,600 members around the globe. Those members serve as my collaborators.
Are you affiliated with any organization such as a journal, a press, a school, or a bookstore?
I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beyond that, no.
However, several of our Voices of Poetry events have been benefits for various causes and organizations, including the ACLU, Loaves and Fishes (the food pantry and soup kitchen in New Milford, CT), Lower Cape Outreach Council, and a fund for Stop and Shop employees during their strike.
What makes your reading series different from others?
Tough question. What makes my (or anyone’s) children different from others? The love you have for them. The effort you put into raising them. The hard work you pour into them. So it is with our VOP events.
Our VOP series has featured current or former Poets Laureate of Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont (and, in May 2020, Maine), Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees, National Book Award winners and finalists, as well as poets who have not yet published a word. They have featured, and will feature, people who are serious about their work, and who are eager to share that work. The only requirement at our VOP events is that the poets and writers read their own original work.
Who comes to your series?
Since 2012, more than a thousand people have attended our VOP events. I have compiled a list of their names and addresses. Just kidding.
To my delight, people of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities, etc. have attended our events. As but one example, we presented a Voices of Poetry event at Ike’s and Randy’s Boxing Gym in Paterson, New Jersey. That event drew a full house, which included deans from Columbia and NYU, as well as a host of amateur boxers who were curious what we were doing in their gym.
My ideal audience member is someone who insists that they’re not “really into”, or do not “really get”, contemporary poetry. In the words of Harvey Milk, I want to recruit that person. Because if that person is introduced to good contemporary poetry, he or she will become an emissary for same.
What upcoming featured poets are you really excited about?
As I used to tell my kids, I love them both equally. I am really excited about all the featured poets who will be reading at our VOP events. Come hear them. Each is worth hearing.
Can you describe your venue? Is it wheelchair accessible?
We do not have a single venue for our VOP events. When I formed VOP, some well-meaning friends suggested that we confine our events to one or a handful of venues. As you can see, I declined to follow that advice since our goal was and remains to bring good contemporary poetry to people, and vice versa. In selecting a venue for our VOP events – and I am always looking for new venues – I look for essentially four things: 1) their willingness to host literary events (which rules out Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park); 2) good acoustics and receptive audiences (which rules out noisy bars or restaurants); 3) whether they’re amenable to helping promote the event; and 4) whether there are good poets willing to read at that venue.
Here are some of the venues where we have presented–and will be presenting–our VOP events:*
Eastham Public Library, Eastham, MA
Eldredge Public Library, Chatham, MA
FACES Gallery, Dennis Port, MA
First Parish Brewster, Brewster, MA
Main Street Wine and Gourmet, Orleans, MA
The Mount / Edith Wharton’s Home, Lenox, MA
Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), Provincetown, MA
The 1717 Meetinghouse, West Barnstable, MA
Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters, Brewster, MA
St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Chatham, MA
Sturgis Public Library, Barnstable, MA
Tao Water Art Gallery, West Barnstable, MA
Tilden Arts Center at Cape Cod Community College, Barnstable, MA
Addison Art Gallery, Orleans, MA
AMP: Art Market Provincetown, Provincetown, MA
The APP Space, Yarmouth Port, MA
Artspace Community Arts Center, Greenfield, MA
Barnstable Municipal Airport, Hyannis, MA (May 2020)
Brewster Ladies’ Library, Brewster, MA
Chesterwood, Stockbridge, MA (April 2020)
Cape Cod Theatre Company, West Harwich, MA
Chatham Fiddle Company, Chatham, MA
Chesterwood, Stockbridge, MA (May 2020)
The Cultural Center of Cape Cod, South Yarmouth, MA
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, Chatham, MA
Wellfleet Public Library, Wellfleet, MA
Most of these venues are wheelchair accessible. However, people should always check with the venue to make sure.
There are some venues which hold special meaning for me, and where I dearly hope to present Voices of Poetry events there. These are on my bucket list:
Ellis Island Visitors’ Center (where my mom and her parents entered this country), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Morgan Library & Museum, The Frick Collection, The Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Beinecke Library, Yale, Boston Public Library, Rizzoli Bookstore, and, if my health holds out, Shakespeare & Company Books, Paris.
Is there a cover charge?
It varies with the venue and the event. Most of our VOP events are free. For some, we have a suggested donation (such as those which have been fundraisers). So that we can offer honoraria to the poets, we charge a modest admission for some.
Are you aiming for a particular aesthetic or vibe with your featured poets?
Yes, good, interesting and original contemporary poetry (or prose). Read and heard by people who care about the spoken word. That is the only “vibe”.
Does your series include an open mic? If so, is there anything poets should know before signing up for it?
With rare exceptions (e.g. our VOP events at The Tilden Arts Center in Barnstable, MA), our VOP events do not include an open mic. However, our VOP event on Saturday, April 18, 2020 at 2 pm at Chesterwood–the home and studio of American sculptor Daniel Chester French in Stockbridge, MA–will include readings by students from local and regional high schools (who have been selected by their respective schools).
If someone would like to be considered as a featured poet for your series, how should they go about inquiring?
Do you have a mailing list or other way people can learn about your future readings? How can people sign up?
We do not have a mailing list. People can learn about our upcoming VOP events by visiting the Voices of Poetry page on Facebook, by contacting me, or by attending some of our events. The third is the preferred course.
*Editor’s note: This list was edited for length. VOP also holds events in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. For more information, please refer to their Facebook page, linked above.
Frances Donovan’s chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore (Reaching Press, 2018) was named a finalist in the 31st Lambda Literary Awards. Publication credits include The Rumpus, Snapdragon, and SWWIM. She holds an MFA in poetry from Lesley University, is a certified Poet Educator with Mass Poetry, and has appeared as a featured reader at numerous venues. She once drove a bulldozer in an LGBTQ+ Pride parade while wearing a bustier. You can find her climbing hills in Boston and online at www.gardenofwords.com. Twitter: @okelle.