Poetry in motion: Collaborative outdoor poetry project kicks off Saturday

Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2010

Poetry in the Park, a new collaborative project under way in Juneau, aims to get poetry moving - off the page, through the mouths of Juneau's poets and potential poets and into the ears and minds of the public, whether they think of themselves as poetry fans or not.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Organized by Juneau Parks and Recreation Director Marc Matsil and two University of Alaska Southeast assistant professors, Kevin Maier and Jenifer Vernon, the project kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Project Playground at Twin Lakes. The event will feature readings from invited poets - recent Poetry Omnibus winners, Ishmael Hope and (most likely) Vernon, among others - and offer an open-mic session for others to share their own work or poetry they admire.

By bringing poetry out in the open, Poetry in the Park organizers hope to expose a broad range of locals of all ages to the literary form, especially those who might not otherwise hear it. The informal, public park venues encourage a less academic, more visceral and inclusive approach to what can be an intimidating genre - even to those that revel in the written word.

"(We hope to) encourage people to think about poetry and public spaces in a new way," Maier said.

The organizers, who want to make this a regular happening around town, also hope to encourage collaborative, mixed media performances in the future, such as between poets and musicians or other performing artists.

The idea was hatched by Matsil and Maier, both poetry fans, while the two dads were chatting at Eaglecrest. Vernon, a local poet whose book "Rock Candy" was recently honored with the TIllie Olsen Award, came on board soon after, and between the three of them the project quickly progressed from an idea to an actual happening.

Vernon, an assistant professor of communications at UAS, said that though there hasn't been much of an organized poetry "scene" in Juneau, there are lots of poets.

"We just need a forum - a spot, a microphone and an audience," she said.

She also said she hopes amateur poets will be encouraged to share their work.

"It's an excellent opportunity for people who don't consider themselves poets to give it a shot," she said.

As the project gets going, Matsil said he hopes to bring poetry to more unexpected venues around town. He vividly remembers seeing a performance of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in a dilapidated old theater while on a date with his eventual wife, Weld Royal, in New York City. The oddness of the surroundings enhanced his experience of the work, he said.

"It was just remarkable," Matsil recalls.

In that urban vein, he's also thinking about encouraging an open forum like London's Hyde Park Speaker's Corner, possibly at Gunakadeit Park downtown, or eventually setting up poetry slams. He'd also like to see events planned throughout the city's public areas, including out the road.

"We'd really like to infuse this artistic medium in many of our parks, not necessarily only downtown," Matsil said.

The first Poetry in the Parks event will be a bit youth-oriented, in keeping with the venue, but future events will be more broad.

"I don't think we need to limit ourselves to thinking that this is something only adults can do," Maier said.

Maier, an assistant professor of English at UAS, said he had an epiphany after watching Brett Dillingham's recent storytelling session at the Canvas, where Dillingham and Juneau Charter School kids told original stories, some with the accompaniment of local musicians. Maier said soon after that event he realized his son, 3, was not too young to be introduced to poetry, and began reading it to him on a regular basis. So far he has loved it, Maier said.

Including young poets in Poetry in the Park events also helps emphasize the open nature of the project.

The idea is to keep the action going year-round, perhaps with some theme-oriented sessions centering on specific poets. All three organizers said the first event is being approached with flexibility, as an experiment.

"It may take a while to get things going - people have to see what you even mean by an open mic," Vernon said.

"We'll just see where it takes us," Matsil said.

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