Celebrating the how of poetry

Gwyneth Lewis will salute Dylan Thomas' centenary.
Gwyneth Lewis will salute Dylan Thomas' centenary. (KEITH MORRIS)
Posted: June 02, 2014

The West Chester University Poetry Conference, one of the biggest and most respected in the country, was born during a long talk in 1994 over a bottle of Clos du Bois pinot noir out in Sebastopol, Calif.

Now it's 2014, and from Wednesday to Saturday, the conference, with its famous writers, teachers, and 250 to 300 poets, will celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Back in 1994, poet Dana Gioia (who would become head of the National Endowment for the Arts, 2003-09) and Michael Peich, then-professor of English at West Chester University, came up with the idea of a conference focusing on craft .

How to build poems. Rhythm. Meter. How to write a sonnet. How to tell a story in verse. How to assemble your first book. How to get that book published. Reading aloud. What every poet needs to know and no poet ever masters.  

Those 250 to 300 poets will gravitate to workshops, readings, seminars, awards presentations, and panel discussions. There will be special events, including a celebration of Dylan Thomas (whose centenary is this year  ) and a gala dinner on Saturday, plus a concert by singer Diane Schuur.

Many offerings are free; if you're interested, consult the online schedule (bit.ly/1kqHZpZ). As for the parts you have to pay for, you can walk in off the street and register for the whole conference, or arrange packages to cover the parts you're interested in.

That focus on craft makes it different and keeps many participants coming back year after year.

Eminent poet X.J. Kennedy, a West Chester keynoter in 1999, says, "It's the only conference I know where they care about how poems get written." A tribute to Kennedy happens on Friday at WCU. "The conference attracts poets who go in for what some call the 'old-fashioned traditions' of rhyme and rhythm," Kennedy says. "And happily, there are many young people who realize that the best way to be radical these days is to go back to the old verities."

Kim Bridgford, professor of English at West Chester and an accomplished poet (along with everyone quoted in this piece), is running the conference, something she calls "a full-time job." She says the motto of the conference is "Grandeur and Kindness," a motto meant to apply both to the kind of poetry we write and to the way we discuss poetry.

"We celebrate tradition but use tradition to move forward," Bridgford says. "We take the need for the past seriously. But what's really striking are all the different communities of poets who gather here. And we have expanded what we do to embrace the poetry of the spoken word, the online poetry universe, and the hip-hop community."

David Yezzi, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and a stalwart member of the faculty at the conference, says, "Some of the people who come have been coming for the entire time the conference has existed. And some are new. But you see many return, again and again." Why? "Because you're always wanting to know more about the craft. And you want to be part of this nurturing community, because it really is. And they want to talk to the writers."

One returnee will be Virginia Strong Newlin, 93, selected in February as the poet laureate of East Goshen Township. "This is my fifth or sixth time," she says. For 30 years she has been a writing instructor at Main Line School Night in Radnor Township. "At first, I was highly skeptical about West Chester," she says, "because I thought, 'Well, they concentrate on formal poetry, and sometimes I write free verse.' But the poets I worked with accepted my work and took it seriously and backed me up on it. That open-mindedness is a big plus. It's a wonderful atmosphere that leaves you feeling you and your work are worthwhile." She says now that she's poet laureate, "I'd better get a book together to show them something solid."

Sam Talucci, a poet and arts and crafts artist in West Chester, is back for his third go. "The workshops are invigorating, and the social atmosphere is beyond any I've seen at such a gathering. Plus the group of poets they have as workshop leaders, it's exhilarating." He's editing his poetry, "trying to get maybe two or three manuscripts out of it."

There's a Saturday for Teachers program in which teachers of poetry get together. Gaetan Pappalardo, a third-grade teacher at Green-Fields Elementary School in West Deptford, is part of it. "I just want to get at the writers," he says, excitement in his voice. "For teachers to ask questions about the creative life, the process, inspiration, that's important. When you see kids you're teaching, kids with potential, you want to be ready and give them help beyond the ordinary." He has written a children's book and is working on two more.

A gathering of fine poets is on hand, including Yezzi, Gioia, Molly Peacock, Russell Goings (former NFL player and author of the griot-style epic poem The Children of Children Keep Coming), Tim Steele, David Mason (whose 2007 epic poem Ludlow will be celebrated), and many others.

In remembrance if not in the flesh, Dylan Thomas will be there, too. With Gioia, Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis will lead a celebration of his work. A poet living in Cardiff, Wales, she grew up speaking Welsh and did not learn English until she was 3. But she then went on to earn advanced degrees, and great praise for her poetry. She met Gioia and happened to mention the centenary of Thomas' birth. And now she's coming to the West Chester conference.

The first thing that attracts her to her fellow Welsh poet "is his amazing music," Lewis says. "But there's a myth going around that he was all music and no content. That's nonsense. I find him consistently brilliant. I'm just astonished by his intelligence, in a poet who died before he was 40. Many of his poems are a young man's poems."

Thomas, in his famous tours of the United States, used to read not only his own work, but also the poetry of others. Lewis and Gioia will try to re-create that experience at West Chester. "We're just trying," she says, "to spread the joy of discovery around."

Bridgford quotes photographer Marion Ettlinger as saying that West Chester "sounds like four days of the best literary party in the United States." She adds: "That's about what it is, and it's so exciting to have everybody converge on this beautiful town."


POETRY

The 20th Annual West Chester University Poetry Conference

Wednesday to Saturday at West Chester University. Day events: Sykes Student Union, 110 W. Rosedale Ave.; night events: Swope Music Building, 817 S. High St.

Tickets: Many events free; walk-in registration and packages for select events available.

Information: 610-436-3235 or www.wcupoetrycenter.com/poetry-conference

>Inquirer.com

Listen to Gwyneth Lewis read Dylan Thomas' "In My Craft or Sullen Art" at www.inquirer.com/thomas


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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