Notes on the Culture

Ah, Massachusetts, land of letters! How do I love thee? Let me count the poets: Dickinson, Kerouac! Longfellow, Cummings! And of course, the Roberts—Frost and Lowell! Speaking of Lowell—and by that I mean the city, and not the tremendous author of “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead”—the inaugural Massachusetts Poetry Festival is going on this weekend in that mighty Merrimack burg. And, well, I’m feeling a little ambivalent about it.

Now, I have an admission to make: I love poetry, and I continue to choose to read it and savor it, years and years after being assigned it. Like a complex cabernet or a pitchers’ duel in baseball, poetry is the kind of addendum to your everyday that enhances life by being pleasurable, but also by making you focus, making you think, and by making you refresh your brain by expanding it ever so lyrically.

The aforementioned local legends above are some of my favorites, as are Pablo Neruda, my Connecticut homeboy Wallace Stevens, and good ol’ Yeats. I return to all of them year after year, and my understanding has grown as I’ve gotten older. That’s the magic of poetry.

In fact, I don’t even know why I have to sheepishly qualify my enjoyment of poetry as an “admission,” but here’s one important reason…

…I loathe poetry read out loud. Maybe I’m stuck on the solitary nature of reading, or maybe poetry’s most self-indulgent excesses surge to the fore when emerging full-overblown from someone’s face, but during any poetry slam, my mind and my feet end up wandering towards the bar. I’d just much rather leave stanzas and free verse to the printed page. (Shakespeare excluded, naturally.)

More than that, I think I loathe conversations about poetry even more than spoken-word itself, but I can’t quite confirm that opinion, considering I’ve avoided such conversations for well-nigh 15 years. And I think most of the friends and acquaintances in my post-college life loathe it too, leaving the entire written form smeared with the same pretentious brush.

Hmm, now that I put it that way, maybe it’s self-imposed peer pressure that’s behind my sheepishness about poetry. This requires more thought.

Or maybe it requires that I open my mind a bit more to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I must say that the lineup is quite impressive, especially for a “first-ever” event. For starters, you’ve got former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City author Nick Flynn, American Book Award-winner Martin Espada, National Poetry Slam individual champion Regie Gibson, and even Ed Sanders, cofounder of absurdist hippie rock band The Fugs.

Other poetical events abound, from Grub Street writing workshops—including those for kids and teens—to documentary film screenings (about poets) to a group reading of Cambodian refugee poetry. And if you want to get outside and see where such verdant verbiage was inspired, take one of the “Poetry and Place” tours that focus on poets and their towns—Kerouac in Lowell, Frost in Lawrence, and Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord. And if you want to unwind Saturday night but still maintain the lyrical flow, there’s a jazz and rhyme show that should go into the wee(ish) hours.

It all seems to serve two purposes: to show how our state has contributed vitally to our nation’s literary heritage, and making sure that it continues to do so. And from that perspective, I should get over my hang-ups and go. But if you have no such hang-ups, an event like this is surely the cat’s meow, or the bee’s knees, or something like that. Hell, I’m no poet…and I know it.

See the festival’s website for schedule and locations. Tickets for featured readings are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, or $5 for students and seniors. Other festival events are free and open to the public.

Fin de semana con sabor y disonancia: Back here in the Charles River Valley, so to speak, there’s a couple more things going on this weekend that are perhaps more prosaic, but no less transporting:

The seventh annual Boston Latino International Film Festival continues all week, with screenings at the Harvard Film Archive, BU’s GSU Auditorium, and the 80 Border Street Cultural Exchange Center in Eastie. Shorts, documentaries, and features from all over the Americas are shown all day, every day, through Sunday. For those in the know who’ve seen some of the freshest, most innovative, and most humane cinema come out of Latin America in the past decade, here’s a chance to see the voices of the future.

And I have to hype this one last musical event: saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist Marilyn Crispell, together at the ICA Friday night. They’re both free jazz pioneers, having collaborated over the decades with such titans as Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor.

I took a jazz studies course in college, and I remember hearing each of them for the first time and was rather blistered by their sounds, but in a good way. I’d like to say they’ve mellowed with age—no, I’m actually glad to say they haven’t. They’ll each perform a solo set, then play as a duo for the first time ever. If you like challenging music and have an interest in seeing true jazz legends while they’re still touring the world, then hasten to the big glass box at the Seaport.