It’s a full house inside The Word Barn, a 19th century barn in Exeter. People mingle or sit in folding chairs, waiting expectantly for the afternoon program of poetry and short story readings to begin. It’s the third
installment of the Silo Series, organized by poet and writer Sarah Anderson. Nearly every chair is occupied, an indication of how popular the series has become in the short time — less than a year — it’s been in existence.
Similar scenes are playing out in various venues around the Seacoast where seasoned and aspiring poets read their work in front of appreciative audi- ences. “Poetry speaks to people’s lives,” says David Phreaner of Greenland, co-chair of the board of trustees of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program (PPLP) and host of its monthly Poetry Hoot. “It’s a unique way to tell a story.”
Poetry persists, despite rumors of its demise. According to the 2012 national Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, only 6 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year; the survey also noted that the number of poetry readers has shrunk 45 percent since 2002.
On the Seacoast, however, poetry is thriving. One reason is the PPLP. Founded in 1997, the PPLP grew out of the Shipyard Dance Project, a collaborative arts project between the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and The Music Hall. The experience brought together a di- verse group, including Nancy Moore Hill, a resident interested in building community through poetry. Hill was a driving force behind founding PPLP, establishing its endowment and serving as chair of its board for a decade. With a mission to build com- munity through poetry, the program selects a poet laureate who serves a two-year term and spearheads a poetry-based project that brings people together, much like the Shipyard Dance Project.
“The PPLP has a great deal to do with the vibrancy of the poetry scene in Portsmouth,” says writer Katie Towler of Portsmouth, a former PPLP board member. “Projects conceived by different poet laureates have done so much to promote community among local writers and build awareness of poetry on the Seacoast.” Those projects have included reproducing poems in public outdoor spaces around Portsmouth, free workshops taught by area poets and organizing “creation circles” for aspiring poets to meet and read poetry (many of those groups continue to meet regularly).
Kate Leigh is the tenth Portsmouth poet laureate. The Portsmouth resident’s project is Poems for Peace, which brings students together to explore social issues through poetry. Leigh uses the city’s African Burying Ground memorial as a starting point for middle and high school students to discuss issues like race and social justice. During her school visits, after Leigh reads a poem, everyone — Leigh, teachers, and students — writes for 15 minutes. Then they share what they’ve written. “It’s more about process than results,” says Leigh. “Kids know about the social unrest in the world; they’re paying attention and they love writing poetry. It’s so gratifying to see how much they care.”
There’s a loyal following of adults who enjoy poetry, too. In addition to the newer creation circles, local poetry writing groups have existed for years. One of the longest running is City Hall Poets, an invitation-only gathering that’s met off and on off at Portsmouth’s City Hall for nearly 20 years. Although much of its meetings are social, the purpose is share each other’s poems and get feedback. Mark DeCarteret, Portsmouth’s seventh poet laureate, is a member of City Hall Poets. He sees a shift in ow people share poetry. “Poetry readings and groups may fall by the wayside,” he says. “You can post your poem online now and everyone can comment. I wonder if getting together and offering a one-on-one critique is something that future generations will be comfortable with.”
Yet there are many area poetry programs drawing appreciative audiences.
Beat Night host Mike Nelson with the Beat Night band : Frank Laurino, Mike Barron, Chris Stambaugh, Scip Gallant, Cynthia Chatis, Scott Solsky and Dave Tonkin
About 50 people show up regularly for the Poetry Hoot, an open mic poetry reading at Café Espresso in Portsmouth. Held the first Wednesday of each month, the Hoot, launched in 1999 by then poet laureate Robert Dunn, is a convivial gathering of new and experienced poets who gather for dinner, then read their works out loud. Published poets read during the first part of the program, then it’s open mic, when anyone can read their poem. “We’ve tried to create a culture where as many people as possible can access poetry,” says PPLP’s Phreaner. “It really works.”
When the creator of Beat Night moved away from the Seacoast three years ago, Mike Nelson, a longtime participant in the 17-year-old live music and poetry reading event, knew he had to keep it going. He’s now Beat Night’s organizer and host. Held monthly at Portsmouth’s Press Room, Beat Night features performers accompanied by a live band. Prior to their readings, performers tell the Beat Night band the tone of their poems. The band, a talented group that only performs together during Beat Night, improvises a musical backdrop. “The music profoundly changes the way you read your poem,” says Nelson. “It’s pretty unique and a hell of a lot of fun.”
The Silo Series
Sarah Anderson’s idea for the Silo Series evolved from a daydream she had one winter day, gazing out the window of her farm house at the finished barn on her property. “I initially thought of hosting writing workshops in the barn,” says Anderson, an adjunct English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy. “But then I thought about poetry and short fiction readings. I loved that idea.” Named for the grain silo across the street, the Silo Series launched in May 2015 in Anderson’s aptly renamed Word Barn. There have been four readings, featuring local poets and writers Anderson has met from her MFA poetry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and writing workshops like Middlebury College’s Breadloaf Writers Conference. Featured readers have included Todd Hearon, Tim Horvath, Jessica Purdy, Maggie Dietz, Andrew Mitchell and Chard deNiord, the poet laureate of Vermont. Anderson hopes to eventually host writing workshops.
Writers in the Round
Singer/songwriter and poet Deidre Randall founded “Writers in the Round,” a live radio program, 12 years ago at Portsmouth Community Radio. Each Monday night, Randall or co-host Guy Capecelatro III (they alternate as show hosts) welcome a poet and local songwriters to perform on air and discuss their work. “We think of it as an artist’s salon,”she says. The show is hosted on location, live, at Prescott Park on Mondays in the summer. It’s also live streamed on the WSCA-FM website.
Opportunities to read, or listen to, poetry abound on the Seacoast. More than a unique way to tell a story, they’re a foundation for building community. “I think of [poetry readings] as a third space,” says Beat Night’s Nelson. “We have spaces for home and work, this is like a third space for community, where everyone can participate.”