Interview with Bill Burtis about the 20th anniversary of the PPLP with Peter Biello

The Bookshelf: Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program Celebrates 20 Years


Bill Burtis, one of the co-chairs of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program board of trustees, stands with a map from former poet laureate Mark DeCarteret’s outreach project.

This weekend, the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program is celebrating 20 years of building community around poetry. It’s considered one of the oldest municipal laureate programs in the country that provides a stipend and support for the laureate. Each laureate launches a project that’s meant to bring poetry into the community. Bill Burtis is the co-chair of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Board of Trustees. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

How did the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program come to be?

In the 1990s, there was real fear in the community of Portsmouth that the shipyard was going to be closed. The federal government was thinking of closing it up. The effect on thousands of jobs and the whole community—there was a lot of fear about that.

The Music Hall saw an opportunity to do something unusual and creative in the community. They invited Liz Lerman, an internationally known choreographer and dancer, to come and mount a program to bring the community together to communicate about this. It was a tremendous program. I mean, she literally…she had shipyard workers dancing on the Memorial Bridge and on ships in the harbor.

The key thing was that people who wouldn’t necessarily ordinarily come together and talk did so. And it was out of that that Nancy Moore Hill got this idea for building community through poetry. And that was where the idea for the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program came from.

So 20 years!

Twenty years, yes. 1998, the first Portsmouth Poet Laureate, Esther Buffler, began her project, which was really a compilation of poetry from the Portsmouth area. Since then we’re now up to our 11th Poet Laureate and celebrating 20 years.

What does it take to keep the program going for so long?

It takes a board of trustees who basically kind of—we are trustees, so we’re more like stewards of the process. And every two years, the board calls together a subcommittee that is entirely independent of the board to review applications for the poet laureate. Those applications comprise poems, they also comprise a proposal for a project. Those are reviewed independent of the board and the selection committee presents their candidate to the board and the board basically goes with that. And so then we have the poet laureate every two years and that individual conducts a project. The project is usually mounted in about three or four months. Takes roughly a year to complete. And then there’s kind of a goodbye swansong, if you will, that the poet laureate enjoys after the project has been finished.

As an example of a project, tell us a little bit about this map. Who developed it? How did it further the mission of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program?

Well, the map shows the hometown locations for some of the hundreds of people who participated in Mark DeCarteret’s Poet Laureate Project, which is called “Wish You Were Where,” in which Mark invited poets to partner with visual artists and visual artists to partner with poets in a postcard project, so the works of art comprised one side of a postcard and the poems comprised the other. And people actually exchanged these postcards by mail and ultimately they were exhibited in a kind of event.

The idea here was that it attracted folks of all kinds—poets, artists. You didn’t have to be a “poet.” But to submit a poem and join with an artist in the project. So it really became a national project and, as I say, they were hundreds of people and postcards.

And the current Poet Laureate, Mike Nelson—what’s he working on? 

Mike has an interesting and unique project where he’s reaching out to populations whose voices aren’t heard very often. He works with young people at risk. He works with people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. He works with refugees and immigrants, classes, workshops, that kind of thing, to bring their poems forward, to help them write those poems and also started a magazine called Good Fat. The second issue is now out and their poems, as well as the poems of others, are featured in there. But his idea really was to recognize that there are these populations in New Hampshire and in Portsmouth that—you know, their voices aren’t heard, and to give them an opportunity to find expression.

Why does a city like Portsmouth need a poet laureate?

I wouldn’t say that Portsmouth needs a poet laureate. But Portsmouth is a center for the arts. Poetry has been strong there for a long time. I moved to New Hampshire in 1975 and one of the first things I became involved in was a regular poetry reading at what was then a little coffee shop on Washington Street. It’s now part of Strawbery Banke. The Conant Coffee House. And we had a poetry reading there every other week.

Having a poet laureate I think kind of coalesces that kind of community, in a way. The projects serve as a catalyst to bring poets together, but also really to bring other members of the community in to witness poetry, to write poetry, to enjoy poetry in a lot of different ways.

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