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.

Article in the Portsmouth Sunday Herald about my plans with Hive and the PPLP. by Jeanné McCartin

A Poet with a Mission

Portsmouth’s new poet laureate builds community through poetry

Posted May 14, 2017 

By Jeanné McCartin

Mike Nelson, a man with a mission, was named the eleventh Portsmouth Poet Laureate at a ceremony, April 3, at Portsmouth City Hall. Nelson had designs on the position, but with an eye on advancing poetry and programs rather than his own work. The eleventh Laureate said it best in his acceptance speech.
“For nearly two decades, the poetry community of Portsmouth has given me the gift of honoring my voice,” Nelson said. “I’m grateful and excited to use my position as laureate to give that gift back to Portsmouth and New Hampshire by creating platforms for a diversity of voices to be heard.”

Continue reading

Article in The Square about the thriving poetry scene on the seacoast by Debbie Kane


Sarah Anderson’s Word Barn in Exeter


Crystal Paradis steps up to the mic at Beat Night at the Press Room

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 audiences. “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.” Continue reading

Article about Beat Night and Hive in The Sound by Cody John Laplante

Spreading the spoken word

Mike Nelson with The Beat Night Band. Band members left to right: Cynthia Chatis, Mike Barron, Chris Stambaugh, Scott Solsky (behind Mike), Frank Laurino. Not in frame: Scip Gallant

Beat Night celebrates 16 years and gets ready to go global

by Cody John Laplante

Few poetry reading series live to celebrate their 16th birthday and even fewer make it out of cozy bars and bookstores and into the wider world. But that’s exactly what Beat Night at The Press Room will be doing later this month. On Thursday, March 19, the series celebrates its anniversary with a special program featuring 16 of Beat Night’s favorite local poets.

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Book Review: Into The Fire by Denise Wheeler

Review: Into the fire: Mike Nelson culls beauty from the ashes in “Another Forty Years”  Published in The Wire 2014

New Hampshire poet Mike Nelson gives us a hint about the effect he wants his words to have in the poem, “The Book Review.”

“It doesn’t matter what I say. I just want the review to say, ‘He’s so good,
I didn’t know what happened until three days later
When I woke up in Mexico face down in the mud
With the words SING THIS tattooed on my ass…’ ”

Such is the humor that punctuates Nelson’s third volume of poetry, “Another Forty Years,” from Bee Monk Press. It is a collection of reflections and captured moments that hinges on themes such as relationships, shedding skin, and the monumental significance of seemingly simple actions. Continue reading

The Magic of Beat Night : Interview with Christopher Hislop in the Seacoast Spotlight

The Magic of Beat Night. An Interview with Mike Nelson


View from the mic. Photo by Denise Wheeler

By Christopher Hislop

February 20, 2014

Beat Night at the Press Room in Portsmouth has been an ongoing monthly tradition that occurs on the third Thursday of every month since before the turn of this century — just before: 1999. If you’ve experienced it, you know that magic that occurs at this staple of community-driven culture.

Mike Nelson is trying to capture a bit of that magic with the release of a new recording he has put together entitled, “View from the Mic,” which features the Beat Night Band, and pays tribute to the historic Portsmouth tradition that he’s been contributing to for the last decade. The collection also serves as a companion soundtrack to the book of poetry he’s simultaneously releasing at the upcoming installment of Beat Night, “Another Forty Years.”

Nelson graciously took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions regarding the upcoming engagement on Feb. 20, and how Beat Night inspired him to create these works.

Hislop: Let’s talk about the record. What was the goal behind the project? Did those goals shift at all during the recording process? Are you happy with the finished result?

Mike Nelson: I wanted to capture the magic of what happens at Beat Night. The band improvises something new to go with every poem, and the results range from fun to amazing. We stuck with that formula in the studio. One take, no rehearsing. The recording speaks for itself as to what’s possible with this band. I couldn’t be more thrilled with how it all turned out.

Hislop: What does Beat Night mean to you?

Nelson: The art of storytelling with music goes way back into our tribal history. I think we all have an innate need to tell our story — to listen and be heard. Music is like air and water: we need it. Beat Night is a modern version of those ancient rites being served. The fact that anyone in the audience can get up to that microphone and speak the words they’ve written with the music behind them sets Beat Night apart from any other kind of show, and make it a truly communal experience.

Hislop: What does Beat Night mean to the community?

Nelson: For the regulars who have been going for 15 years, and for the people who are new to it, Beat Night is a familial scene. There’s no judgment there at all. Just love and support. I’ve seen a lot of poets evolve in that space. I’ve watched the band grow in their abilities and with their comfort with each other and the poets. It’s always open, always new, and always fun. I can hardly think of anything more indispensable for any community.

Hislop: What are you hoping people take with them when they experience the record?

Nelson: I hope they get the spontaneous joy of it. When someone learns that every track on there was done without rehearsal, in one take, their jaw drops. The album is a testament to the talent of everyone in that band and to the beauty and aliveness that happens when you don’t try to control creativity towards a preconceived outcome, but rather give everybody the space to be themselves and do their thing. We all feel that magic at Beat Night. We felt it in the studio, and I hope others will feel it too when they hear it.

Hislop: What’s planned for the 20th? What can folks expect?

Nelson: The album was made to accompany my new book, “Another Forty Years.” The upcoming Beat Night at the Press Room is a full-on release party for the book, and the album. I have two hours, and we plan on doing what we do at every Beat Night. I’ll be reading poems from the new book and the band will be playing along. Every poem requires a different mood or style. How it works is, I give a few words about the tone and style I want for the poem and the band does the rest. Whatever they come up with, that’s what it is for that poem. Often what the band is doing changes the way I planned on reading the poem. But that’s the beauty of it. The poems are often directed by the music and are expressed in some way I never imagined before. I invited six other regular Beat Night poets to also be on the album and to read at the release party. Another reason I did all this was to show that poetry can have a lot more life to it than people usually expect. If you’ve never seen this sort of thing before then you’re going to be very surprised and entertained and maybe even blown away!

Article about Beat Night in The Wire by Denise Wheeler

Poetry in motion: Beat Night blends poets, musicians and their fans

sessioncollage 3February 5, 2014

Mike Nelson is a soft-spoken heating technician who describes himself as “mostly introverted.” But when he steps on stage to read his poetry, he transforms. His voice becomes low and serious, rising and falling in a cadence that hints at suspense and mischief. The band behind him improvises a sultry jazz number that wraps around Nelson’s words. He closes his eyes and sways.  One poem leads to another. Nelson’s arms are outstretched, his voice wild with bravado. The music crests and Nelson clasps the mike and tosses his head back, as if he’s in the throes of a fiery sermon. The audience feels it, from the front of the room to the back, as if they’ve just been hit with a gale-force wind. The quiet Nelson is gone; the words and music have morphed him into a rock star.

Such is the power of Beat Night. This monthly gathering of poets and musicians at The Press Room in Portsmouth, which has been running since December 1999, is not so much an open mike night as it is fertile turf, a place where the dual seeds of poetry and music cause artists to evolve and communities to grow. Continue reading

Exploring self through poetry – Mike Nelson releases third book with a new CD by Jeanne McCartin

am-coverMike Nelson’s search for self started at 17 with a pen; it proved the perfect tool. It was foreign territory at the time — pen and self; today ink and exploration are the norm. Nelson, 42, of South Berwick, Maine, just released “Another Forty Years,” his third book of poetry, along with “The View from the Mic,” a two-disc accompanying album. It’s been an interesting, empiric and mentored path.

“I remember the exact moment it started, being at my parents’ house as a teen watching TV. I had just finished high school and felt lost, I had no sense of direction,” Nelson says. “I got up, got a pencil and paper and started writing. It was just a simple six-line poem.”

He had no experience or previous interest in the art.

“I wasn’t aware that what I was doing was writing poetry when I started. It was just a compulsion to put words to what I was feeling, to just get it out,” he says. “After it happened I thought, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it hasn’t stopped since.”

Things stepped up when he attended his first Beat Night at The Press Room. Initially he sat quietly at the back of the room. From his vantage point he watched John-Michael Albert (eighth Portsmouth poet laureate). He noticed Albert was always up front, vocal, passionate and hugely supportive of others. Eventually the two became friends and started having dinner together every month before a reading. “Those dinners were hugely formative for me. I learned so much from him about writing.”

Nelson shared his first book of poems with Albert, who offered feedback, “And that’s when my real education in poetry began.”

Stage time followed.

“I remember that first time at The Press Room I got applause. It was transformative. I thought, ‘Wow, this is worth something.’”

“I started to write more and more and take it seriously,” he adds. “I also discovered I loved being on stage.” He also recognized poetry’s entertainment value, something he began to pointedly explore.

“People don’t think of it necessarily as entertaining, but it can be, absolutely,” he says. “That’s part of what the CD being released with the book is all about.”

The two-disc set features Beat Night’s seven-member band: Frank Laurino, Chris Stambaugh, Cynthia Chatis, Scip Gallant, Don Davis, Mike Barron and Scott Solsky.

Disc 1 spotlights Nelson reading 13 of his works backed by the band.

Disc 2 “is the open mic part,” he says. It features six guest poets also reading to music: John Michael Albert, Genevieve Aichele, Kate Leigh, John Grady, Sal Sciretto and Lindsey Coombs.

“I wanted them to be a part of it because over these past 10 years I would not be where I am with my writing without them, the audience, the poets, the musicians.”

Another Forty Years” includes 70 poems by Nelson, all written in the past seven years after the publication of “Sometime at Night,” his second book of poems.

The latest, self-published piece includes a tribute to Mike Albert, “who has totally mentored me.”

“Mike and I spent a number of Saturdays and Sundays at the computer going through it all — editing, and stripping things. We started with 200 (poems) and stripped it to 70, editing like crazy.”

“I learned so much from that process with him. It’s been one of the more gratifying things I’ve ever done. It felt like such a gift that someone like him, a master of the art, took the time to help me get the most out of it.”

Albert taught him “the economy of words,” he says.

“He was not only editing words but editing me,” he adds. “As we edited I would watch my own work come to full expression before my eyes.”

The CD and book’s official release is Feb. 20 at The Press Room. It is already available at Book & Bar, and Mike’s book store on Amazon.

Nelson will promote the book at other readings as well; hopefully landing featured reader spots.

“It’s the best way to do it, and the most fun way. You’re meeting the people you just read to and getting a direct connection,” he says. “We all need it, to connect with each other that way. To me it’s going back to the time we were sitting around the fire and telling stories. Poetry readings are the modern version of that.”

His satisfaction is found in sharing, and being involved, from people coming out to a communal place, to read and to listen, he says.

The years of reading, writing, listening, sharing and working with Albert and others have borne their fruit.

“I feel I know what I’m doing now and have a much better sense of poetry and how to write it,” Nelson says. “It’s just something necessary. Something I have to do and be a part of.”