An Oregon original: Silverton Poetry Festival brings words to life

February 2018 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, Community
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18th Annual Silverton Poetry Festival Feb. 23-25, 2018 Sponsored by Silverton Poetry Association. All events are free unless otherwise noted in Schedule of Events. For info: email: call: 503-269-7895

By Brenna Wiegand

Steve Slemenda’s love of poetry reached a fever pitch 18 years ago when he traveled to the East Coast for the Dodge Poetry Festival. He was on Sabbatical from his job teaching English at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.

“I went back to this wonderful, big poetry festival held every two years in New Jersey,” Slemenda said. “It was everybody – the big names, the little people and everything in between; a festival of poetry.

“At that time, it was in big circus tents and the big names would fill up the place,” he said. “I’d never been to a poetry event where there was a big crowd of people for one person reading their poetry – it was just charged and wonderful and I came home marveling at the power of reading poetry, poetry performance and people who are into it.”

A little research showed that during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Silverton enjoyed a modest poetry event put together by the high school principal. That’s all it took.

“I was lucky enough to find a few people and we made something happen that year,” Slemenda said.

The festival seeks out poets whose work is geared toward a live audience.

“People don’t realize that poetry really is and originally was an oral form,” Slemenda said. “When you hear a good poet reading wonderful poetry you know why because they have something to say that’s wondrous and stimulating and a way to say it that’s musical.”

Slemenda, who is working on his first chapbook (a collection of poems in a short book), will read at the festival open mic on Saturday, Feb. 24, 10:30 a.m. at Silver Falls Library. He has written poetry nearly his whole life and is a founding member of the
Mid-Valley Poetry Society.

“I’m 65 and I started reading real poetry at 14 or 15, ushered in by all the great rock songs of the time. Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell… the next step is just going to the page.

“It’s a practice and a need but it’s a way of paying attention; a kind of meditation because you must slow down and check in,” he said. “On the front end it’s quiet, it’s awakening, it’s exploring and discovering, and if it keeps going and you have a poem the third stage is sharing it with somebody.”

With its rising popularity there are many ways to experience poetry. Chemeketa offers a creative writing poetry class; there are many poetry groups and communities, open mics, including every second Sunday at Borland Gallery, and, of course, the festival itself.

“We get a lot of people already established in poetry in some way, but I’m equally interested in the folks on the edges,” Slemenda said. “It’s just really gratifying when something takes, and I’ve had that happen many times.”

Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita Paulann Petersen is a featured poet whose work appears in a one-of-a-kind anthology celebrating Oregon poets.

Petersen is one of six poets whose work appears in Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets, authored by Erik Muller and published by Mountains and Rivers, an Oregon press.

“It’s a remarkable book and there is no other book in existence that celebrates Oregon poets,” Petersen said. “For each of us, Erik Muller – a fine poet himself – has written a marvelously insightful essay about our recurring themes and
our styles.”

The event, “Talking Poets – Durable Goods,” will be held at the White Steeple Gallery Saturday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. Led by Muller, it features discussion of Muller’s remarks and readings by Petersen, Barbara Drake and
Lex Runciman.

“This is a quintessential Silverton Poetry Festival event,” Petersen said. “Silverton has the only ongoing poetry festival in Oregon. Each year it offers a rich mix of readings and workshops and discussions. What a gift to our community!”

Oregon poet Jon Boisvert is having an exciting year. In September he launched his first book, Born, and has had many book signings and readings from Eugene to Vancouver, Washington, and beyond. In addition, he was invited to be a featured poet at this year’s Silverton Poetry Festival.

He is one of five poets featured in the festival’s final event, “Feast of Poets,” Sunday, 1:30 p.m. at the Mount Angel Abbey Library.

Each year’s featured poets are selected by those from the year before.

“I love that I was invited to submit,” Boisvert said. “It means that, for whatever reason, when I read last year I got on somebody’s radar.”

It’s important to Boisvert to be open with and available to his audience when sharing his work; shedding barriers both inside and out.

“I was at a reading at the Book Bin (Salem) recently and they have a microphone and a table and all these things that I kind of think of as barriers,” Boisvert said. “I put the microphone away and sat on top of the table. I’m able to be closer with people – and they reciprocate.

“Poetry is becoming much more accessible; to encounter it from a reading perspective and to produce it as a writer,” Boisvert said. “I think publishing opportunities have grown exponentially and it’s creating a scene where there are fewer books of poetry that everyone has in common vs. the ones we all knew. Poetry has a high conversion rate; I don’t know anyone who reads it that doesn’t also write it.

“It’s not like painting or sculpting where you need materials and access to things; if you want to try to write a poem you pretty much can,” he added. “Even if it doesn’t work out the way you want it to, it can never ruin your day to try.”

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