Recently, the Fifth Amherst Poetry Festival, held in tandem with the Emily Dickinson Museum, had downtown Amherst abuzz with western Massachusetts' historical poetry legacy. The four days of the festival, September 14- 17, made the college town vibrant with presentations on Emily Dickinson's life and her poetry. In and around the town were enthusiastic students and community members participating in the series of events that marked the festival. It was my good fortune that I could be present at the Homestead and the Evergreens, the poet's home in Amherst and few other events.
On the third day of the events, I met my old friend Cathie on the public bus. She was dressed grandly in a gown and hat, as if walking out of the 18th century. When asked where she was headed to, she replied, radiant and smiling, “It's the Emily Dickinson Poetry marathon and I am going to read there.” She then held out her own volume of The Emily Dickinson Poems. As I neared the Emily Dickinson Museum, a short walk from the bus stop, I could see streams of people entering through the wooden gate, although some were coming out as well; but all looked excited. I felt as if Emily was observing the throbbing poetry scenario from heaven. Luckily, dressing like the women of western 18th century was not a requirement; I was in jeans and T-shirt but was allowed in!
At the Emily Dickinson Museum, I was amazed by the day-long poetry marathon which consisted of readings from all of the 1,789 poems of Dickinson. The poet had lived and composed hundreds of poems in her Amherst home, “The Homestead”. Being present with other poetry lovers and listening to the poems in Emily's home was like stepping back in time and feeling her presence through the priceless writing she had left behind. Words and verses echoed with depth and sweetness as they poured out from the parlor of her house.
There were around 20 seats arranged in a semicircle for the readers. They would take turns, each reading one of Dickinson's poems. They started around 7:30 pm and went on reading turn by turn until all the poems were read. It was a carefully organized creative journey into the poetic field. The late summer evening saw new readers continue to drop in to read while others were leaving, making way for the newcomers to take part in the event as they did so. Each person sat and took a note of the poem read before and continued from the next number. And if one didn't want to read, all he or she had to say was “Pass”. But the reading would then be picked up by the nearest person.
People from as far as New Jersey had come to participate in the event. A gentleman I talked to mentioned coming here for the poetry festival and reading in it for the last four years. He said, “I am alive this year and so couldn't miss it!” A lady, who sat in a trance listening to the other participants said, “Emily's poems are my Bible and when I hear them through other voices, they take new depths and heights.”
Another memorable part of the festival was sitting in Emily's room and writing. Each participant had the room to him or herself and could write away in the familiar setting of the furniture that Emily had used, gaze out through the same window, and see the same trees that had witnessed her life. It was a unique experience to see the world through the window that she must have used, like seeing nature through her eyes.
Different workshops were offered to the general public in the garden of the Homestead where contemporary poets shared their writing. Those were held on James Tate Memorial Stage, named in honor of Amherst's famous poet James Tate who had passed away in 2015. And there was food and beverage available by the door of the museum.
The four days of festival also saw poetry reading at the Basset Planetarium on the Amherst College ground. That day, in the evening, I sat with people of different age groups, waiting to experience poetry in a different way. The light went out and Dickinson's poetry came filtering down to a spellbound crowd, while stars twinkled from the domed roof of the planetarium. The readers read from a tiny lighted corner of the room so that the stars could be clearly seen. While I heard Emily's poems while the planetarium's sky revolved overhead, it was easy to think of those stars reaching down to us. I recalled her poem “Ah, Moon and – Star” and its opening lines,
“Though you're very far --
There is one -- farther than you --
He -- is more than a firmament -- from Me --
So I can never go!”
The readers were Dara Wier and Bianca Stone. Wier introduced her newest book In the Still of the Night' According to the Emily Dickinson Museum source highlighting the poetry festival, “As Wier and Stone read, planetarium's analogue Spitz A3p optical projector, one of the last of its kind still in use, will display the starscapes on the nights of Emily Dickinson's birth and death.” The turnout was such that some people could not be accommodated in the limited seats of that evening. It was truly a great feeling to experience poetry come alive.
In another venue of the poetry festival, Hampshire College Art Gallery, an event titled “Of Soil and Tongues” began with the invitation to install poetry in space, and broadening poetry horizons as they were being simultaneously heard, read, performed and embodied. Hope and Feathers Art Gallery in Amherst downtown held “a spoken word and a display” of the poet and artist E. E. Cumming's works. Workshops were held at other locations as well. In the Jones Library in Amherst readings were held as a part of the 'jubilat/Jonesreading' reading series. Amherst Cinema organized a screening of Emily Dickinson's “My Letter to the World”. This came from the producers of the documentary A Quiet Passion. A documentary focusing on the life and works of the poet narrated by Cynthia Nixon.
The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst also runs a monthly Open Mic for poetry at the Homestead. Summer days see much glorious poetry streaming out of its garden and on other occasions they are held in the parlor of her home. Co-organizer and co-coordinator of the Open Mic, Michael Medeiros reaches out to local poets throughout the year and every time I am there, I see a bustling crowd, eagerly reading or listening to poetry. Even if one is not much into poetry, evenings like these can certainly be a source of inspiration for many to write it.
The Amherst Poetry festival came at a time when fall was just whispering in nature, officially wanting to be in. On the final day of the festival, yellowing leaves came drifting on the grounds of the Homestead, Emily's home. Fall, the season that marks the ending of colorful summer, comes with letters from winter and its snow. Fall and winter come with reminders that the year is ending and of death and decay. I stood before the home of the nature's poet, the people's poet, and recalled one of my favorite Emily's poems, “Because I could not stop for Death”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
Experiencing 2017's Amherst Poetry Festival and embracing Emily Dickinson's poetry was a milestone in my life. Never had poetry seemed so alive and passionate before. As poetry lovers and readers came together for celebrations, the beauty of poetry illuminated countless lives. If one is not yet into Emily Dickinson's poetry, I would request him or her to read the unique poet who was really a harbinger of truth and beauty of life.
Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA.