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Pioneer Valley Poets: Northampton Arts Council’s next Poet Laureate has big plans to connect community through poetry

  • Conway poet Amy Dryansky, recently appointed Northampton’s eighth Poet Laureate, plans to initiate a poetry project that will explore the waves of immigration that have passed through our area. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo



Friday, March 17, 2017

Conway poet Amy Dryansky has had some nice surprises recently. Her second book of poetry, “Grass Whistle,” which won the Massachusetts Book Award in 2014, went into a second printing from Salmon Press in Ireland. And in January, Dryansky learned that the Northampton Arts Council had appointed her as Northampton’s eighth Poet Laureate.

The Poet Laureate position puts Dryansky in the unique situation of being able to reach out to the extended community of poets and poetry lovers in the Pioneer Valley.

While the only official obligation is to give at least one public reading, over the years Northampton’s poet laureates have initiated a variety of projects during their two-year terms. Rich Michelson, who served two terms as poet laureate, wrapping up in 2015, coordinated with 50 restaurants to feature poems about food written by local poets on their walls and menus. Michelson also interviewed both local and nationally known poets on WHMP’s Bill Newman Show.

Current laureate Patrick Donnelly has focused on poetry as an oral art, creating choral works that invite community participation, and on poetry that addresses HIV and AIDS. Donnelly has raised money through poetry readings for A Positive Place (formerly AIDS CARE/Hampshire County) the sole provider of comprehensive, confidential case management and health-related support services for people in Hampshire County living with HIV/AIDS.

Dryansky expresses her great respect and admiration for Donnelly.

“I will try to fill his very tall shoes,” she said with a smile, referring not only to his physical stature but also to his graciousness as a human being and his accomplishments as a poet.

Dryansky sees her term as poet laureate as a chance, “Not so much to toot my own horn but to shine my light on the work of others.”

Though she doesn’t officially take the helm until April, Dryansky has already been thinking about projects.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about immigration, in light of everything that’s going on,” she said. “And thinking about the greater Northampton area — what is the fabric of that community now and in the past? What are the waves of immigration that have gone through our area?”

As she embarks on her research, Dryansky plans to connect with local organizations such as the Center for New Americans, The Literacy Project, Historic Northampton, The Northampton Arts Council and The David Ruggles Society — named for the African-American abolitionist who led more than 600 fugitive slaves to freedom. And she hopes to bring Hampshire College students into the mix.

“Maybe a poet, an anthropologist and a social scientist,” Dryansky said — to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of immigration.

Dryansky’s work has garnered many accolades. She’s won poetry fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Villa Montalvo, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College. Her first book, “How I Got Lost So Close to Home,” won the New England/New York Award from Alice James Books in 1999.

As assistant director of the Culture, Brain and Development Program at Hampshire College, Dryansky has gotten the go-ahead from the college to fold the project into her work with students. In true Hampshire College fashion, Dryansky is beginning with inquiry, and letting that questioning guide her outcome.

“Depending on what we find, we’ll decide what we want to do with it,” she said.

She could envision public readings that might feature the work of writers from the area’s past waves of immigrants, as well as new writing generated in conjunction with The Literacy Project or the Center for New Americans. She’d also be interested in installing some “rain poems” in Northampton — poems stenciled onto sidewalks using water-repellant spray paints that show up only when wet.

I told Dryansky, “It’s wonderful to have a title that includes the word ‘poet’ because so many of us are just doing it in spite of everything else in our lives. And it’s not always easy.”

“It’s not,” Dryansky agreed. “And there’s so much of what we do that’s invisible.”

Yet, Dryansky finds it interesting that, “Whenever something important happens, people want a poem to mark it.”

Poems are standard fare at weddings, graduations, funerals, and after disasters.

“People who aren’t necessarily reading poetry every day or writing poetry, they feel, ‘Oh yes, we need a poem to mark this,’” Dryansky says. “And to me that really says something. Poetry really does meet this very deep need for people, even if we don’t know we need it. All of a sudden, we realize that we do at those times.”

Dryansky’s blog “Pokey Mama,” explores what it’s like to be a poet, mother and worker. Check it out at: https://amydryansky.com.

Find out more about the Northampton Arts Council’s Poet Laureate position and stay updated on Dryansky’s projects moving forward at: http://bit.ly/2nKkL31l.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview
for her columns. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com.