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Business pitch for spoken wordsmith

After juggling professionally for years, Wendell resident Paul Richmond decided it was time to begin juggling words.

The founder of what’s become The Greenfield Annual Word Festival told a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Friday that events don’t just happen, but they can blossom when people open their minds to the magic that’s already there under their noses —and then get everybody involved.

To celebrate National Poetry Month, the chamber members juggled poetry and business at a breakfast gathering under a tent at the Franklin County Fairgrounds, where Richmond shared some of his own poetry, self-published by his Human Error Publishing.

The creator of an annual Wendell poetry festival each May and a Greenfield festival each October, as well as monthly open readings in each of those towns, Richmond said, “Things only happen in areas because it’s already happening. Someone suddenly says, ‘I have a gallery, how many painters are there?’ And all of a sudden 50 painters show up, they come out of the woodwork. They’re just waiting for someone to say they have a gallery.”

He discovered this firsthand several years back when he got to thinking about the festivals of every kind he saw in places all around the country.

During his 20 years as a juggler traveling to a pie-eating contest or other festival, he would think to himself about Greenfield, “We’re right off of 91, we’re off Route 2, we have major arteries of people going by us. Where are the possible events that are happening, and could be happening here to draw people in, if these small little towns can draw folks from all over the place?”

He walked into the Chamber office a few years back and told Becky George — who left her job there as special events coordinator Friday — “I just came back from Austin, Texas, where they had this amazing international poetry festival. They had over 300 writers in all kinds of cafes, bookstores, department stores. It was unbelievable the venues they found people to be in to read. Do you think we could do something like that here?”

She told him if he thought something like that could work here, go ahead and try to make it happen.

Four weeks later, he returned to say he’d lined up 40 writers and seven venues.

“This is really going to happen?” she asked.

The first Greenfield Poetry Festival was lined up to run alongside the Brick & Mortar Video Festival, which had launched in Greenfield a year earlier in vacant buildings around the downtown.

“How many people think of Franklin County as a word mecca?” Richmond asked Friday’s crowd of nearly 100. “Many people have had some very bad experiences with poetry. They think about high school and what they experienced. They think this is going to be boring so people weren’t necessarily coming.”

The second October, the tall, balding, 61-year-old former Buffalonian with long gray hair decided to recast the event as The Greenfield annual Word Festival, after which some of the 100 attendees asked, “Was that poetry?” and then added, “Well, that wasn’t too bad.”

Richmond said, “This is about the spoken word, and democracy. Having the ability to stand up and talk in front of people is what makes this country great, so that people can exchange ideas.”

He asked business owners to think on Friday about opening up venues in town to add to the 16 spots that are available to writers to read their works.

“You can help just by opening up your spaces in town so artists can have galleries and venues to perform in so people can experience the arts. Without that, art doesn’t happen. So people can open up their offices, buildings, and open up their minds to thinking it doesn’t matter what the space is. If 20 people can sit there, we can have a poetry reading there.”

In addition to the two-day October festival, Richmond has had a Memorial Day poetry festival at Deja Brew Cafe in Wendell dubbed ‘Wordstock’ — which won’t be happening this year — as well as a Valentine’s Word event at the Greenfield Grille and runs a Word Stage at the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange in addition to a December Word Festival at Hope and Olive restaurant in Greenfield, plus open readings the third Tuesday of every month at 9 Mill St. in Greenfield and last Mondays at Deja Brew Cafe in Wendell.

At the open readings, where a five-minute timer keeps track of how long readers have, Richmond says, “We get people from Boston and New York wanting to read here, because it’s a venue where people actually want to listen,” he said.

Richmond said he’s partnered with the Literacy Project, which receives any donations from the annual festival, “because I wanted everyone from people on stage who published their first poem to people who published nine to 10 books or more. And I wanted them to feel comfortable that they finally had a chance to write something, stand up, deal with their nervousness, and try to create atmospheres that feel welcoming, and that you’d be able to have your five minutes and then get off, and really have that experience of speaking.”

As the sands of the timer drift down, he said, it’s often a comfort for audience and reader alike to know that “When the sands are gone, you’re gone.”

With the ‘word’ designation, the event has been opened up to include prose, short stories or whatever they have to offer, as long as it’s within five minutes.

“If you want to rant for five minutes, go for it,” he said. “That’s kind of revolutionary, because people have to pay therapists to listen to them rant.”

On the Web: www.humanerrorpublishing.com

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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