Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest celebrates 25 years with anthology

  • The cover of The Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest Silver Anniversary Anthology features an original assemblage by 1997 winner Nina Rossi. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest adult winner Dennis Piana sits in the Poet’s Seat Chair in his Colrain home, the 2016 platter on the mantel behind him. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Friday, April 07, 2017

Most people know that the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest, sponsored each year by The Friends of the Greenfield Public Library, is named after the Poet’s Seat tower that perches on the bluff overlooking Beacon Field. And many people probably also know that the tower is named for poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, who lived and wrote in Greenfield in the mid 1800s.

What Dennis Piana, last year’s adult category winner, wants to be sure people realize is that there is an actual “Poet’s Seat,” a Mission- style chair with those words carved into its curved back that goes home for a year with each adult first-place winner.

Piana likens having the chair in his home to taking in a foster child. Like any of us who have won the contest — I won in 1999 — the stewardship of the chair begins with the awkward transporting of it from the ceremony. Once you shoe-horn its solid body into your car, you spend the drive home wondering how it will possibly fit in your already furnished living room. And how to properly take care of it? What if you or one of your kids spills something on it? What if your cats sharpen their claws on that nice, book-themed upholstery?

For Piana, seeing the chair upside down in the back of his car caused a revelation.

“I had it upside down and I saw the plaque,” Piana says. He counted the names engraved there and realized, “Oh, I’m the 25th winner!”

Piana decided he wanted to do something to celebrate the contest’s silver anniversary, rather than have the chair just sit in his home. He thought of using the town newsletter to invite other Colrain residents over for a night of reading and writing, or organizing a little get-together with the chair at the library. But Colrain’s a small town, and Piana got thinking bigger.

What about an anthology of the winning poems by as many previous winners as he could locate? What about asking each winner to write a short piece about what it was like to live with the chair? What about including photos of each winner sitting in it?

Piana’s ideas culminated in the “Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest Silver Anniversary Anthology,” for which a book launch will be held on Saturday, April 15, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at The Arts Block in Greenfield.

The event will feature readings by previous contest winners as well as an artist’s reception for Nina Rossi, who won in 1997 and who created an original assemblage for the anthology’s cover. Rossi’s artwork, as well as that of her son, Jon Bander, is on display at The Arts Block through April. Local all-woman band, She Said, in which Rossi is bassist, will kick the festivities up a notch with original tunes starting at 7 p.m.

Tales of a wandering chair

As Piana gathered poems and stories from previous winners, he became fascinated with the idea of the chair as a character, traveling from house to house over the years. As the poems and reminiscences came in, Piana learned some of the stories behind the chair’s itinerant life.

One winner, Andrew Varnon of Greenfield, had the chair stolen from him in 2009. (You can learn how that turned out when you read the anthology.)

Susie Patlove of Shelburne Falls, winner in 2000, wrote of the chair: “To be honest, I rarely sat in it. Perhaps that was because my friend Genie Zeiger seemed perched there, watching me, telling me to take up my pen.”

At first when she looked at the chair, 2001 winner Hilary Ince saw only the absence of her writing mentor, Virginia Lowe, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Greenfield Community College, who had helped to bring an actual “seat” to the Poet’s Seat Contest. But the chair soon became an everyday part of Ince’s family life.

It’s a testament to Piana’s organizational skills and tenacity that he managed to wrangle the participation of all 25 winners, and to keep the project on schedule. Piana is quick to give credit for help he received from current and former contest organizers — Hope Schneider, Dennis Finnell, Kay Lyons, Marianne Snow and Cindy Snow — as well as a team of volunteers that grew to 35 people. Ed Rayher, master letterpress printer and proprietor of Swamp Press in Northfield — who won the contest in 2011 — volunteered as book designer, and I had some fun taking portraits of the chair with an eye for illuminating its character.

Piana, who was on sabbatical from an adjunct professorship at Western New England College, devoted a year to the project.

“It began last April. And it’s pretty much consumed most of my free time,” he says.

He picks up a bound proof of the book. “And, here it is. So I’m kind of happy. But I’m still squirming until celebration day.”

He doesn’t have long to wait.

Where to find it

The Poet’s Seat Contest Silver Anniversary Anthology will be for sale at the gala book launch on Saturday, April 15, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. (with artist’s reception and music to follow) at The Arts Block, 289 Main St., Greenfield; at the Poet’s Seat Contest awards ceremony on Thursday, April 27, 7 p.m. in the Capen Room at Stoneleigh Burnham School; at Greenfield Public Library and local bookstores. As a last resort, find it on: amazon.com.

Proceeds from sales of the $15 book go Friends of the Greenfield Public Library’s youth and young adult programs.

Watch for word of another event currently in the planning stages to be held at Arms Library in Shelburne Falls this summer.

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