Poetry for all

  • At left, local poet Paul Richmond speaks after being named America’s National Beat Poet Laureate. Right, he reads at the Great Falls Word Fest. Contributed photo

  • Paul Richmond at last year’s Great Falls Word Fest. Contributed photo

  • Kate Rex, a Scottish poet, was at the festival last year and is coming back. Contributed photo

  • Jovonna Van Pelt, a local poet and author, will be reading at the festival. Contributed photo

  • Paul Richmond at the Laureate ceremony. Contributed photo—

For the Recorder
Published: 10/4/2019 2:58:14 PM
Modified: 10/4/2019 2:58:02 PM

Just in time for the 10th anniversary of the Great Falls Word Festival in Turners Falls, its founder, organizer and swingin’ beatnik Paul Richmond has been named America’s National Beat Poet Laureate.

What might otherwise simply count as an honor for Richmond — adding some prestige to the festival — it is also very fitting. Following the ideals of the Beat Generation, a literary movement that explored American culture and politics, Richmond created the festival to give a voice to poets from all walks of life, to highlight the often underappreciated local artists and to give people a space to listen and to be listened to:

“I don’t know if anybody really realizes how many great writers we have in the (Pioneer) Valley and in Franklin County. I’ve watched a lot of people, myself included, develop over the 10 years (of the festival) because we kept going at it. I think this is going to be a celebration of a number of writers who had nothing published 10 years ago but now have if not one, but three books. It’s kind of a community celebration,” he said.

There is more than a hint of pleasure in his voice when he talks about his new title, though it seems mostly a reflection of his respect for the organization and the principles it represents. Richmond generally remains down to earth about the award and remains wary of giving people attention based solely on their name and affiliation. He recognizes, however, that people do value such information, and hopes that it will attract more people to the festival.

“I try to take out some of the snobbiness. It’s really tricky. We live in a society where, if you won the Greenfield Slam Poetry award or you become the Beat Poet Laureate, everyone perceives it somehow as it giving you an edge above. Well, maybe it does or it doesn’t,” Richmond continued.

About public success, he continues: “It’s often about which MFA program did you go to? And then you realize, it’s not necessarily ‘rigged,’ but, for example, the Yale program is connected to all these prestigious magazines. So, if you apply, you’re more likely to get published.”

Richmond gets more philosophical when he talks about the value of the festival and his other project, the Greenfield Third Tuesday Word, a poetry open mic he hosts every third Tuesday at 9 Mill St. in Greenfield. He explains that there is both personal and political value in writing and sharing one’s work.

He realized the personal aspect when he was studying at The State University of New York in Buffalo. It should sound familiar to anyone who’s spent time writing: For the first time, he had an idea about the shape and direction of his personal positions.

“One of the big things that really showed me that was that I was drafted (into the military),” he said. “At some point, filling out the papers, there were a whole bunch of questions about my belief system … I was realizing I had never really tried to put down my beliefs or question my beliefs or hear them read out loud.”

In turn, this leads to the political value of the festival:

“We’re supposed to live in a democracy. And democracy works better with everyone having a strong voice. There’s a couple of steps in there, like, what are your feelings? Do you know what your feelings are?” He also emphasizes the importance of having a space for everyone to be heard and of hearing others as essential to the democratic process.

In an era of “fake news,” Richmond says the main draw of hearing writing read aloud these days is the opportunity to listen to something real. “You can hear about someone’s mom dying. It brings people to the personal ‘I’m not alone.’ It’s those real moments that everyone connects to,” he said.

The legacy of the politically radical Beat Generation shines through all of these ideas. After all, they were struggling against what they saw as the elitism of establishment and academic pretentions (even though most of the beat ‘Lamas’ were graduates of institutions such as Columbia University). While in college, Richmond was fortunate enough to study with Robert Creeley and hear Williams Burroughs, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg a number of times.

“I was kind of influenced by that. I didn’t write much poetry, but I did start writing and realized I didn’t know how to write very well at the time,” Richmond recalls.

Richmond’s only major qualm about hosting artistic events has been that sometimes artists don’t realize the importance of bringing an audience with them. His years as a self-employed juggler taught him the basics of publicity. For example, he explains, “Say there were seven people performing. If all of them had invited five friends, each person would have had thirty new people listening to her … I try to help teach people how to build a community together.”

A five-minute time limit on poetry readings (as is the case at the festival) is ideal, Richmond maintains: “a person can say a lot in five minutes,” but it’s short enough that the audience is likely to sit and hear someone they might not otherwise be inclined to listen to, because “well, it’s just five minutes.”

Richmond has seen the impact of his efforts in the expanding number of artistic events happening in the area. When he first started, “You were lucky when there was maybe one event a month. Now there’s at least two or three a week,” Richmond said, noting that he was inspired to fill a need that had evidently remained untapped in the Pioneer Valley.

At first, Richmond struggled to convince venues to host poetry events. Owners asked, “is anybody even going to come?” he said. Yet he persisted. And not only did people come, they bought food and drinks and made the enterprise profitable as well. Among the first places Richmond hosted poetry events were furniture stores and the Solar Store. In part, he appreciated the eccentric vibe of doing that, but it also gave the stores some publicity and business.

He’s also hopeful about the “new age” we live in and the democratization of art: “With the internet and people hosting their own events and everything, people are creating their own audiences.”

Similarly, Richmond’s personal tastes only in part determine which books he chooses to publish through his company Human Error Publishing.

“I sort of let the author and the audience decide, if there even is an audience. Hopefully, the writing is coming from you and expresses what you want to say, then you may find that you hit a nerve and a lot of people feel that way, or it’s this niche area over here of people who were brought up Polish in Kansas or something,” he said.

Despite Richmond’s aspirations to open poetry to everyone, he’s realistic about what it takes actually to become a professional writer. He likens it to his 20-year experience as an international professional juggler. With all the necessary traveling and promotional activities, people who want to succeed in these fields have sometimes to make difficult personal choices.

“There were some things early on where I had to decide, did I want kids, and how many kids, and was I going to be with someone who saw me as the main provider. Because I do want to follow this art path and I know it will die if I end up having to do 40 or more hours a week support a family.”

Richmond has published four of his own books, been featured in many anthologies, and invited to numerous international readings in places like Budapest and Sweden.

One of the unique highlights of the Great Falls Word Festival is Richmond’s “Do It Now” performance, which will take place next Saturday at 8:30 p.m. With cool-cat musicians John Sheldon, Tony Vacca, and Jo Sallins, Richmond stages a jazz/world/rock-influenced twist, with the Beat Poet accompanied by a drummer. Despite the initial amusement of recognizing the stereotype, the performance can best be described as off the wall.

“It was a conscious choice to be like another instrument in the band. So, they’re listening to me and I’m listening to them and the words are intertwined. A lot of it becomes improv.” (Examples can be found on Richmond’s YouTube channel.)

Additionally, he wants to use the festival to honor the significance of the days of the festival, which will run Oct 11, First Day of the Girl Child (advocating for greater opportunity for girls and increased awareness of gender inequality faced by girls worldwide) to Oct 14, Indigenous People’s Day.

Attendance is either $25 for a button to access all four days or separate pricing for each event. For a full schedule or to pre-order a button, see the festival website at greatfallswordfestival.com.

Nicole Braden-Johnson of Conway is the author of “Unheard Melodies,” a monthly poetry column in the local “The Visitor,” and has also been published in several literary journals. She is always on the lookout for poetry news and events, and can be reached at bradennicole@gmail.com. Visit her website at unheardmelodiesnkbj.blogspot.com.


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