By Robert Erickson, ’18
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – As rain pounded against the roof of the Kirk Center last Friday, poetry enthusiasts packed the main conference room for the first-ever Poetry Free for All, an event cosponsored by the Bread Loaf School of English, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, the Middlebury Language Schools, and the New England Review. Together, the audience and writers explored the question of the evening—“Who do we want to be?”—pondering meaning, shape, and direction within the Middlebury community and exploring how those values stand against the complexities of a rapidly changing world.
The audience had a chance to hear Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, an accomplished poet with two published collections to her credit, speak alongside Reverend Barnaby Feder, the leader and minister of the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. They listened to Spanish poetry delivered by a cohort of professors from the Spanish School; original Navajo poetry presented by Rex Lee Jim, former vice president of the Navajo Nation, veteran poets like Martín Espada and Lauren Marie Schmidt, and young, bold voices like Taylor Abasta, a high schooler from Arizona, and Dariana Guerrero, a student at the Bread Loaf School of English.
The emcee for the evening, former Welsh Poet Laureate and Bread Loaf professor Gwyneth Lewis, gave a few brief opening remarks to explain the motivation behind the event. She emphasized the power of poetry to “reimagine our values and how we want to live,” and praised the event’s organizers for using art as “a way of summoning a community” of writers, readers, and listeners who, in turn, would participate in the continuous reimagining of that society as it moves forward. Two weeks prior, Lewis had put out a call for poetry submissions to the greater Middlebury community, from which a group of Bread Loaf professors and students had selected a group of poets to perform their own work along with poems from authors who had influenced them.
The poets selected from the general pool shared the stage with a variety of artists who had been specifically invited for the event. Patton read three of her own pieces and was followed by Lauren Marie Schmidt, whose work reflected upon her experience leading a volunteer poetry group in a shelter. Then came the first group of poets selected from the submission pool: Partridge Boswell, Laura Budofksy Wisniewski (read by Barbara Diehl), Stefanie Cravedi, and Jack DesBois ’15.5.
The Spanish School contingent read next, comprised of Francisco Fayna Ranz, Pedro Ángel Palou, and Jacobo Sefami. The three delivered their poems in Spanish before English translations were read aloud for the benefit of the audience. The second group of “at-large” poets followed, including Trish Dougherty, Rev. Feder, Caitlin Gildrien, and Matthew Haughton.
Then, the celebrated Martín Espada took the stage. In a booming, resonant voice, he shared a series of poems that, as he explained, sought “to make the invisible, visible.”
Rounding off the evening were two more groups of poets, including Jack Mayer, Adam Tedesco, and Marian Willmott, followed by Bread Loaf Teacher Network members Rex Lee Jim, Taylor Abasta, and Dariana Guerrero. With rich, lively recitations incorporating timeless traditions as well as modern-day questions, they reminded the audience of poetry’s power to lift and unite voices from every section of society.
Photo by Todd Balfour.