Regular folk join the poetry elite

People's Poetry Gathering showcases known and unknown talent

— A logger, a farmer and a fisherman will get equal time with the U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize winner and rock star Patti Smith.

There will be readings of Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe and Allen Ginsberg. And a session on "The Poetry of Resistance" will feature Gaelic, Yiddish, the Gypsy language Romani and Triginya, an African tongue.

Welcome to the People's Poetry Gathering, being offered this weekend in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. About 10,000 people are expected to attend the festival, first held in New York City two years ago.

"We came to a time in America where poetry was considered something you studied in school, that it was part of the academic world. And what we're trying to do is to show that poetry is really integral to our daily lives," said Steve Zeitlin, who heads City Lore, a cultural preservation group that is sponsoring the festival along with Poets House, a Manhattan literary institution.

The hallmark of the festival is its diversity, bringing together world-renowned poets, ethnic poets and men and women who write poetry about their jobs, with slam poets, amateur poets, teen-age poets and others inspired by an open mike.

Sessions on "occupational poetry" will feature an undertaker, a taxi driver, a logger, a fisherman and a farmer.

"You just always write if that's what you need to do," explained John Kulm, who lives in Chinook, Wash., and made his living growing corn and apples until last year. "A few years ago, people started getting me to recite my poems on stage. It still seems like the funniest thing, but they like it."

Lon Minkler, a retired logger who lives in Castle Rock, Wash., said there have been logger poets ever since people began to cut down forests to farm and build.

"In the logging camps, at night, there'd be a period before you went to bed when they would have entertainment," he said. "It wasn't just poetry, it was storytellers, too, but most of it was in rhyme."

All his poems are about logging. "I don't write about anything else," he said. "I don't have much of an imagination. Most of the time I'm writing about real people."

Wesley Geno Leech, who lives in Chinook, Wash., worked for years as a merchant marine and commercial fisherman in the Pacific Northwest. He said he started reading his poems while out at sea to entertain his fellow shipmates.

"Guys would ask me to read them," he said. "They'd like it. Guys who go to sea read a lot of books; there's a lot of intelligent guys out there from all walks of life."

A program on "The Poetry of Resistance" will feature poets who write in Triginya, the language of Eritrea, the tiny impoverished African country that gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war.

Triginya "is part of our daily life, and it expresses who we are to ourselves and to our enemies and to the rest of the world," said Reesom Haile, Eritrea's poet laureate, who will be participating in the festival. "It is the language of poetry, and the language of resistance."

Ethnic poetry will also come to life in a workshop on Japanese renga poetry; a gathering of South Asian poets in an Urdu tradition called mushaira; and a session on Dub, the poetry of Reggae, and a calypso poetry performance by Trinidad's King Wellington and the Mighty Panther.

Other sessions range from X-rated erotic poetry to the poetry of preachers and spirituality. There will be a showcase for poets who communicate in American Sign Language, and a performance by Patti Smith, both a cappella and with her band. Works by Edgar Allan Poe will be read in a cemetery at midnight; Dr. Seuss will be read at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, a hallowed New York City landmark best known as a place Abraham Lincoln once gave a speech.

"We are trying to bring together as many voices as we can fit in one place, at one time, on one stage," said Zeitlin.


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