It’s that festive time of year when we celebrate our favorite music, our greatest playwright, our delicious strawberries, and now, our lively poetry scene. The New Orleans Poetry Festival makes its debut Friday and runs through Sunday, offering a full weekend of music, panels, workshops and readings. What better way to observe Poetry Month in New Orleans? This could be the start of something big.
Across the weekend, approximately 80 poets will read and discuss their work, starting off with an opening reception featuring poets with rock bands, and closing Sunday with a grand reading at the Maple Leaf Bar, home to the longest-running reading series in the South.
Festival organizers Megan Burns and Bill Lavender have been thinking and talking about this event for a long time.
“One day, Bill said, ‘I really want to do that festival thing,’ ” Burns said. “I had gone to Kezia Kamenetz’s dream workshop at the Arts Estuary and I thought, ‘This would be a great place for a festival.’ So I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s just do it.’ And in about six months, it really came together.”
Lavender, who has been publishing poetry in New Orleans since 1995 with Lavender Ink, hopes that the event will draw people to New Orleans.
“The scene is certainly flourishing, and it doesn’t need anything,” he said. “But I want to inject out-of-towners into the local scene and expand it that way. I want to broaden the scene that way. “
Lavender’s fondest hope is to engender international interest, and he is wonderfully poised to do that. The Monday after the festival, he will be traveling to Uruguay to be a featured guest at the Mundial Poetico de Montevideo.
For Burns, the model for an event like this came from her experiences at memorable summer workshops at the Naropa Institute, founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in Boulder, Colorado. “It was such a time of collaboration and creativity. I wanted to mimic that intensity where you eat, sleep and breathe poetry.”
What’s Lavender most excited about? Performing with his band, The Call Girls, at the opening event, Poets with Bands.
“Poetry and music are two very different modes of expression for me; only recently have I begun to combine them,” he said. “Poets and musicians have always worked together — jazz, hip hop, spoken word — but I wanted to highlight the rock genre. I do respect the rock lyric as an art form. It’s very concise, but you learn to say a lot in a very few words. It’s haiku-like.”
Other poets performing Friday night in Poets with Bands include Skin Verb with poet Brett Evans, Shock Patina with Moose Jackson, and Bruce Andrews with Rob Cambre and Donald Miller.
Burns is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her Trembling Pillow Press, which annually publishes the winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize in Poetry, named for the Beat poet who was a New Orleans native.
She’s looking forward to the panel discussions. “I love the way everyone’s jumped in with these panel ideas,” she said.
Topics include “Father/Daughter Writing Relationships” with Louisiana poet laureate Peter Cooley and his daughter Nicole, Rodger and Kezia Kamenetz, and Ralph and Lily Adamo.
Other topics include translation, ecopoetics, collaborative writing and the poetics of place.
Burns knows the importance of community.
“It’s great when people understand why you do what you do, see that jolt of inspiration. Being a poet is a really weird gig. It’s good to have a few days of being seen by people who understand.”
Susan Larson is the host of The Reading Life on WWNO and author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.