Arts and Culture Poetry

The Making of a Poetry Festival

The Many Voices, Many American Poetries Festival took place this past weekend, marking the first event of its kind on Wheaton’s campus. The festival included round table discussions held by visiting poets, a showcase that featured undergraduate students from the Boston area and Wheaton alum, as well as a poetry reading by a local arts organization.

The event was created and executed by Wheaton English professors, Ada Thomas and Kent Shaw. Thomas and Shaw had discussed the idea of a poetry festival for several years, but their dream was not able to be carried out until Thomas received a grant from the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Humanities this spring. Combined with funds from the Visiting Artists Program at Wheaton, the festival was able to take place.

Shaw explains that funding from the Visiting Artists Program is competitive, saying that “at the end of the year all of the different arts programs here propose events to the Visiting Artists Program, and then everyone meets as a committee and we decide which ones are carried forward.” This collaboration between different art programs is to make sure everyone is getting funding that is somewhat equal to one another. In his own words, Shaw stated that he “was lucky that both of the other writers in the creative writing program were willing to support this event.”

The festival was run by Shaw, Thomas, and several student interns hired to help out. Thomas was able to receive another grant from the same UNH organization, and “that money that she raised in a second round was explicitly earmarked for student interns,” according to Shaw.

The two-day festival was executed in record time as the proposal was approved in June of this year, and executed on the 13th and 14th of October. Shaw says that “typically an event like this you would try to start planning out a year ahead of time,” which goes to show the quickened timeline.

An image from the “America is More Than the English Language” Roundtable Discussion. Photo courtesy of Kent Shaw.

“The funding came available, and the fact that Ada [Thomas] and I were both teaching these poetry literature coursesthat would be relevant to the poetsthat were coming to visit, and all of that kind of combined.”

Shaw also explained that the festival featured all non-white poets, and focused on their contributions right now to American poetry. He reached out to several writers to ask them to come to Wheaton and offer terms. Jessica Kuszaj and Kristie Mahoney, who administer the Visiting Artists Program, took care of the contracts and transportation for the poets.

There was excitement and anxiety regarding the upcoming festival. What invigorated Shaw was all of the collaboration that occurred to put the festival together. Shaw says, “it’s really refreshing and exciting because it kind of feels like there is a larger mission that we are all working towards.”

The group effort didn’t stop there. Thomas found the designer for the Many Voices, Many American Poetries Festival poster, created bookmarks, and distributed t-shirts for the team. The student interns took care of spreading awareness about the festival on social media. In Shaw’s words, “how all of these different energies came together to promote the event, that was already a success to me.”

Although the collaboration behind the festival was planned, there were some unplanned connections that formed during the festival as well. The student interns and students participating in the showcase quickly got along with each other and “there was just this kind of cohesiveness among them that was really exciting to see,” explained Shaw. “There were moments where I just really felt like the moments of the festival really came together in ways that we didn’t plan for them to come together.”

The second day of the festival took place on a Saturday, at an early 10 AM. Although Shaw was initially concerned about people not showing up to the discussions, he was pleasantly surprised to find that many people showed up ready to actively listen to the poets.

The energy and focus during the discussions on Saturday were shared by the writers and audience alike. Shaw described it by saying, “It just felt like there was a focus in the room and when the writers who were on the roundtable would interact with each other, people from the audience were asking questions.”

Some of Shaw’s other favorite moments from the festival were the ones that happened naturally. Two of the visiting poets, Gabriel Dozal and Abigail Chabitnoy, began the America is More Than the English Language roundtable by offering to read a selection of their poems, without prompting or asking for more money. It was a moment that set a nice, open tone for the roundtable.

Another moment that stood out to Shaw was when an audience member shared the trauma they felt from their parents immigration with keynote speaker Oliver de la Paz in an unplanned Q & A session. Shaw said “it was very moving to me to hear that question and to have it posed to Oliver, who then gets to respond to it also. That kind of moment, you can’t plan that kind of thing, and it was really moving to me to hear that exchange come up.”

The whole experience was “exactly what I had always dreamed would happen,” said Shaw.

As for the impact of the festival, Shaw was just happy that it was a space to engage with issues that felt relevant to people in the audience and to the poets who were up in the front.

He hopes that the festival is included in the Wheaton website in a concrete way that could reach potential students who might be looking to see what kind of creative arts events Wheaton provides.
In terms of potential poetry festivals in the future, Shaw shared that it would have been difficult to get the festival to happen without the extra grant secured by Thomas. Another festival would require extra funds.

Shaw claims that the Visiting Artists Program is generous, but that many faculty members are asking for money from the fund.
Therefore, he hopes to hold a condensed version of the festival in the future for a more focused discussion, and potentially hold the festivals every so often.

Overall, he says that “Ada and I were both really excited about what happened.”

The festival was also met with positive reviews from the student body. Rachel Barretta ‘25, attended most of the festival events. She said “I was thoroughly impressed by the festival and I was grateful that I was able to listen to and meet such a passionate and diverse group of poets. I probably would have never had an opportunity like this outside of Wheaton so I’m really thankful I was able to get an even deeper understanding of their work.”

The poets also came up to Shaw to express their appreciation for the festival. Many writers asked him how many years the festival has been held, because they were so impressed with the audience and structure of the festival.

Shaw says “I will likely be doing it again, but I just don’t know when.”