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Massachusetts Poetry Festival!

Yay poetry!

“I have been inside of Poetry’s house and this is what I know:

of all the things I’ve done and been and thought I found

Language is what I’m here for,

the word, the sound.”

Those are a few lines from “Poetry’s House,” a poem by my friend Laura Didyk. In them lies the magic of poetry. Words. Sound. But so much more than that—life. Good poetry offers a distillation, a concentration, a crystallization of our lives. When you read good poetry, it leaves a mark somewhere inside you. From Marie Howe to Walt Whitman to Alix Olson to Billy Collins, the poets and poems I read (and re-read and re-read) offer sustenance to something deep inside me.

The second annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival is taking place this week, October 15–18. Organized by the Massachusetts Poetry Outreach Project, it aims to connect poets and poetry with larger audiences, bringing poetry back to the people. With events throughout the state, there will be 178 opportunities to listen, read, and celebrate the art of poetry. If you’re in Berkshire County, check out the kick-off panel discussion and reading at the Mount on Thursday.

Not in Massachusetts? Celebrate poetry this week anyway! Let me know who your favorite poets and poems are.

She started with a story: She was on a plane coming home from South Africa. The man sitting next to her asked her what she had been doing there. Contemplating whether she wanted to get into that conversation with him, she turned the question on him. He replied, “I was in a golf tournament.” Oh, what the heck, why not, she figured. “I was there doing work as a radical feminist lesbian,” she told him. He was taken aback, and hemmed and hawed, asking, “is radical really necessary?” and “aren’t men and women already equal really?” She spent the rest of the plane ride writing a poem for him, which she performed last Friday night at Word X Word. It was amazing. It offered a litany of examples of the ways that women are oppressed and treated unequally in our culture, ending with the words: “and that is why I am a radical feminist.”

Alix Olson is profound and hilarious, full of fire and strength. Totally right on. Her performance left me excited and fired up and ready to ask questions and challenge the status quo. She also performed “Womyn Before”:

On Friday, towards the end of that piece, she elicited names from the audience as she quietly chanted “womyn before me.” Urging us to break through the initial silence, she motioned with her hands for us to shout out names, saying, “I believe shyness is a tool of patriarchy.” I made the first contributions that popped into my head: Ani DiFranco, Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt (I feel a future post coming with a more extensive list!).

I’m new to Alix’s work, but I just ordered a few CDs, and I am totally excited to dig into her stuff. Some initial pieces to check out (lots of YouTube out there): America’s On Sale!, Picnic Table, Cute for a Girl, Subtle Sister, and Armpit Hair. Any recommendations?

To round out this post, here she shares a few words on feminism:

This past week was the first annual Word X Word Festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, organized by Jim Benson of Mission and his crew. Five nights to celebrate and experience words, written, spoken, and sung. Such a genius idea, so well pulled off.

Shira Erlichman

Shira Erlichman

The first of two spoken word events I had the chance to check out featured the multitalented Shira Erlichman—poet, musician, and artist. My friend Angela, who booked her for Take Back the Night in Amherst, told me that I would love her work, and she was spot on with that prediction. My take: Shira’s awesomely inimitable voice, rhythm, words, and presence speak to the richness of life. From charmingly playful to honestly serious, she is powerful, she is delightful, she is fiery. She leaves you wanting more (upon encore, she asked the audience if we’d rather hear another poem or another song; we replied, “both!” and she graced us with just that). While I’ve only gotten a small taste of her work, I can most certainly tell you this: she totally rocks.

And she’s even so cool as to have answered a few of my questions over e-mail—you, too, will be captivated.

What are some of your favorite words? (Me, I’m a big fan of inimitable, querulous, and weltschmerz.)

Shira: In linguistics class my freshman year of college, we studied compound words, and my life was changed. Compound words take the cake. Hopscotch, eyelash, see-saw, hammerhead. I love the minds that thought: one word is not enough! Let’s use two! Highrise, see-saw, chill-pill—they are tiny poems. Once you start to notice them, they’re everywhere. Following close behind compounds are: float, sink, sift, rub, sweep—words that somehow sound like the movement they signify.

Two things that make you happy and two things that make you angry?

Shira: Two things that make me happy are my girlfriend and riding a longboard. Two things that make me angry are not understanding my feelings and not understanding computers.

What do you hope people take away from experiencing your work?

Shira: At times, especially with sad pieces, or awkward pieces, or confused pieces, I hope they sense that someone else has gone through what they have gone through—that they feel connected, to themselves, to me, and to the other people in the room sharing the experience. On the other side, the laughing side, the silly side, the poems and songs that walk on that dock, I hope they feel lifted from the fog or sadness they’ve felt, that the song rubs the mud off their shoes, that they laugh. I hope the work opens a window they didn’t know was there. Perhaps they thought it was a brick wall. Perhaps the window suddenly floats over an ocean inside them. Most of all, I hope people leave feeling less alone.

Random factoid about one of your songs or poems?

Shira: I wrote the song “Bronze” in poet Jon Sand’s parents’ house in Ohio while on tour. “Your Life is a Kaleidoscope” was written on the way to and from the bathroom. “Daddy’s Parking Lot Sermon” came out in one sitting, almost 100% as it is now. The first line of “Power Out” (“Our TV medicine is dead, dead, dead!”) is the title of a song by my brother, Shai Erlichman.

Who do you think totally rocks?

Shira: I think The Whitehaus in Jamaica Plain, MA, totally rocks. Kate Bush totally rocks. Devoted and passionate teachers totally rock. The Cantab Lounge audience in Cambridge, MA, totally and completely rock. They do not hold back, they want you to win, they root for world peace—the ultimate ability to rock. People like that totally rock.

Where can we see you perform next?

Shira: From mid-September to late November, you can see me perform with nationally touring Elephant Engine High Dive Revival. Specific dates will be up this month at You can also check out my website for dates for this tour and beyond.

* * * * *

A prediction of my own: you’ll want to listen to the video above many times over.

Oh, and she plays the ukulele, too. That’s just cool.

Big thanks to her for being awesome, in myriad ways.

More on the other Word X Word performance I attended, featuring spoken word poet Alix Olson, to come.

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