It's the renewal of a great tradition - with something new added.
One of the nation's most eminent poetry conferences began Wednesday. Since 1995, the West Chester University Poetry Conference has attracted poets from all over, concentrating on craft, music, storytelling, reviewing, readings, panels, and much else.
This year, about 250 poets have registered. Between them and folks who walk in, director Kim Bridgford, who is helming her first West Chester conference, looks for about 300 poets to assemble. "It's one of the greatest privileges of my life," says Bridgford, a professor of English at West Chester. "The conference is so rich, and has such a history."
That history began in 1994 over a glass of wine in Sebastopol, Calif., when now-retired West Chester professor Michael Peich and poet Dana Gioia came up with the idea of an entire conference concentrating on craft.
Promised highlights show the range of the conference. Revered poet Richard Wilbur will celebrate his 90th birthday at the conference with a panel, a reading, and a party Friday night. "There's been no better friend to the conference than Richard Wilbur," Bridgford says. He was the keynote speaker at the inaugural conference in 1995.
But this year also brings fresh directions, thanks to Bridgford. Take the very first session Wednesday - on hip-hop, presided over by Michael Cirelli, poet and executive director of Urban Word NYC, and Mahogany Browne of the Nuyorican Poets Café.
Hip-hop? At the august West Chester conference? Better known for its emphasis on rhyme, meter, and form than for freestyling? "I wanted to stress the inclusiveness of the gathering and open it up to new ideas and practices," Bridgford says.
Cirelli says, "I'm really excited that West Chester is bringing hip-hop into things. For me, it's one of the most dynamic literary movements in the last century. What's coming out of hip-hop is a new way of saying things, very language-driven, ways to explore and express."
But isn't West Chester all about ballads and rondeaux and other traditional musical forms? Cirelli sees no contradiction: "We're trying to put rap and hip-hop in the same continuum as sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles."
One special guest this year is Russell Goings, former NFL player, onetime New York Stock Exchange member, and also - wait for it - epic poet. His work The Children of the Children Keep Coming, published in 2009, is a griot-style epic poem that embraces the Underground Railroad, jazz, and the African American experience in history and myth. Bridgford, who saw the poem in early drafts and worked with Goings to bring it into the light, says, "It's wonderful to have seen it at so many different stages. I think it has sold about 15,000 copies by now, which, you have to say, is good for an epic poem."
Goings, 79, says that "the conference is becoming more diversified in many ways, in language and skills, but also more of what America represents, blues singers, gospel, folklorists, all of these, and a melding of ages and differences. I'm looking to hear the new voices. I think it's going to blossom in ways that will reverberate through the culture."
Thursday night will see an exhibition of works by Goings' longtime friend, artist Romare Bearden, who died of cancer in 1988. The exhibition features Bearden's Odyssey series, which recasts Homer's epic in Afrocentric terms. On Saturday, there's a panel on rap, chaired by writer Farai Chideya and focusing on the Anthology of Rap, with coeditor Andrew DuBois; the panel opens with a presentation by digital poet Mary Ann Sullivan. Saturday night, the conference continues its long fascination with words and music, as mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran and the Motown Project unite the worlds of opera and 1960s and 1970s urban pop.
Anna Evans of Hainesport, N.J., is a poet and an editor. This is her fourth time at the conference. She calls it "a wonderful chance to be part of a great community. I love the way the faculty mingle with everyone. We all eat together, we all socialize; you can approach famous poets and talk to them about poetry and think, live, and breathe nothing but poetry for five days."
While Evans describes herself as "a formal poet," first-time attendee Katherine Schneider of Somers, N.Y., says, "I write mostly in free verse." But she, too, is "looking forward to being part of a community of poets I've heard about for years. There's so much I'm looking forward to. I'm always looking for ways to interact with other writers."
The conference has never lacked for star power. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky was on the program as the keynote reader Wednesday night, introduced by Gioia, conference cofounder, poet, and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. Among other noted poets who will read during the conference are Gioia, Goings, David Mason, Molly Peacock, and Timothy Steele.
But the high point is Friday night's celebration of Wilbur, one of America's most celebrated poets. "One thing that has drawn me back," he says, "is the people who come to the conference. They are generally people of real ability who are interested in using the old tools of poetry - meter and rhyme and whatnot."
Wilbur notes that "the standard American poem of the moment is a free-verse poem," which may make the formal poet feel part of a minority. "This makes for a great spirit of camaraderie and mutual encouragement at the conference. In my life, I've been to many other conferences, and there was always a bit more vying than there is at West Chester."
At the hip-hop workshop, the topic of "spoken-word poetry" comes up. Cirelli asks: "So how do we define spoken-word?" That's when Goings says:
"The spoken word I heard as a little boy, and I'm almost 80 years old, was at my local church. And the preacher rained down the spoken word; the spoken word was just like rain when I was growing up. The spoken word is about the soul."
If that sounds like poetry, well, that's the point.