The new spoken-word festival Stellar Masses launches Wednesday with installments of poetry, slam, stories, song, and more at four venues through May 16, including Union Transfer and the Franklin Institute's Fels Planetarium.

Literary stars who will be on hand include author and critic Samuel R. Delany, current Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera, and former poet laureate Yolanda Wisher.

Wisher, who's organizing it all, is the spoken-word curator at Philadelphia Contemporary, the cultural organization (currently without walls) created by former PAFA director Harry Philbrick. She calls the events "pop-up churches of the soul."

Wisher says the literary "masses" will borrow motifs from church services, but with poets and writers as the "preachers."

"In church, there's community, music, the rituals of performance," she says. "And I find the same thing all the time where the spoken word is performed, on a healing, spiritual level."

"Stellar Mass I: Firmament" opens the series Wednesday at the Free Library Skyline Room and Terrace. Delany will be part of "Stellar Mass II: Heaven" Thursday at the University of Pennsylvania's Iron Gate Theater, along with Rivera, poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and others.

Much-honored writer of speculative fiction (Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection; Dhalgren) and memoir (Heavenly Breakfast), Delany is a longtime professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and, for many, a literary high priest of sorts. (Gumbs, who'll deliver "The Word" at Stellar Mass II, says, "He's blown my mind in all the best ways.")

"There's a good argument that art has replaced religion in many people's lives," Delany says. He'll read from his novella The Atheist in the Attic, about a meeting between the philosophers Liebniz and Spinoza.

Is his reading style priestly? "I'd say theatrical," he says, "in that you want the audience to pay attention. I enjoy feeling the closeness and intimacy that can come from people really listening."

"To me," Gumbs says, "these Stellar Masses seem connected to those times before we had any forms of media, when people looked at the stars and decided what they meant."

Gumbs calls poetry "a technology of us being aware, noticing, seeing the larger patterns of life, and we can attune ourselves, be more present. The whole universe is a poet, and by being a poet, 'I'm saying I want to be a part of that, I'm here.' "

The Rev. Marvin K. White, author of four volumes of poetry and public theologian-in-residence at First Church Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., will be  part of "Stellar Mass III: Earth" on May 16 at the Fels Planetarium.

For him, the Stellar Masses aren't about somehow "inviting" the sacred "in." "The sacred is excited to join us," he says.

White said he wants to "open the church up to people who have been told they don't belong."

"I'm black, gay, and a Jehovah's witness," he says. "The fact that I went to seminary and became a preacher is still freaking my family out. I'm also a geek. I like the new model of our solar system, which moves through space at 70,000 kilometers an hour. Let's go! Let's match that movement and get on board, not feel that we're being left behind."

In addition to the three "masses," a free event called "Hive Revival: A Stellar Masses Get Down" takes over Union Transfer on Saturday, featuring music by Worldtown.

Spoken-Word Festival

Philadelphia Contemporary: Stellar Masses

  • Stellar Mass I: Firmament, 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Skyline Room & Terrace, Central Branch, Free Library, 1901 Vine St. Free; registration suggested. Stellar Mass II: Heaven, 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Iron Gate Theater, 37th and Chestnut Streets, University of Pennsylvania. Tickets: $10. Hive Revival: A Stellar Masses Get Down, 7 p.m.-midnight Saturday, Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St.. Free; RSVP required. Stellar Mass III: Earth: Reception, 6 p.m.-6:45 p.m.; event 6:45 p.m.-8:30 p.m., May 16, Fels Planetarium, Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St. Tickets: $10. Information: