Each couple of weeks this summer, the pop-up free poetry festival We (Too) Are Philly has broken out somewhere different in the city, focused on a Philly-centric theme. The events bring together writers and audiences of divergent backgrounds around that gentle word "too" – a call for inclusion.
What begins in poetry becomes conversation.
At the Lillian Marrero Branch Library in Fairhill, people sat in storytelling circles and told of Puerto Rican hurricanes. At the Friends Free Library at Germantown Friends School, attendees traded stories of adventures and misadventures in public education.
On Thursday, the fourth event in the six-part series will take place at Friends Center in Center City and will address the effect of prison culture on families and communities.
"Philly is not the same old place," says city poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera, who, with poets Ashley Davis, Kirwyn Sutherland, and Raena Shirali, is curating the festival. "And this is not a same old 'poetry reading.' We're moving around from neighborhood to neighborhood – to mix up old ideas of this city, who's really here, who belongs here. And to have a great time together."
Thursday's installment, titled "Schools, Not Prisons: Prison Abolition," features poet Becky Birtha, of Lansdowne, author of the children's book Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated.
Also on Thursday's program are Cortney Lamar Charleston, a Wharton grad who was a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry fellow last year; Latinx writer Kenning JP García; poet and community worker Itiola Jones; and the artist and activist Oskar Castro.
On July 26, the festival moves to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Farm for the City at Thomas Paine Plaza, with the theme "Solidarity Before Citizenship." The big finale, "Whose Parks? Our Parks!: Displacement and Gentrification," is on Aug. 11, at Norris Square Park in West Kensington.
The festival gets its name from a revered Langston Hughes poem, "I, Too," in which a discounted, marginalized speaker asserts his right to be here:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —
In a similar way, Rivera says, We (Too) is "a vision of Philly, of color, identity, ethnicity — people you may not be used to seeing on either side of the mike."
"And it's been amazing to see who comes to these events – people who aren't used to coming to readings. It's been this big experiment, and we don't really know what's going to happen each time."
Birtha, who's been focused on children's books since becoming a mom, said she's excited to be part of a poetry reading again. Her book about children and their incarcerated parents "started out as a single poem from this book I was trying to publish, about African American children and their parents," she says.
That one poem caught the eye of her editor, who suggested she try writing a children's book about young people with parents who are or have been in prison. Far Apart, Close in Heart was the result.
And where did that one poem that became Far Apart, Close in Heart originally come from?
"I have a family member who has been in and out of jail," Birtha says. He is now engaged to a woman who also has been incarcerated, and who has a child. Birtha met the child when he was 8 years old.
A member of the Central Philadelphia Friends Meeting, Birtha met Rivera when the latter, shopping for venues for We (Too) Are Philly, visited the meetinghouse and asked whether a festival event could happen there.
It is anyone's guess what might happen Thursday. "It's about the unexpected," Rivera says. "Philly isn't what you always expect, and neither are Philadelphians. I hope we can all sit down and talk in this unexpected city we share."