Poetry blooms in the Flower City
Giving voice to the community
We’ve all seen the image of the brooding writer dressed in black bleakly reading poetry to a distracted audience in a coffee shop or smoky bar. To nonpoets this is how poetry often appears in popular media—obscure and boring. But the reality is something far different. Have you ever heard poetry recited at a laundromat? What about on a sunny day in front of the fruit stalls at the Public Market? Have you seen a poem recited in American Sign Language?
Rochester’s “Just Poets” and the newly formed “Bloom” poetry project do all of this and more as they work toward democratizing poetry and sharing it community-wide.
Formed in 2004, Just Poets is a group of writers that actively supports each member’s personal efforts to create poetry.
“Our idea is to meet each poet where they are,” says current Just Poets president Jennifer Maloney. “Whatever level you’re working at, we want to hear your voice.”
Maloney, a writer, performer, and public speaker in Rochester, came to the group a few years ago after hearing a reading hosted by Just Poets. She was eager to attend their meetings and workshops as well as their monthly readings at Before Your Quiet Eyes Bookstore on Monroe Avenue. Her participation led her to the role of president last year, though she says she can’t run the group on her own.
“Just Poets is staffed by committed volunteers. Without the help of my VP, Bart White; my treasurer-secretary, Roy Bent; and other board members who are so invested in this group, none of our programs would be possible.”
In addition to monthly meetings and open readings, Just Poets puts together a yearly anthology of members’ poetry. Each member is invited to submit up to three poems, and a committee selects the strongest to include in the book. Reilly Hirst, a grants analyst and columnist at the Empty Closet, is on this year’s committee. Hirst believes the anthology is a way for poets to gain a foothold on the pathway to publication in other literary journals and anthologies.
She says that this is only one of the many ways that Just Poets supports its members. “There is still a strong belief in the democracy of experience and that many people can bring to the table what nobody else can. We’re not cliquish here. We want you to come. We’re not just inside the college institution. We reach out and gather more people that way. And making the dues the cost that they are is saying something ($20 a year). This is not a professional membership with exorbitant costs.”
Just Poets also works tirelessly to bring poetry to more people than simply its members. In 2015 they received a New York State arts grant that helped them fund seven community-building projects in and around the city. One such program was “African American Voices.” Roc Bottom Slam Team performed at St. John Fisher College for an audience of 100 students. Just Poets then arranged a meeting and dinner for four members of the team with Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Schultz and honorary Just Poets member Cornelius Eady.
Funding also helped Just Poets sponsor the annual Deaf Meets Def Poetry Jam at RIT. Deaf and hearing poets performed with interpreters for a mostly college-aged audience of more than 180 people.
Bloom is not a membership group, but rather a poetry project lead by SUNY Geneseo professor—and host of Flour City Yawp on WAYO 104.3FM—Albert Abonado. Last year he put out the call to local poets who might like to join him in his efforts to expand the poetry scene in Rochester.
“I didn’t feel like there was enough public expressions of poetry or performances as much as I would like to see. I wanted to think about poetry in unique ways and outside the standard formats. I would love to see more poems in public places,” he says.
Wanda Schubmehl, a clinical social worker and curator of the Genesee Reading Series for Writers & Books, and Carol McMahon, a middle school social studies teacher in Williamson, responded to Abonado’s request for help, and together they came up with “Bloom.”
“Bloom came about from a little brainstorming,” says Abonado. “We decided to call it Bloom to tie it to Rochester as the Flower City.”
Like Just Poets, Bloom sponsors readings and has featured well-known local poets like Chen Chen, Tony Leuzzi, and Sabine Bradley at Small World Books on North Street. But Bloom also hosts poetry pop-ups. “We wanted more ways to get poetry out into public spaces. Think of it as poetry intervention,” says Abonado with a smile.
Schubmehl’s favorite pop-up was at Village Gate Square. At first the group was a little disappointed that there weren’t many people at the mall that day. But they weren’t deterred. They decided to read to the statues instead.
“I was surprised how powerful it felt to me to read poetry to those figures and to the others in our very small group,” Schubmehl says.
McMahon agrees that sharing poetry in public spaces is a wonderful way to bring beautiful words to a world that in some ways has forgotten the importance of the poetic voice:
“Poetry used to be something you could find sprinkled throughout the newspaper! Now people treat it as though it is something too obscure or obtuse to even consider reading. I want to change that mindset, and exposure to poetry is definitely the first step. The venues we picked for our Bloom readings seemed like the perfect way to reveal the beauty of poetry to an audience who might never read a poem on their own.”
Giving Voice to the Community
Hirst also participates in Bloom poetry programs and believes that poets tell the stories that the community often struggles to find the words for. “Poetry goes to the heart of where people’s real needs are,” says Hirst. “Poets are able to express things that the culture can’t say out loud yet.”
Maloney, Abonado, and their fellow poets work daily to give voice to emotions, politics, and beauty. Maloney sums it up:
“Poetry, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful vehicles for truth telling in the world. The imagery, economy of language, risk taking, and experimentation endemic to the art form pack the best poetry with the kind of punch you will find nowhere else. I’m committed to opening eyes with poetry and, in doing so, building connection and growing communities unafraid to look at truth, address it, and change our lives for the better.”
Christine Green is a freelance writer who lives on the Erie Canal in Brockport with her family..