The Lanier Library Poetry Festival in Tryon is only in its second year, but its rise to prestige has been swift.
The festival builds on a cultural heritage that goes way back to 1889. While taking afternoon tea, five women discussed the idea of starting a lending library. Sidney Lanier, a Georgia poet, had spent his last months in Tryon before succumbing to tuberculosis, and his widow donated the first books: two volumes of her husband’s poems. What had started as a bookshelf became Lanier Library, as it’s still known today. It is one of only 16 privately-owned libraries in the country that are open to the public.
The Lanier Library Poetry Competition was inaugurated in 2008. Cathy Smith Bowers, a Tryon resident and North Carolina’s sixth Poet Laureate, judged the contest for the first few years. Last year, building on this foundation, the Library launched the Lanier Library Poetry Festival, fittingly held during National Poetry Month.
“The festival was a resounding success,” says Nancy Holmes, program chair. This year, she presents some of the “country’s top poets,” assembled to teach writing workshops, give free public readings, and discuss the “principles and practices of contemporary poetry.”
The keynote speaker is Cuban-American author Richard Blanco. In 2013, when he performed at President Obama’s second swearing-in, Blanco embodied three literary firsts: he became the youngest, first Latino, and first openly gay poet to read at an inauguration.
Blanco (born in Madrid, Spain, shortly after his parents were exiled from Cuba, and raised in Miami) was recently named a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, and has been featured on NPR. He believes that an inauguration poem “is almost like a sub-genre … it’s a unique snapshot of where we are as a country at that moment.”
In his poem “One Today,” he captured part of the raw emotional landscape of a country still in mourning after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in December 2012.
“the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever.”
The Music of a Poetry Festival
Festival namesake Sidney Lanier was a flautist at the start of his career. But his legacy turned on the musical phrasing he heard in the plain talk of everyday people. In a sharp departure from typical 19th-century formal verse, Lanier used dialect in his poetry (to controversial effect in his lifetime, and to much acclaim later on).
Likewise, the man chosen to judge the festival’s poetry competition this year is also a musician. Western North Carolina native Keith Flynn, founder and managing editor of Asheville Poetry Review and a nationally touring performer, both of blues-rock and spoken word, has twice been named a Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for NC. “Poetry has to possess a musical quality. It’s what separates it from all other genres of writing,” says Flynn.
“Both myself and Sidney Lanier were musicians at the start of our careers, and both our lyrical voices developed from that training,” he notes. “Lanier is one of the first poets to recognize the worth of American regional colloquialisms, and he incorporated those native elements in his verse long before 20th-century poets recognized the worth of such an exercise.”
The best poems, continues Flynn, “are those that stop us in our tracks, shut us up, and make us read the poem again and again, because it has suddenly opened a new room in our brain that was hidden to us before.” But, Flynn adds, “‘it just don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’ Poetry is language with a shape, but that shape has to have momentum, unified momentum flowing with authority down the page.”
Even the kids’ events at Lanier Library Poetry Festival have a musical slant. “Viva la Verse! A Magical Celebration of Poetry,” with Wendi Loomis and Andy Pond, will mix poetry with music, ranging from jazz and blues to hip-hop and pop.
“Music and poetry have a deep connection for me that traces back to childhood, when I started scribbling song lyrics and poems in the margins of my notebook,” says Loomis. “A good poem sings in your head the same way a good song carries layers of meaning in the lyrics.”
“Poetry is what the world wants when its heart is broken,” says Flynn.
The Lanier Library Poetry Festival happens April 24 and 25 in Tryon (72 Chestnut St.), with Richard Blanco, Keith Flynn, Kathy Ackerman, Harry Goodheart, Tina Barr, Morri Creech, Rick Mulkey, Wendi Loomis, and Cathy Smith Bowers. For a full schedule of readings, events, and workshops, see lanierlibrarypoetryfestival.org, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 828-859-9535.