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New festival aims to bridge gaps separating St. Louis poets

St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro delivers a poem before the ceremonial swearing-in of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro delivers a poem before the ceremonial swearing-in of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

This weekend poetry becomes a test of whether poets and poetry enthusiasts who follow a certain genre can cross cultural and stylist barriers in their art. The Brick City Poetry Festival is being presented as the first poetry festival of its kind in the St. Louis region. The goal? To bring together academic, spoken-word, young, old, and racially diverse poets in search of “human commonality.”

St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro is one of the festival’s primary organizers alongside Cheeraz Gormon, Rabbi Jim Goodman, Darlene Roy and others. The festival is supported by anonymous donations and personal contributions from organizers. St. Louis Poetry Center Board President Mary Ruth Donnelly said the festival is right in line with Castro's decades of work in the city’s poetry community. 

“He’s been working very hard to pull the disparate parts of the St. Louis poetry community together,” she said.

Donnelly says Castro and all those who will participate are making this a special event. She says their enthusiasm indicates the poetry community in the city has reached a new benchmark.

“This is a fantastic time for poetry in St. Louis,” she said. “We’ve reached this wonderful moment of such fertility in the poetry community.”

St. Louis Public Radio spoke with Michael Castro about bringing together different genres of poetry and the impact he hopes it will have. He weighed in on the various poetry camps in the city and how he hopes the festival will bring them together. These responses have been edited and condensed.

On festival beginnings

Michael Castro: St. Louis has many poetry communities, however they’ve been somewhat fragmented. There’s a lot of poetry going on around the city but many of the communities have not historically interacted or cross-pollinated. So I brought all the presenters I could together and we created a series called Unity Community readings. The idea was to unite these poetry communities and to promote the idea in the larger community of unity, something that’s sorely needed in our even more fragmented city. In the course of developing programs, the presenters embraced the idea and some spin off ideas began to develop, and the poetry festival came out of one of those conversations.

On fractured poetry communities

MC: I think its part and parcel of the nature of St. Louis life that people often stay in their comfort zones and don’t particularly cross racial lines. As it turned out, it’s not a matter of hostility between these communities because when we actually brought presenters together they really embraced the idea of unity community. They really embraced the idea of cross-pollinating our readings, bringing poets to new audiences, and diversifying those audiences as poets attracted their own audiences to different venues.  There are those distinctions. I suppose the more socially conscious poets have their roots in the beat generation. The more experimental are generally the more academic poets. We also have a very strong spoken word community here where we have poets who really don’t think of publishing as their main goal. So as poet laureate I try to be supportive of all types of poetry.

On tension between print poetry and spoken-word poetry

MC: If you talk to people who are publishing-oriented, page-oriented, they question even the validity of the spoken word as a legitimate poetry venue. And some of them will say this is really a horrible development; but my feeling is that poetry, like all art, is constantly evolving. Our culture is constantly evolving. And you can’t shut a valve off, and we have to honor poetic impulses wherever they arise.

On the importance of weaving genres

MC: We want to create a model for the larger city where there are people, artists, sharing their ideas, their honest talk, their playful talk, their deepest rooted feelings and their spiritual nature. When one connects with the poet one is extending the boundaries of theirself and achieving a sense of unity with the “other.” The idea is that ultimately there is common ground. That there is a human commonality that we all share.  I think poetry has that benefit that has larger ramifications. People attending, people connecting with poetry can bring that awareness into their own circle of influences. We see this as a potentially radiant activity that can have reverberations. 

Brick City Poetry Festival Schedule

Sept. 17, 6-9 p.m., Contemporary Art Museum

Opening Reception & Festival Opening Event: “The Power of Poetry"

Sept. 17, 8 p.m.

The 4th Annual Shakespeare in the Streets: The World Begun.

Sept. 18, 8 p.m.

The 4th Annual Shakespeare in the Streets: The World Begun.

Sept. 18, 9 p.m., UrbArts

“Lyrical Therapy” featuring Verbquake Youth Poets.

Sept. 19, Regional Arts Commission

11 a.m.-12:30 p.m, 1 p.m.-2:30p.m.,

Night Writers STL, Writers Workshop and Reading Series

Open Mic Reading: 3-5 p.m.

Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. Regional Arts Commission

“Celebration of the Book,” featuring recently published St. Louis authors.

Sept. 19, 8 p.m.

The 4th Annual Shakespeare in the Streets: The World Begun.

Sept. 20, Regional Arts Commission

Night Writers STL, Writers Workshop and Reading Series.

Sept. 20, 7 p.m., Foam

“Five Poets” Hosted by: Sean Arnold & Michael Castro.

Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m. Tavern of Fine Arts

“Two Poets Laureate,” presented in collaboration with River Styx.

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