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"Poets for Sale, Cheap"

by Holly Chmil

Surging along on a riveting crest of spring flowers, the merry month of May brings a blossom of arts activities to Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties in Pennsylvania. The annual Fine Arts Fiesta held on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre through this weekend features a wide array of artists offering their wares for sale at affordable prices, live performances, demonstrations, and more.

Among the artists, you'll find a cluster of people who use words like colorful paint. In fact, you can even hire a published poet to pen a bit of verse in your honor for a very humble fee (we're talking humble: $2.50). Short on ideas? Just reach into the fish bowl and grab five words to get a jump-start and get those creative juices flowing. The Scranton-based Mulberry Poets & Writers Association also hosts poetry workshops for children on-site at the Fiesta.

"A lot of people out there just go to work, come home, eat, and sleep. There is more to life, but you have to make time for it. Not that poetry should be an in-your-face kind of thing, but I'm happy when it touches someone it normally would not," explains Jennifer Kaucher, vice-President and organizer of the unusual booth. "Good writing groups provide workshops, feedback, and events that lead to a person's growth as a writer. Mulberry tries very hard to do that."

A non-profit organization, MPWA's roots stretch back to the Poets & Writers Series, founded in 1978 by Gerard Grealish. The "beat"-flavored group met for readings at Scanlan's Saloon and later moved to a pub on Mulberry Street. Co-founders included Bernie McGurl, Rondo Semian, and David Elliott. Charlotte Ravaoli shepherded the group for eleven years into the early 90's, orchestrating projects such as "Poetry Minutes," where regional artists read original work on the air on the local public radio affiliate, WVIA-FM. The volunteer group, whose chartered purpose is to "stimulate and complement the cultural life of the community," has done just that for the past 19 years, having hosted a total of about 280 events to date, held in area libraries, college campuses, and galleries.

One of MPWA's primary goals is to get poetry to occupy new spaces in the public sphere. To this end, Mulberry has launched an innovative publishing venture, "The 1998 Poetry Daybook," a weekly personal organizer featuring an original poem or piece of art opposite each week, literary birthdays, environmental tips, advocacy dates, and lots of space to make notes.

There are well over 2,000 small presses flourishing in the United States, a phenomenon whose momentum is directly linked to the spreading technologies of desktop publishing. Individuals can now have a relatively inexpensive yet impressive array of communications tools at their disposal, tools once available only to the world of big business. It wasn't too many decades ago that computers took up entire city blocks, but ever-evolving changes today deliver blistering fast fax modems the size of credit cards.

Many people feel technology is moving faster than we are as we scramble to keep up while it changes our lives in unprecedented ways. It is precisely this tension which energizes MPWA's "1998 Poetry Daybook" Project. Author Karen Blomain explains the need for such a project, saying many people are simply too busy to appreciate art. This is a deep concern of Blomain's and a reflection of her own harried schedule as a professor at Kutztown University and working writer.

"A great thing about poetry is you can read one fairly quickly, yet it stays with you and there are things to figure out. Each time you go back, it's a little different," says Blomain of the purse-sized book. "Like Poetry Minutes, it comes in small installments, but hard copy. As we work through jotting down notes, or anytime we have a minute, while waiting in line, for example, we can read one and disappear from our worries, if only for a minute," adds Blomain, editor of "Coalseam: Poems from the Anthracite Region", the highly praised anthology showcasing much of the region's best writing. Blomain is currently planning and accepting reservations for a week-long fall workshop in France's officially designated "Village of Books" while hard at work on her second novel.

For those people whose lives don't quite fit into the generic blocks offered by planners sold in office supply stores, the daybook offers a fresh alternative. Holly Chmil, MPWA Board Member and Daybook coordinator, likens it to the recent onslaught of interest in microbreweries.

"Well, 'microbrewery' is a buzzword, but it neatly captures this feeling many of us have, that we aren't necessarily being well served by the overarching, brand-name conglomerates that penetrate every aspect of our lives. So we've become interested in what is local and more intimate. The Daybook is just that, an appointment book and calendar with character. "

Professionally printed on recycled stock, the 104-page spiral-bound book covers 18 months. Designed by Philadelphia artist Cybele Berret, seasonal dividers weave through the book featuring, for instance, an elegant Amaryllis in bloom to remind you to pick up bulbs if you want one to grace your holiday table. Environmental tips suggest easy, real world conservation measures such as filling a soda bottle with water and placing it inside your toilet's tank, saving two liters with every use, which in a year's time is an enormous amount of water saved, less stress on the water table, and savings for you.

Open to a national pool, the project is regional in emphasis. Area writers are cordially invited to participate on a competitive basis. A $15 reading fee covers three original pieces in any style or genre up to 30 lines, or 5-10 slides of black and white artwork suitable for a 5" x 7" format. The fee includes a copy of the final collection for personal use to all entrants. A SASE must be included for notification and return of materials. The deadline for submissions is June 30, 1997. You may also order copies without submitting work for the same price.

Ann Chmil, president for the past three years, said in conclusion, "Poetry is nothing if not language with a lust for language, for sensual detail. The Daybook is an invitation to take a few minutes to get lost in another world every day, and come back refreshed. Plus it's a real thrill to see your work in print!"

To learn more, send a SASE to: MPWA, P.O. Box 468, Scranton, PA 18501, or call Ann at (717) 586-6599. MPWA can also be reached at Mulberry97@aol.com.


Holly Chmil has been involved with Mulberry Poets & Writers Association for the past six years, and participated in the 1991 Young Poets Reading Tour of the U.S.S.R. in conjunction with The American Poetry Center and Citizen's Exchange Council. She was an assistant teacher in Poetry at the Pennsylvania Governor's School of the Arts in 1992, and a Red Cross Family Services Technician in the Midwest floods in 1993. Holly holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and recently moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


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