Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry

Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry
Presented by The Power of Poetry

            “I have laid aside business, and gone a’fishing.”
            (Izaac Walton, The Compleat Angler, ca. 1650)

The Izaac Walton Lodge, up the slope from Lake Logan, is the unpretentious home for the unpretentious—and magnificent-—annual Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry, this year held on April 19–20.

Alan Cohen, who says he is “the planner, cook, schlepper, dish washer, talent agent, etc.,” estimated that the Festival—whose theme, “Songs of the Other World”—brought together some 140 poets and friends from as far as California and Maryland.

Special guests were poets Naomi Shibab Nye and Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and storyteller Will Hornyak, who read or performed from their work each evening. More on them below.

First, we heard music, performed by pianist Evie Adelman and flutist Gert Young, of Bach, Schumann, and others. (There was an occasional flat note.) Laz Slovits played guitar and sang versions of Shihab Nye’s poems that he put to music; one he played on the pennywhistle.

Three guests were teenagers, one who said poetry helped him overcome a stutter. Two recited poems from the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud competition; another, from Alan’s group, Wellspring of Imagination, read one of her own.

Each evening, Alan read his own thoughtful essay on the power of poetry. We also heard Kari Peterson read her poem, “Serving,” which won the festival’s poetry contest.

The Featured Guests

First, why a storyteller? Immediately I realized that Will Hornyak, like poets, celebrates language. Friday he began amusingly with the Irish saying, “A writer is a failed conversationalist.” Most of his folktales—about Death at an old woman’s birthday party, for instance—were Irish, in perfect brogue. Saturday, he told a Nez-Pers creation story and a hilarious story about frustrated young widows, nuns, and penises.

Saturday morning, he led a storytellers’ workshop. I didn’t attend, but I heard plenty of laughter from the back of the lodge.
Both nights Naomi and Rosemerry read their poetry, each with warmth, humor and grace; Rosemerry sang some of her stanzas. The ghost of William Stafford breathed through poems by both poets. Also, Naomi often spoke of Ted Kooser, and Rosemerry of Rumi.

Naomi’s poems thread metaphor with time and place; many draw from her Arabic heritage (see “My Father and the Fig Tree,” in Tender Spot, for instance). Rosemerry’s poems (such as “Epistemology” in The Less I Hold) are very imaginative and sophisticated streams of metaphor. A few of her poems, however, struck me as a smidgeon too cute.

Saturday morning, Naomi and Rosemerry presented a workshop for poets. Their prompts were deceptively simple—write poems combining short lists: what you don’t know, what you’re grateful for, etc.

It was all a great success. Other than small complaints about the website and the anthology, Follow the Thread, I have only one substantive suggestion: Hold at least one event on Saturday afternoon. How about several small circles for open readings? Or for discussion of selected poems, say, from Stafford, Kooser, or Rumi?

Come to the Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry next year. But bring a soft cushion; you'll be sorry if you don't.

 - Craig McVay, Columbus