Over the course of my campaign and its aftermath, particularly in the light of what my Republican opponents did (and continue to do) to me, many people have asked me why I decided to run for office. I typically answer that I am a crusader for truth, transparency, and justice, which begs the question of what turned me into that crusader. The answer to this question is, I became a crusader because of what West Chester did to Kim Bridgford.
After Kim became director of the West Chester Poetry Center and Conference in 2010, she asked me to take over the daily running of the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project. This put us into frequent correspondence, and we became friends. Hence I was among the first to learn when, on September 15th 2014, she was removed from her position, asked to collect her things and leave the Poetry Center (which she was thereafter barred from entering) and reassigned to full time teaching.
I became one of Kim’s most vocal defenders as the West Chester administration and its advocates conspired to give the impression that her reassignment was her fault for being a poor fundraiser (she wasn’t), or perhaps for moving the Poetry Conference too far from its original mission (She was employed to increase diversity and broaden the conference’s appeal.)
During my defense of Kim, my arguments were dismissed as lies, and I was not only regularly told to be quiet, but also frequently belittled and insulted online, mostly by men. It was great practice for facing down the three male incumbent Republican members of Hainesport Township Committee!
The real reason for Kim’s reassignment was that she had discovered financial irregularities under her predecessor as Director, Mike Peich, and when she brought those to the attention of the administrators, they chose to remove her and stage a cover up instead of investigating. Every time I suggested this, however, I was castigated for sullying the reputation of Mike Peich without being able to verify my claims. Unfortunately, Kim was at that time unable to speak publicly about the issues.
Kim and I went on (along with original Executive Board Members Natalie Gerber, Cherise Pollard, and Kat Gilbert) to create and run Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference, now in its third successful year. The West Chester Poetry Conference came back under the Directorship of Sam Gwynn after taking a year’s hiatus in 2015, and an uneasy truce has prevailed at West Chester.
But recently West Chester added insult to injury by engaging Baker Tilly, a firm of accountants, to conduct a financial assessment of the Poetry Center (which Kim’s supporters had demanded), but only covering the years of Kim’s tenure as Director. This financial review, while finding no fault, contains damaging and untrue allegations which Kim has now been forced to refute legally and publicly. The letter from Kim’s lawyer states this:
For 16 years, Prof. Peich directed the center with no accountability, no reporting, and no institutional oversight whatsoever. During that time he drained the six-figure Ahmanson Fund, without notifying any authority, and without being called upon to report his activities.
Prof. Peich’s 16-year wasting spree had been enabled by a passive university and foundation. Dr. Bridgford stepped into a situation not of her own making and did her best to rectify it….The report is unfair to her and protective of those who should be held accountable.
This letter has today been circulated among the faculty of the English department at West Chester University, and finally I am in a position to support what I have been saying all along about the events of September 2014. Truth, transparency and justice are served.
Meanwhile my fight against West Chester exposed many truths I had been ignoring for too long: that many men still attempt to dominate and belittle women, that power corrupts, that those in power will do anything to conceal inconvenient truths, and that it is always the little guy who is exploited. With my social conscience newly awoken, I looked around and I saw examples of this happening very close to home.
And that is why I ran for Hainesport Township Committee.
One glorious afternoon last week in Madison, CT, I was gathered with the amazing women of the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Seminar (Shout out to Maryann Corbett, Jean Kreiling, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Wendy Sloan, Kathryn Voorhees, and Kyle Potvin, who came down for a day) when Kathryn voiced a thought that many of us were thinking.
“This conference is too good,” she said. “I can’t get any down time, because I don’t want to miss anything. Everything is brilliant.”
If you have to hear a criticism of a conference that you, personally, have poured your heart and soul (not to mention time and money) into, then that would be the one you want. But let’s unpack that a little, shall we?
During the day at Poetry by the Sea, apart from the 1-3 pm Workshop/Seminar slot, there were pretty much always two things happening simultaneously, giving participants a choice of what to attend. Kim’s astute scheduling meant that for many there was often an obvious choice, but sometimes people were clearly torn. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Todd Boss’s excellent presentation of the Motionpoems project, for example, but I had to miss the first participant reading at which several of my friends were represented.
I was on two panels myself (Negative Reviews with Quincy R. Lehr & David Katz, which, somewhat ironically, got highly positive reviews, and Editing Poetry Journals with Allison Joseph & Anna Lena Phillips Bell, marvelously chaired by Allison), but that meant I had to miss Artistic Collaboration with Elizabyth Hiscox, Michael Bergmann, Morgan Post & Jo Yarrington, and later June Jordan at 80, with Brian Gilmore and Wendy Scott Paff. I had elected to take Richard Blanco’s one-day workshop, which was inspirational, but therefore had to forsake Young Adult Poetry with Marilyn Nelson & Helen Frost, and Translation, with Laura Marris, Todd Portnowitz and Carina del Valle Schorske. And the list goes on.
Furthermore, when we got to the portions of the day where only one thing was scheduled, it was typically unmissable. Consider Ange Mlinko’s incisive Poetry by the Sea Lecture in Poetry, or Spotlight Readings with X.J. Kennedy & Patrick Phillips, then the completely unforgetable Mahogany Browne (and her daughter, Amare) & Gregory Pardlo, or our Kimiko Hahn Keynote, or our Faculty readings (Dick Davis, Allison Joseph, Terri Witek & Cyriaco Lopes, Rafael Campo, Richard Blanco, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, A.E. Stallings (Her new heartbreaking refugee poems!), Marilyn Taylor, Annie Finch, and Joshua Mehigan), or Russell Goings’ and Quentin Talley’s The Children of Children Keep Coming. Dempsey Hall was always full, and I counted two standing ovations.
Therefore, yes, people were on the go from morning to night. But I don’t think they were really complaining! That’s what poetry conferences are meant to be like, after all–intense, joyous, inspirational celebrations of diversity and excellence, all taking place in a gorgeous setting with a shell-strewn beach and a jewel-bright sea.
So, thanks again to our Founder & Director, Kim Bridgford, for a marvelous conference, to Board members Natalie Gerber, Kat Gilbert & Cherise Pollard, Ned Balbo, Tom Cable & Russell Goings for their hard work, enthusiasm, and support. And to anyone reading this, I ask you consider three things:
Come join us next year, Tuesday May 23–Saturday May 27
Like us on Facebook. We have 981 likes! 1000 would be an awesome milestone!
Sponsor us. We are non profit, so it’s tax-deductible, and you can give online. We just want to make it possible for anyone who wants to join us in 2017 to do so regardless of circumstances.
Poetry by the Sea 2016 was brilliant, and with your help, Poetry by the Sea 2017 can be even more inclusive, even more diverse. I’d say it could be even more brilliant, but then when would we sleep?
While Kim and I were corresponding over our latest addition to the Poetry by the Sea schedule, poet and spoken word artist Mahogany Browne as a spotlight reader, I found myself pondering the broader issue of diversity in general, and how it relates to the two conferences with which I have been intimately involved.
Diversity at Poetry by the Sea
18 months ago, when we were first planning the conference, something we were 100% committed to was this idea of diversity at Poetry by the Sea. When Kim took over as the Director of the West Chester Poetry Conference, one of her tasks was to increase the diversity of that conference, not only with respect to the faculty and panelists, but also with respect to the attendees. And Kim did that. She brought people like Natasha Trethewey and Julia Alvarez in as Keynotes and speakers, she made arrangements with Cave Canem to give younger African American poets scholarships, and she put more women on panels. Ironically, when Kim was removed from her position as Director (which we know now was because she revealed financial irregularities that WCU wanted to cover up) some long time attendees (read older white men) theorized that it was because she had allowed the conference to be taken over by “fringe elements.” Diversity, it would seem, is not for everyone.
So, one of the wonderful things about starting a new conference from scratch is that we were able to be as diverse as we wanted, without having to fight a rearguard action from people who preferred the status quo. Diversity at Poetry by the Sea starts at the top, with key board members Russell Goings and Cherise Pollard. Our faculty (Dick Davis, Anna M. Evans, Joshua Mehigan, Steven P. Schneider, A.E. Stallings. Annie Finch, Natalie Gerber, Rafael Campo, Richard Blanco, Allison Joseph, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Marilyn Taylor, Terri Witek with Cyriaco Lopes) represents a broad variety of people too—men and women, gay and straight, various ethnicities. Our spotlight readers (in addition to Mahogany) range from X.J. Kennedy through Patrick Phillips and Gregory Pardlo. We have a specific panel on June Jordan at 80, but more importantly, you will never walk into any Poetry by the Sea panel and see yet another bunch of white men, with maybe a token white woman thrown in. Naturally the Cave Canem scholarships migrated with Kim, and this year we are pleased to announce that they have been awarded to Keith Wilson and David Mills. (You can see the full schedule here.)
Basically, having this level of diversity at Poetry by the Sea makes it feel like the world looks, which is not like almost any other poetry conference. And we are proud of that.
We have some amazing Poetry by the Sea people! Last year they said a world-class conference couldn’t be put together in just six months, and we proved them wrong, because finding amazing people has proven to be one of Founder & Director Kim Bridgford’s greatest talents. With the advantage of a full twelve months to plan, this year’s expectations were even higher. But guess what? Poetry by the Sea people are being recognized on a weekly basis for their outstanding contributions to the world of poetry.
Robin Coste Lewis Wins National Book Award
The NBA shortlist was decided only a few weeks after Kim secured the spotlight readers for the conference, and we were blown away when we realized two of our readers (Patrick Phillips was also nominated for Elegy for a Broken Machine) were finalists. I immediately put Voyage of the Sable Venus on my Xmas list! Then, of course, we were beyond thrilled when Robin won! Here’s an interview with Robin about the book, but personally I can’t wait to hear her read from it on Friday May 27 (and sign my copy!).
Richie Hofmann Makes Top Ten Debut Poets List
Richie Hofmann (Second Empire) is on the first of our two New Books panels, which kicks off the conference on the afternoon of Tuesday May 24th, so I suggest you plan to arrive early. It should be a stellar panel, hosted by John Foy and also including Ned Balbo (Upcycling Paumanok), Tara Betts (7×7: Kwansabas), and Quincy R. Lehr (TheDark Lord of the Tiki Bar). By the way, Jenna Le (A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora) is on the second New Books panel on the morning of Friday May 27th, and is also making headlines.
Micheal O’Siadhail, a workshop leader at the inaugural conference, is making a guest appearance this May on the Saturday morning to read from his newest collection, One Crimson Thread, a book that Thomas McCarthy of the Irish Times calls “one of the most elegant pictures of faithfulness that I have ever encountered.” Greg Pardlo, last April’s surprise winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Digest) will also be chairing a panel on Saturday morning, in addition to reading with Robin on Friday. So that’s it then! I’ve just given you reasons both to arrive for the beginning of the conference and to stay until the end!
But here’s the thing: although we can single out the people above because they have made recent headlines, the truth is that all Poetry by the Sea people are pretty special. Obviously we have venerable workshop/seminar leaders like Dick Davis, Joshua Mehigan, Steven Schneider, and A.E. Stallings (a top candidate for the Oxford Professorship in Poetry earlier this year), and panels chaired by luminaries like Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, and Willard Spiegelman. (I can’t name everyone! But the aim is to have the full schedule online early in the New Year.) Still, what really makes the conference work is the community of Poetry by the Sea people who come to participate, who listen, ask questions, and then read their own poems in the participant readings, who breathe in the fresh air and restoring atmosphere of Mercy by the Sea with us.
I just can’t wait to join the amazing Poetry by the Sea people next May!
A media guru I admire told me not that long ago, “Make sure all your great content is on your blog, rather than on Facebook or on some random networking site, because that way you own it and it’s always there for you.” How right he was!
That’s why, when I was contacted recently by a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist writing a story about the resurrection of the West Chester Poetry Conference, even though I was at the fields watching my younger daughter’s JV field hockey game, I was able to make some salient points and then say, “Go search my blog on West Chester. That should give you everything you need.”
I invite readers of this blog to do that exact same thing. You will find some positive posts, from Kim’s era, and then the outraged, horrified reaction to her reassignment, and then the more measured stuff I’ve been posting since Kim and I created Poetry by the Sea.
Obviously I did not conceal my alignment with Poetry by the Sea from the journalist, but she did choose not to mention it in her article, which got some tongues wagging. Hey guys, not my call!
I’ve also been getting some grief over on Eratosphere with people who are naturally big fans of Sam Gwynn and want the West Chester Conference back. I’m fine with that, too. I actually wish they would engage more. I want to discuss the issues involved whereas they just want me to shut up and stop making them feel bad about wanting to attend the WCU conference, notwithstanding how badly the administration treated Kim.
Not this girl.
Animals Are Passing From Our Lives by Philip Levine
It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.
I have never made it a secret either that my loyalty to Kim Bridgford is 100% solid, or that this colors my motives in many of the things that I write and do. I happen to think she’s an amazing human being, and I am awed by the fact that she managed to put together the Poetry by the Sea Conference in under eight months, providing our community with a place to assemble after West Chester University abruptly moved Kim out of the Directorship, closed the Poetry Center, and cancelled the conference.
West Chester University has decided it wants to run the conference again in 2016, and this vast, corrupt institution has money to throw at the problem of making it happen. It sounds as if the scholarships will be plentiful, and panelists and chairs are invited to apply. They are counting on the fact that members of our community have short memories and are naturally forgiving people, inclined to give second chances.
Let me make something very clear: there has been NO resolution to what happened last September. The situation has not changed a whit, in fact. There is still legal action pending between Kim and WCU, which means she can still say nothing about what happened. There are still well-founded rumors of financial mismanagement at the Poetry Center, which is still the most credible reason for the sudden action. Remember: you can’t audit a body that no longer exists. Remember: Kim did nothing wrong and WCU mistreated her shamelessly. That still happened.
Make no mistake: if you allow WCU to buy back the conference with all this still hanging over its head, you are demonstrating the exact opposite of loyalty to Kim Bridgford, even if you believe you are only doing it out of loyalty to new part-time Artistic Director, Sam Gwynn. (Side note: In my opinion Sam is just a future victim of West Chester University and is not to blame for his role in this drama, but please consider the ramifications of the fact that his new part-time position has no authority to call for any kind of financial review.)
The Raintown Review Anthology has, believe it or not, been underway since 2009, yes, since the earliest days of the new editorial team consisting of myself and Associate Editor Quincy R. Lehr. (We’ve since welcomed on board Assistant Editor Jeff Holt, of course, as well.)
It was Quincy who volunteered to keep an ongoing file of our pick of the poems from each issue—the poems that surprised us, revitalized us, or brought tears to our eyes (Okay, that was mostly me.) All I did was agree to the plan, say yeah or nay to a few poems, and confirm that when we felt ready, Barefoot Muse Press would publish and administer it.
We felt ready early this year. We got the manuscript planned, Jeff invited the poets whose poems we wanted to publish (most of whom responded with an eager yes), and we even arranged to have the launch reading at Poetry by the Sea 2015.
And then, in March, my mum got sick and passed away a month later. Needless to say, the plans for the Raintown Review anthology went on hold. It was hard enough for me to be in England for 5 weeks looking after my Dad and coping with my mum’s hospitalization, while trying to distance teach my Poetry & Math class at Stockton, and continuing to manage the website and the registration for the Poetry by the Sea conference. Everyone was naturally very understanding, and the reading for the anthology at the conference went ahead with no physical book in sight!
But now at last the physical book of the Raintown Review anthology IS in sight! I’ve been working on the layout and the cover design today, as you can see, and the preliminary pre-order page is now up on the Barefoot Muse website. (Pre-order for $12 or $10 for additional contributor copies.) And, ladies and gentlemen, I am psyched, because the one thing you already know about the Raintown Review anthology—just look at that contributor list!—is that the poems are shockingly good.
The West Chester Poetry Conference 2016 will take place from June 8 to June 11, 2016, or so we were told in an email which seemed stunningly oblivious to any possible sense of ill-feeling among its recipients. Meanwhile the Poetry by the Sea Conference is confirmed for May 24 to May 28, 2016. If you have the time, the money, and the inclination, you can go to both. Unfortunately, most of us are constrained by at least one of those factors. My own inclination is NOT to darken the doors of the West Chester Poetry Conference 2016, 2017 or any other year; nevertheless, I’ll try to compare what you can expect from the two conferences.
West Chester Poetry Conference 2016
The West Chester University Poetry Center website simply says, “More details coming soon.” The email tells us that “Ann Mascherino…was appointed in March 2015 as the College of Arts & Sciences Outreach Business Manager” and that they “hope to soon appoint an Artistic Director” of the West Chester Poetry Conference 2016 — here’s the job advertisement for the position posted on July 15, 2015. Apart from that, all we know for sure is that Pat Valdata and Jeff Hardin, the deserving winners of the Donald Justice Prize “will be honored publicly” at the West Chester Poetry Conference 2016. What else can we extrapolate from previous conferences and the events of last fall? We know what the accommodation and the food are like, but it’s difficult to get a sense for the direction in which this conference will go. There isn’t a single named poet currently associated with the 2016 conference, not even the keynote, and nothing has been said about poetry at all. I think it’s also fair to say not only that a number of previous attendees and faculty will boycott the conference on principle because of how Kim was treated, but also that the demographic of these boycotters will be skewed younger, more female, and more non-white when compared to the non-boycotters. In other words the conference faculty and participants will likely return to its 1994 base of older, white men.
Poetry by the Sea 2016
If you attended Poetry by the Sea 2015 you already have a very good idea what next year’s conference will be like, although you can rest assured that there will also be changes reflecting feedback that the Board have received.
Some confirmed speakers for Poetry by the Sea 2016 include our second keynote speaker, Kimiko Hahn, and X. J. Kennedy who will give a spotlight reading as well as participate in a panel on Humorous Song. Alex Pepple will be on a book publishing panel; Julie Kane will chair a panel on Poetry & Cognition, and Marilyn Nelson, a Young Adult panel. New books featured include The Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar by Quincy R. Lehr. Some confirmed returning faculty include Steven Schneider, Jehanne Dubrow, A.E. Stallings, Dick Davis, Tom Cable, Rafael Campo, and Patricia Smith.
You know me, and you know the role I played in defending Kim last fall, and in putting the conference together. Of course I’m biased! But you also know I’m passionate about poetry and committed to diversity and equality, like Kim Bridgford, and like Poetry by the Sea. The West Chester Poetry Conference 2016, on the other hand, is likely to be committed to regaining the out-dated status quo that Kim unsettled.
When people pick up a copy of my chapbook, The Stolen From, or of the anthology I edited, Forgetting Home, their natural assumption is that I have first hand experience of the nightmare that is losing a loved one to this hateful condition. But that is not how these two books came about.
The truth is that in May 2011 I received a call from an association called Arts Horizons of New Jersey, asking me if I would be interested in running poetry workshops in a group home for older adults living with Dementia and Alzheimers. Although I didn’t have the first clue what this would entail, I agreed to give it a try. Over four years later I have visited the home, CareOne in Moorestown, almost every month and while I wouldn’t call what I do there poetry workshops exactly, I’m certainly working with poetry and Alzheimers.
The Power of Poetry to Engage Memory
Organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project have long recognized that poetry is an exceedingly useful way of connecting to the memories of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The fact is that the memories we lay down in our childhood and teenage years are among the most resilient, and for many of us that is when we are having poetry read to us in elementary school, or studying poetry in high school.
The poems that work the best in this way are the most oft-quoted Shakespeare sonnets, the most memorable Emily Dickinson poems, and “popular” classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or, most notably, “A Visit from St Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore. (I recorded a true story of a resident’s reaction to this piece in my poem “Welcome Visitors,” the last poem in The Stolen From.)
The act of being able to remember such well-known poems makes residents feel empowered and gives them some semblance of normality.
The Power of Poetry to Prompt Storytelling
But poems don’t have to be famous to help these older adults connect with their memories. What I typically do at the beginning of each session is read 4-6 poems written around a similar theme. Then I use that theme to attempt to draw out recollections and stories from the older adults listening to the poems. At a training session given by the National Center for Creative Aging I learned how photographs could be used in this way, and it seemed to me that poetry could be equally as powerful. Themes I have used include the various Holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, Mother’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day etc.), seasons, places, food, schooldays, careers, and so on. Sometimes, the theme successfully generates quite long recollections which I honor by writing down. Sometimes I have to prompt recollections by asking open-ended questions e.g. “How did your family celebrate Halloween?”, “What career or jobs did you enjoy doing most?” “What did you like best about the New Jersey shore?” Again, I honor the memories by writing them down.
Sharing their own stories bolsters the residents’ sense of identity and self-esteem. Being involved in the discussions makes them feel less isolated and generates a sense of well being.
The Power of Poetry to Encourage Creativity
Finally, we write a poem together. I would be lying if I said that the residents actively write the poem, but the poem uses their valuable input and takes shape on the easel in front of them. There are several types of poem that I have found most effective in this setting:
The Acrostic — For example, if our discussion has generated a list of careers/jobs the residents enjoyed (Secretary, Teacher, Realtor etc.) I write the word vertically down the page and encourage them to call out words or phrases for each letter that describe someone who might have that career.
Haiku — I don’t insist these be 5-7-5 syllables, just that they make a short-long-short pattern on the page. These can often be constructed directly using the memories written down earlier.
Monorhymes — The capacity to generate rhymes for a given word is unrelated to memory. I give them a word and collect suggestions for rhymes, then we write the poem and try to use as many of the suggestions as possible.
Participating in a creative/intellectual exercise gives the residents a sense of accomplishment plus they have fun!
So, the workshops inspired me to write poems about my observations, and I decided to self-publish these as the chapbook, The Stolen From, plus the experience gave me a connection to Alzheimer’s, and I decided to do what I could to help alleviate the suffering by publishing the anthology Forgetting Home. Meanwhile, I still go along to CareOne every month, where some of the residents have been there since I started. They may not be able to tell you my name, but they do know that they enjoy what we do.