Poetry reading celebrates immigrants and local groups that support them

  • Amy Dryansky, Northampton’s poet laureate, has organized a Sunday reading by six poets to honor the immigrant experience and local groups that support new Americans. Photo by Trish Capo/For the Recorder

  • Poet Oliver de la Paz, a native of the Philippines, teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Image courtesy Oliver de la Paz

  • Poet Kirun Kapur, a native of Hawaii, is a visiting professor at Amherst College. Photo courtesy Kirun Kapur

  • Poet Leslie Marie Aguilar, a native of Texas, works with the Smith College publication “Meridians.”  Photo courtesy of Leslie Marie Aguilar

  • Maria Luisa Arroyo became Springfield’s first poet laureate in 2014 and received a New England Public Radio Arts & Humanities Award in 2016. Photo courtesy of New England Public Radio

  • Poet Tamiko Beyer of Boston grew up in Japan. Photo courtesy Olympus Digital Camera

  • Ocean Vuong of Northampton, a native of Vietnam who teaches at UMass Amherst, has won multiple awards for his first poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds.” Photo by Sarah Crosby/Gazette file photo

Staff writer
Thursday, April 19, 2018

When she became Northampton poet laureate last March, Amy Dryansky said she was interested in using the position not only to advocate for other Valley poets, but also to see how poetry might be used to shine a light on the area’s history of immigration.

Now, after the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies have become a lightning rod for controversy, Dryansky has brought together multiple poets, of varying ethnic backgrounds, who will read from their work in a tribute to local organizations that work with newcomers to America.

The name of the reading, which takes place Sunday at The Parlor Room in Northampton, reflects the event’s theme:  “Tesserae,” a collective term for stone, tile, glass or other material used to make a mosaic.

“Our community is made up of all these different people, of all these different backgrounds, who all make a contribution to the place we call home,” Dryansky said during a recent telephone interview. “That’s something we should celebrate.”

And Dryansky, who won the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award for Poetry for her second collection, “Glass Whistle,” said The Parlor Room reading, which is free and begins at 3:30 p.m., will also feature “some really good poets.”

Among them is Ocean Vuong of Northampton, a Vietnamese-American writer who has won multiple awards, including Great Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize, and widespread acclaim for his first poetry collection, 2016’s “Night Sky With Exit Wounds.”

Also on the bill are Maria Luisa Arroyo, who became Springfield’s first-ever poet laureate in 2014; Oliver de la Paz, a native of the Philippines and an award-winning poet who teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester; and Kirun Kapur, a Hawaii native who currently teaches at Amherst College and is the editor of The Drum Literary Magazine, which publishes short fiction, poetry, essays and interviews exclusively in audio form.

Rounding out the event are Leslie Marie Aguilar, a Texas native who’s published her work in multiple journals and is editorial assistant at “Meridians,” a Smith College journal about scholarship by women of color; and Boston-based Tamiko Beyer, who grew up in Japan and has worked both as a poet and in communications for several nonprofit groups.

“I know some of these poets and have heard of the work of the others, and I think they bring a lot of talent and a lot of perspective to the whole issue” of the immigrant experience, said Dryansky.

She says “Tesserae” is designed to highlight the work of several Valley organizations — The Center for New Americans, The Literacy Project, The International Language Institute, and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center — that support new Americans in various ways.

“I wanted to do something that would recognize those groups but wouldn’t require them to do a lot of work themselves,” said Dryansky. “I’ve worked with nonprofits myself, and I know how busy they can be.”

For “Tesserae,” she’ll introduce the poets; representatives of some of the immigrant-support groups will also speak about their work.

Financial support for the reading comes from the Northampton Arts Council and several other places, including Hampshire and Smith colleges, Levellers Press, and The Massachusetts Review.

On being poet laureate

Dryansky, who’s lived in the Valley for 30 years, has been in Conway for the past 20, where she lives with her husband and their daughter, 19, and son, 16.

Though Northampton’s poet laureates have typically lived or worked in the city, Dryansky notes that she’s worked in the city in the past and comes to town on a regular basis: “I can get down there pretty quickly if needs be,” she joked.

As Northampton’s 8th poet laureate — she took over last year from Patrick Connelly, who teaches literature at Smith College — Dryansky says she’s honored to represent the city. She’s taken part in a number of events already, such as a reading last year in “The Really Big Gong Show.”

She calls herself something of a “late bloomer” when it comes to poetry, but she’s won a number of fellowships, including from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference; her first book, “How I Got Lost So Close to Home,” won the New England/New York Award from Alice James Books in 1999.

She’s also taught poetry at a few places, including Hampshire College and The Literacy Project. Today she’s the assistant director of the Culture, Brain and Development Program at Hampshire, a multidisciplinary program that can include poetry and literature.

Though the Northampton poet laureate position comes with very few obligations, such as doing at least one public reading — “It’s not onerous at all,” said Dryansky — other poets in the position have developed unique projects to make poetry more accessible, or to help support specific causes.

Lesléa Newman, for instance, poet laureate during 2008-2010, started the “30 Poems in November” project, in which volunteers pledge to write a poem each day of the month to raise funds for The Center for New Americans, in Northampton, which offers education programs and other resources to immigrants and refugees.

In addition to Sunday’s event, Dryansky has some other other gigs lined up, such as a reading at Smith Vocational High School. And with another year to go in her tenure, she’s looking to work with other organizations in town such as Historic Northampton in ways that might speak to poetry’s place in local history.

For now, she feels “Tesserae” can not only offer a welcome forum for some strong poets, it can serve as a reminder that immigrants in the Valley, even if they’ve been here for years, can face deportation threats, despite the area’s general support of immigration. She points to recent stories about a Guatemalan man and a Russian woman seeking sanctuary in churches in Amherst and Northampton, respectively.

“I feel it’s important to be vigilant and not lull ourselves to sleep that [deportation] can’t happen here,” she said. “We need to remind each other of our common humanity.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

More information about Amy Dryansky and Sunday’s poetry reading at The Parlor Room in Northampton can be found at amydryansky.com.