Last week the Five College PoetryFest ran for its 17th year in the college’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI). Two poets from each college, chosen in a earlier contest, read at the event. For Amherst, guest judge Franny Choi, a professional writer and poet, picked Eliza Brewer ’22 and Aqiil Gopee ’20. Upon entering the CHI, audience members were given booklets containing poems from each poet, a pleasant addition that allowed attendees to see how the poems existed on the page. Despite the physical copies, many of the poets decided to read poems other than those provided so they could present something more recent.
After bringing more chairs to accommodate the larger-than-expected audience, Writer-In-Residence Shayla Lawson commenced the event by speaking on the roles of writers and readers. “I cannot know anything without first recognizing I am a student,” she said, adding, “I hope you continue writing to the ear of your professors. I hope you feel seen.”
Brewer took the podium first, reading three poems. The first poem, titled “Hoarder,” used a conceit relating the physical objects of a house to familial love and the often unspoken difficulty revolving around the love of a mother and her child. In Brewer’s second poem, “Pool,” she crafts an engaging narrative through the struggle a girl can have with the culture of sex. One line asks “Can you ever teach a child about sex without teaching her about violence?”
For her last poem, Brewer read a heart-wrenching piece about how marriage becomes a dominating and destructive aspect of a woman’s life. In performing all of her poems, Brewer brought a deeper level of emotion to them, allowing the audience to visualize the vivid images she was describing.
The next speaker, Gopee, read three narrative poems. He titled his first poem “On swimming in the red sea,” and it slowly moved through the event of diving into the water as an exploration of and devotion to one’s faith. It captured the calm washing over, the lull one can find in faith, saying “but as if caught in worship, / there is minutiae in their movement, / a lingering.”
Gopee’s next two poems were both untitled and captured particular moments of time. The second poem focused on a speaker fixating on the simple pleasure of cookies as a way of distracting himself from an inevitable force. In the third poem, Gopee moved from the distance the speaker felt from his family to the closeness he felt with a romantic partner, before finally moving to the separation from his partner.
The next poets were Olivia Caldwell and Blue Keller of Hampshire College. Speaking first, Caldwell started with the striking and tragic poem “from umass memorial medical center,” which imbued the audience with the raw fear of being in a perilous condition, saying “the fibers of my muscles are becoming solid bone and / i feel them crack with every step, shifting and sliding / against worn out joints.” Caldwell’s next poem was “Self-portrait as Ovarian Cyst.” It was a raw and imaginative piece with measured pain, one line stating, “I am pushing the life out of you.” Keller read four poems, starting with “I like my face.” Despite its title, the poem took the audience through the speaker’s inability to accept themselves, evoking the paralyzing nature of such anxiety in the lines “I can’t breathe / I can’t breathe / I can’t breathe.” Keller’s next poem, “Wednesday,” put the audience in the state of lethargy and defeatism with lines like “I’ve been in bed / for two days now.” But gave a sort of resolution when followed with “But / when I move my fingers … I feel something / like a poem.”
Afterward, the two Mount Holyoke students — Mars Early-Hubelbank and Ariana Sarmiento Fielding — presented. First, Early-Hubelbank read the poems “Black is” and “you are an artist.” In “Black is,” Early-Hubelbank crafted a beautiful poem and used the titular phrase as a refrain to reflect on a variety of different problems that black people face while living in the U.S.
Early-Hubelbank’s next poem “you are an artist” was a tongue-in-cheek poem, where the speaker deliberates on the roughness of life by focusing on our freedom to make erroneous choices while being stuck in a depressed frame of mind. Sarmiento Fielding read multiple poems, the first being “Be Gentle,” a poem that builds up the love of two people to undercut it with the inevitable pain one will bring to the other in the final lines. Her next poem “Closet romantic got game,” offered a critique of the dating scene and how it damages people in relation to their identity.
Ava Goga and Lucy Liu from Smith read next. Goga presented an untitled poem and one titled the “The Ladder.” In the untitled poem, she used the word “field” as a refrain to carry the poem rhythmically along, strengthening the significance of the word to its meaning. The form of “The Ladder” replicated their desire to be free of consciousness. Liu read two poems: “Memento Mori” and “In The Rye of Pondering.” “Memento Mori” took listeners through people’s tendency of “peeling open” things to understand them, but warned that peeling too far can ruin something beyond recovery. “In The Rye of Pondering” reflected on the writer’s experience with electrocompulsive therapy and dealt with the loss of memories.
From UMass Amherst, Courtney Janes and Vanan Phan concluded the symposium. Janes read “siren” and “motherland.” “siren” was a tragic poem, dealing with the pain of someone leaving you through the loss of their voice. “motherland” brooded on the feeling of loneliness in a family, with the promise that someone will be free of that perpetual feeling. Every poet reached into a space of themselves to create the material they performed. As Virginia Woolf once said, “When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income.” These poems allowed us to approach that in the poets and in ourselves.