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'There is a magic': Carrboro Poets Council hosts annual poetry festival

Poets laureate gather for a group photo at the West End Poetry Festival in Carrboro on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.
 Photo Courtesy of Catherine Lazorko.

The theme was community, and the Carrboro Poets Council took it to heart. 

During their 18th annual West End Poetry Festival last week, the council invited locals and laureates to poetry readings, workshops and engaging conversations. The festival took place from Thursday to Saturday in breweries, restaurants and community centers around Carrboro. 

“There is a magic that happens when people come together to share poetry,” Gideon Young, a Carrboro Poets Council member, said. 

Young has been living in North Carolina since 2008, and moved near Carrboro in 2015. He started as a performer at the festival and later involved himself in its operations, he said. Throughout the year, he said he works on the festival's logistics, doing things like organizing vendors, performers, food and publishers.

On Saturday, dozens of people gathered at the Carrboro Century Center. There, they experienced a range of poetry, from spoken word by the N.C. Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, to a humorous writing workshop by UNC creative writing professor Ross White.

The festival was sponsored by the Town of Carrboro, The ArtsCenter, Steel String Brewery, Luna, Open Eye Cafe and Blair. Food was provided by Carrburritos, Imagine That Gluten Free and Neal’s Deli. 

“[Festivals are] a way that the community can rally around the idea of the art form of poetry, shed those preconceived notions of what a poem has to be and get to know people who actually practice poetry in the community,” Len Lawson, a poet from South Carolina, said.

On Saturday, Lawson read from his recently released book, “Negro Asylum for the Lunatic Insane.” His narrative takes place in a mental asylum, exploring themes of mental health and institutional racism.

He described poetry as a creative, rule-breaking art.

“Poetry has a degree of brevity and efficiency that I think makes it an ideal medium by which to communicate news that can be harder to hear and harder to process,” D.J. Rogers, the Durham Poet Laureate, said.

Rogers, who performed at the festival, said poetry can shed light on social issues and aid in community building. He is a spoken-word poet and said he first discovered slam poetry — a competitive, performance-based form of poetry — during his time as an undergraduate at UNC. 

“I think that slam has an element of accessibility to it that written poetry, by nature, does not have,” Rogers said.

In addition to making poetry more accessible, Young said bringing people together is one of the goals of the festival.

The festival was a space for many poets, including the native Filipino poet Ina Cariño, to share about their communities and marginalized experiences.

“Poetry is part of a larger conversation,” they said. “Not just with other poets, but with the world.” 

Cariño is a Raleigh-based writer and the founder of Indigena Collective, a reading series and platform for marginalized creatives, according to its website. 

Young said that although poetry is not a solution to injustice, it can still make space for empowerment.

“People are here creating,” Young said. “Perhaps in some small way, that's a rivulet in which the wave of possible terror or terrible behavior might not flow so freely towards others.”

On Saturday morning, a community poem "The Seeds" was read. The poem was created by children ranging from preschool to middle school for an Earth Day event at the Carrboro Farmers Market in April. The children answered prompts, and their responses were compiled by Carrboro Poet Laureate Liza Wolff-Francis and members of the Carrboro Poets Council. 

Beyond the festival, community members can further involve themselves in public poetry through local venues that host open mic nights. Around Chapel Hill and Carrboro, bookstores such as Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews and Flyleaf Books frequently host poetry authors for readings and events.

“People need places and spaces to connect over things that are real,” Young said. “This is community. This is politics, creation, intergenerational common place.”

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