Connected \\ March 9, 2021

Inspired by Amanda Gorman: Find your voice with Mass Poetry Festival

Amanda Gorman made history on January 20 after she became the youngest person to participate in the U.S. presidential inauguration. The stirring delivery of her original poem, The Hill We Climb, captivated people around the world. The 22-year-old returned to perform on an international stage on Super Bowl Sunday with a poem paying tribute to the pandemic’s frontline workers. Gorman, who graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2020 and was a featured performer with the Boston Pops in 2019, also has direct ties to our region.

Gorman's fame and the spotlight she has helped focus on poetry are fortuitous for the organizers of the annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Living in perpetual uncertainty, words strung together by a poet feel comforting, especially now.

Every other year in May, Salem draws in a selection of the nation’s top poets (and thousands of visitors) for the festival — the largest celebration of contemporary poetry in New England and one of the top five in the nation.

It was with this in mind that Dan Lipcan, PEM’s Director of the Phillips Library, began talking with a local writing professor to consider how the museum could get more involved with the city’s poetry scene. The conversations led to the launch of a series of free creating writing workshops co-hosted by PEM and Mass Poetry leading up to this year’s virtual poetry festival from May 13–16.

“We have an interest in what’s going on in the literary community in our region,” Lipcan says. “It all came together nicely.”

A woman being filmed in a galery space

Poet Jennifer Martelli streaming live from the gallery.

Poet Jennifer Martelli of Marblehead kicked off the series in February with a spell-writing workshop designed for Salem high students. Speaking on Zoom from PEM’s Salem Witch Trials 1692 exhibition, she narrowed in on two paintings by Tompkins Harrison Matteson. “Writing spells is fun and you get to use great language, but I also didn’t want them to forget the seriousness of the situation,” says Martelli. She was also drawn to objects on view: two canes used by George Jacobs, one of the accused, and wall planks from the Salem Jail. “It drove home, for me, the ordinariness of this horror.”

As part of this partnership, the Phillips Library will solicit poetry written by the workshop participants. “We thought it would be fun to produce a digital anthology of what came out during this series, alongside photographs of the works that inspired them,” adds Lipcan, who hopes to submit something as well.

two book covers

The Phillips Library purchased two books of poetry by workshop leaders Jennifer Martelli, My Tarantella, and Kirun Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist, to add to its growing poetry collection.

Martelli was grateful to be able to have this experience within the museum gallery. “That’s what poetry is, the space around words. It really lends itself well,” she says. Like any artform, poetry is necessary for the person creating it. “There’s power in reading poetry,” says Martelli, thinking back to the inauguration. “Is it going to change the world? I don’t know. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown the need for the arts.”

The Poets-in-Residence workshops are free and open to the public. This series is made possible at PEM through the support of the Lowell Institute.


Join the waitlist for the workshops on March 23 and May 4.

For poetry lovers out there, please check out this next virtual event on March 20 when PEM partners with The Salem Athenaeum. Read more here.

TOP IMAGE: Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II.

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