“The Word Itself” is the theme of the 26th annual Subterranean Poetry Festival to be held in Rosendale’s Widow Jane Mine on Sunday, September 25 from 1 to 4 p.m. Curator Cheryl Rice says that putting the focus on “the word itself” in this year’s festival reflects a departure from some of the previous iterations of the event, in which participants utilized sound and movement in their presentations. “And there is so much strength in language – especially poetry – that I don’t think it requires any kind of adornment. I have so much respect for poetry without all the bells and whistles that I really wanted to emphasize the words this year.”
Instead of an open mic, Rice invited five poetry organizations based in the Northeast to send representatives to the festival to do whatever they wish within the parameters of the theme in a 20-to-30-minute block of time. Participating groups include the New York-based Albany Poets, Calling All Poets, Post Traumatic Press and Reality Beach, along with the Massachusetts-based Voices of Poetry. New York City poet Janet Hamill will also be featured midway through the afternoon in a spoken-word performance backed by her band, Lost Ceilings, made up of Mark McNutt on guitar, Bob Torsello on bass and Greg Feller on percussion.
“The Word Itself” will take place in the Widow Jane Mine as a benefit for the Century House Historical Society at the Snyder Estate, located at 668 Route 213 in Rosendale. Tickets cost $5 at the door (although as Rice points out, “That’s a suggested donation, not a limitation. Century House is a completely volunteer-run organization, so every little bit helps”). The event goes on rain or shine.
Hamill has read widely at venues that include the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, the Bowery Poetry Club, the Knitting Factory, CBGB’s Gallery, the Nuyorican Café and Patti Smith’s Meltdown Festival in London. Her latest collection of poems, Knock, was recently published by the Spuyten Duyvil Press.
The origins of the Subterranean Poetry Festival date back to the late 1980s, when a group of Rosendale poets formed the Creative Space Co-op in order to have a place for poets to read and an audience to interact with. After the group lost its space in a former knish factory on Main Street in 1991, it presented the first series of poetry readings in the Widow Jane Mine, where the event has flourished since (with the exception of a few weather-related cancellations).
The acoustics of the man-made mine are a challenging environment in which to read, says Rice. “There’s quite a bit of an echo. You have to leave slight pauses, in the same way singers performing the National Anthem in Yankee Stadium do.”
Some of the poets who will be reading are familiar with the conditions in the mine, while others are not. “I tried to describe it to all of them so they’re prepared. It’s cooler in the mine; you have that reverb; and behind the main stage area is a little lake, so you have that effect. The stones can be a little slippery to walk on, and occasionally you’ll get moisture dripping down from the condensation. I wanted the poets who are coming to read to know to enunciate and project – although we will have a microphone – and that the words themselves have to carry the message.”
The audience is also encouraged to remember that the temperature of the Widow Jane Mine is substantially cooler than the surrounding area. A light jacket is recommended, along with sneakers or other non-skid shoes.
Attendees should also bring their own chairs. While a limited number of chairs will be available, they will likely not be enough for the number of people expected. (At the last Taiko drumming event in the mine, says Rice, some 400 people showed up, without nearly enough seating for that many people.)
People are welcome to come and go from the cave during the performance to mingle with others outside. Tables will be set up for each of the poetry groups, where they will sell their chapbooks or recordings and be available to talk about their organizations. None of the poetry readers are paid for their appearance.
This is the first time that Rice has curated the poetry festival, but she has read at it on and off over the years. (She won’t be reading at this year’s event, in order to concentrate on keeping things running smoothly.) Rice is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Century House Historical Society, and recently instigated the first in a series of four experimental workshops for poets. The next session of Random Writing at ArtBar, located at 674 Broadway in Kingston, will take place on October 12. Rice’s own work can be read at www.flyingmonkeyprods.blogspot.com.
Rice joined the Board of the Century House Historical Society in January because of her interest in local history. The organization presents and preserves information about the local cement industry, the related D & H Canal and railroads, regional history and geological information. The grounds are open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, with the museum on-site open on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. from May through Labor Day (it will be open during the Poetry Festival as well).
The Widow Jane Mine is located within the 32-square-mile seam of limestone between High Falls and Kingston. An example of the “room and pillar” method of mining, it’s one of the few in the Rosendale area that is relatively horizontal. (Most mines followed the seam of limestone at angles that approached 90 degrees.)
The Board of Trustees is enthusiastic about using the space as a performance venue, says Rice. “Art spaces come and go, and they’re difficult to maintain. But if we can make that happy alliance of honoring the history here while going forward with the art, it’s a good combination, and probably a viable one for sustaining.”
“The Word Itself” Subterranean Poetry Festival, Sunday, September 25, 1-4 p.m. $5, Widow Jane Mine, Century House Historical Society, Snyder Estate, 668 Route 213, Rosendale; (845) 658-9900, www.centuryhouse.org.