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Books feature: The West End Poetry Festival brings poetry to the people

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After a Friday night reading at Flyleaf Books, the town of Carrboro's ninth annual poetry festival (or 11th if you count the original Carrboro Poetry Festival—it's complicated) takes over the Carrboro Century Center on Saturday with a full day of workshops and readings by about two dozen local and visiting poets.

Mostly funded by Carrboro's Parks & Recreation department, the West End Poetry Festival puts regional poets at the same podium as nationally known ones, a group that includes Sarah Rose Nordgren, James Applewhite and former N.C. poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers this year.

Celisa Steele has been instrumental in programming and running the festival for three years, first as a member of former Carrboro poet laureate Jay Bryan's Carrboro Poets Council in 2012, then as poet laureate herself in 2013 and '14. She has been working to diversify the festival's lineup and raise its community profile—always a challenge, as poetry readings are mostly attended by poets.

As poet laureate, Steele says she has made outreach her focus, using the festival as an instrument for it. This year's festival features a number of ways for the community to get involved, including a new Youth Poetry Workshop.

After the Friday night reading by five poets, including Nordgren, Applewhite and Bull City Press publisher Ross White, the reading marathon on Saturday offers numerous ways to learn and participate.

Bowers offers a workshop on "how to use aspects of formal verse even if you're a free verse-writing poet," Steele says. "That's one of the sessions that's more focused on practicing poets." And a pair of panels featuring poets such as Asheville's Laurence Avery and Raleigh's Chris Tonelli explore "poetry and place," an apt topic for a festival so bound up in regional identity.

Spoken-word activists and teachers Sacrificial Poets created the Youth Poetry Workshop for teenagers, and there's an open mike for the public at 4:30 p.m. After a reception at 6 p.m., Steele and Bowers close the festival with a headline reading.

Steele says that the festival doesn't favor a certain kind of poetry, but its lineup does cater to more traditional tastes. Most of the guests either live in North Carolina or are connected to it by roots or education, and most of them write in more vernacular, less academic styles. This places the festival in stark contrast with its short-lived but influential predecessor, the Carrboro Poetry Festival run by former Carrboro poet laureate Patrick Herron in 2004 and '05.

Herron, an experimental writer, booked leading avant-garde poets, such as Canada's Christian Bök, who had no geographic or idiomatic ties to the region. At the 2014 West End Poetry Festival, Tonelli is the only poet who even verges on experimental.

"That's not deliberate," Steele says. "Spreading the word is a work in progress. [The selection committee members] are drawing on our own experience, and it's true that my poetry is not avant-garde. We recognize the inherent bias and we're doing what we can to overcome it."

The two different incarnations of the festival represent a broad cultural schism between more traditional and more contemporary poets, who largely publish in different journals and presses and have different social worlds.

Perhaps the West End Poetry Festival will eventually grow into some mysterious sweet spot between them. Until then, if public outreach is the goal, skewing toward the populist side of the axis is wise.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Poetry to the people"

Related feature: Poetry publisher Ross White of Bull City Press steps into the spotlight with his own book

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