I've heard it said that, like politics, all poetry is local. Not a bad argument, I suppose. As in music, film, theater and any manner of artistic endeavor where the support of friends, family and colleagues is paramount to all the important early exposure one hopes to receive. After a while, if someone stays in his chosen game, there are plenty of opportunities to branch out a bit. One can even do so and still be home in time to get a few winks in before the dreaded alarm clock serenades him out of his dreams with its song of financial responsibility.
Many Buffalo poets have done just this. Accepting invites to read their work or participate in an open mic event at venues in Rochester, Toronto, Ithaca or Erie, Pennsylvania. Speaking of Erie, taking the path of a crow, it is 80.80 miles from Buffalo. If you are originally from here, you already know that. You also, in all probability, lack the ability to fly, preferring the 90, or the much more scenic Old Rt. 5 to the Flagship City. The drive is about an hour and a half, plenty of time to mull over what you are going to read for the crowd at the most well known venue there, Poets' Hall. Cee Williams, current Poet Laureate of Erie, Pennsylvania, is the director of Poets' Hall. I asked him a little about himself and the reading series there.
Fred Whitehead: When did the series start?
Cee Williams: The Hall opened in October 8th 2010. We started out in a little storefront on the east side of Erie. We'd still be there if we could have come to terms with the new owner. Now we run out of The Avalon, a downtown hotel. The place has seen better days. It reminds me a bit of the Shining, but it's a nice space with good service and little overhead.
FW: When do you host readings?
CW: Readings are held most Fridays October through May. We have grown in attendance every year leading up to this current season. It is down a bit now, mostly due to the move to our new location.
FW: When did you discover poetry?
CW: In Aunt Honey's library, The Collective Works of Langston Hughes. I couldn't borrow her books; she was funny about that. You could, however, sit on the floor and read. There was no furniture in the library, just shelves. She had these big pillows; they were this '70's lime green. She saw me reading that book, and then she turned me on to Countee Cullen and Claude McKay. I remember McKay had this line "I'd rather like a ghost pursue the fairy phantoms inside my lonely mind;" it really stuck with me. I had to be about twelve at the time.
FW: Who are some of your influences?
CW: Early on the influences were Langston Hughes, Angelou, McKay, Cullen, Brooks; then it was Bukowski and Baraka, which led me to poets like Saul Williams and Willie Perdomo. Now it's poets that I know. Local poets like Sean Thomas Dougherty and Corey Zeller, and I love the Buffalo cats Ben Brindise and Brandon Williamson especially.
FW: How is the poetry community in Erie?
CW: There are a surprising number of poets in town and throughout the region. Poetry is part of who we are it seems. Cats like Sean Thomas are shaping the poetry landscape on a national if not international level.
FW: Do you get many readers from out of town?
CW: About half the featured readers are from outside the Erie area. This season poets have come from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, Richmond VA, Illinois, even California.
FW: Who are some of the outstanding and up and coming poets in Erie?
CW: Outstanding local poets Sean Thomas, Corey Zeller, Monica Igras, Greg Brown. I can't talk about poetry in Erie without mentioning Dr. Chuck Joy who works hard to keep up the interest in poetry on the local level. The cats new to the scene are Lev Burykin and Dirk Milner. I'd like to see those guys keep sharpening their axes.
FW: Is there much interest from the youth?
CW: There is some interest on the youth level. I personally haven't worked hard enough to keep the younger folks involved. I hit a high school or two a year and take part in Poetry Outloud. There are some folks like Ron Hayes, a local teacher and coach, that work to keep the youth interested.
FW: When did Erie start electing a Poet Laureate, and how is the process done?
CW: The Laureate process started in 2008 first one was named in 2009. Berwyn Moore encouraged poets to submit a public outreach project proposal, a handful of poems and a resume. The judges narrowed it to five applicants, and those five presented the poetry they submitted on stage. Points are given for the project, the poems and the presentation. The one with most points wins.
FW: What are some of the things you have done during your tenure as Laureate?
CW: My tenure has included a high school poetry contest, a chapbook competition for emerging poets, seventy plus open mics and a daylong poetry festival, which drew more than five dozen poets from a half dozen states. I'll finish up with another festival in late July, and poet family portrait next week.
FW: Thanks, Cee. I'm looking forward to my next visit.
The 2015 season is over but If you are interested in reading at Poets Hall or making the trip to listen to what the Erie region has to offer you can check out their Facebook page for next seasons schedule. https://www.facebook.com/PoetsHall/
Here is one of Cee's poems from his chapbook Alex .25:
by Cee Williams
On a pier too high to lift channel cats and angry bass came
the clap of thunder; a son of Lake Erie, taking perch. The
November kind, fat cantaloupe bellies, blue-green scales.
"That is not, not thunder." says Red Beard the Angler; batting doubles,
twin beauties dangling against the gray morning sky.
I can identify gunfire. Couldn't always say that ...the snap of
firecrackers, backfiring trucks-was that?
Three shots - ten blocks from the crib, three shots - ten blocks
from where I'm walking, clocking the silence for sirens,
increasing my stride
fear of being chastised for walking while black,
the smell of death finds me before my front stairs do.
It was all firecrackers back then, before that day next to Red
The day I learned how to split a second into something not
quite. "When the water is this cold, there's always a second
bite... trick is a half pause before setting the hooks"
I take him at his word, his near limit bucket proof of a most
"Duck season seems to send'em city-side, you can always
catch your limit round here, this time of year." Red Beard
packs his gear.
Azure peaks streak the gray morning sky. The clap of thunder,
only different now
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