Annual Favorite Poem Project Showcases Connections Between Readers and Words

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Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends President Fred Zirm thinks making connections is one of the foundations of poetry and writing, and that’s what the Favorite Poem Project is all about.

The event is one of the Friends’ pet projects and is now in its eighth year at Chautauqua Institution. The event will take place at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

The Favorite Poem Project gathers a group of volunteer readers of all ages and occupations from across the community, first introduced to Chautauqua by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Zirm said this year’s roster of Chautauqua readers includes an intern, a tennis instructor, an IT maintenance worker and a college professor.

Each participant will read a poem that has special significance to them and share their connection to it.

“I think the combination — if they’re good readers and if they’re good explainers — can be quite moving,” Zirm said.

Georgia Court, a member of the Friends and the MC for the event, said an element of the Favorite Poem Project she enjoys is seeing the faces in the audience. Court is a passionate advocate for the event, and she also hosts a version of it at her Sarasota bookstore, Bookstore1, in the off-season.

“It’s amazing: People arrive for these things, and they’re kind of restless and looking around,” Court said. “And then the readings start, and very often, jaws actually drop and tears come to eyes. You can just see and feel the emotion in the space as people connect with the readers and the poems.”

This year’s event will have a special participant: Nicole Cooley, poet-in-residence during Week Six at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center.

Cooley said she’s happy that the event has extended past Pinsky’s time as Poet Laureate, and she was happy to be involved.

“The chance to talk about poetry?” Cooley said. “It’s hard to contain myself to a few minutes.”

Cooley said she’s a big fan of the event, which was initiated during Pinsky’s tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate. Court worked with Pinsky to establish the project at Chautauqua when he visited with the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle in 2009.

Court said the Favorite Poem Project is meant to show that poetry is for everyone — that ordinary people can enjoy and relate to it as well. She said this becomes apparent as the event draws to a close.

“My favorite part is when it’s done, and not because of the reason you might think,” Court said. “It’s because when it’s done, just right when it’s finished, both sides of this equation have had a fabulous experience. And they walk up to me and say, ‘Wow, it was great. Why don’t we do this every week?’ The transformation is fabulous — that’s the best part.”


The author Ryan Pait

Ryan Pait gets a different haircut every summer to keep the people of Chautauqua guessing. This is his fourth summer at The Chautauquan Daily, so if you’re tired of him, that’s OK. He recently graduated with his master’s degree in literature from Western Kentucky University. Don’t ask him about what he’s doing after this summer, but do ask him about the Nicole Kidman renaissance, the return of “Game of Thrones” and what he’s reading.