Norma Rees remembers a couple distinct moments from last year’s annual Robert Pinsky Favorite Poem Project, which marked the event’s 10th anniversary at Chautauqua Institution. One: A woman read a poem that her mother — watching in the audience at age 93 — had read to her during her childhood. And two: A young woman from the Chautauqua Theater Company gave a dramatic reading of “Catch the Fire” by Sonia Sanchez, a politically charged poem, to conclude the event.
“It was an amazing way to end,” said Rees, former president of the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends.
Four or five years ago, Rees “was fortunate enough” to participate in the project herself by reading Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country,” an ode to Rees’ native Australia. Having taken over from the person who brought the Favorite Poem Project to Chautauqua, longtime CLAF member, Georgia Court, Rees is in her second year as organizer and emcee of the afternoon. Continuing 11 years of CLAF tradition, about 20 Chautauquans will read their favorite published poem through the Robert Pinsky Favorite Poem Project, an initiative first conceived by the 39th United States Poet Laureate, at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24 in the Hall of Philosophy.
Traditionally, the event’s most consistent readers have been retired Chautauquans who are on the grounds for the entire season. Now, as the Institution sees an uptick in visitors who are on the grounds for only a week or two as opposed to nine, Rees hopes to see a more diverse generational demographic, both at the podium and in the audience.
“It’s a thrill to read your poem up there,” Rees said. “Lots of famous people have spoken from the dais at the Hall of Philosophy. It’s an unusual opportunity to be able to get up and speak and read your poem.”
Asides from Rees’ increased advertising efforts, the Favorite Poem Project remains as it always has. Chautauquans who submit a poem to read are asked to provide a short statement describing why they find the piece meaningful. Rees and a committee of CLAF members then select the poems and organize an “unexpected” order of the poems “so it keeps people’s interest.”
“We try to ask people, if they want to read a long poem, that they choose stanzas of that poem that particularly speak to them so that they’re not reading the whole Iliad,” Rees said.
Atom Atkinson, director of literary arts, characterized the Favorite Poem Project as aligned with the “spirit” of lifelong learning that infuses programming at the Institution.
“Especially in this instance, you’re not illustrating anything except for your deep appreciation on a human level for a poem,” they said. “And (the Favorite Poem Project) is an especially accessible program for a participant or an audience member. I think that word, (accessible), can get used in a way that makes it seem less important or less meaningful, and I think an event like this illustrates how that’s not true. Each person that gets up there is there because of how meaningful (a poem) is.”
The afternoon welcomes everyone from longtime Chautauquans to folks who are visiting for the first time. For Atkinson, that synergy “makes for one of our most Chautauquan events of the season.”
“We encourage people to come and listen,” Rees said. “It’s a wonderful way to spend an hour in the afternoon. I think the tradition is part of the story.”