After two years of a somewhat cloistered approach to consuming the arts, attending live events these days can almost feel like getting away with something. The poets gathered for a Sunday reading as this year’s Virginia Book Festival draws to a close reminds us that poetry shouldn’t just be a guilty pleasure; both ancient and immediate, the art form remains a powerful way to bring people together.
The Virginia Festival of the Book will offer “Poetry for Today: Readings by Victoria Chang and Rita Dove” as an in-person, live event beginning at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center. The festival’s hybrid format gives attendees the flexibility to choose their own level of comfort and accommodate their own schedules.
Karen Long will serve as moderator for the event, in which Chang will read poems from “Obit,” which won the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, and Dove will share poems from her latest collection, “Playlist for the Apocalypse.” For Dove, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former American Poet Laureate, ending the festival with a poetry reading “is like sending people off with an elevator in the spirit.”
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If there’s one thing book fans and poetry lovers have learned over the past few years, it’s the power of words to uplift even when they kill. Even when the topic is painful, the catharsis of an acknowledged and shared emotion in a time of isolation can elicit a sense of unity, empathy, and community.
“It’s the mystery that continually amazes me,” Dove said. “I think even the darkest, darkest poems at least give you a sense of strength. In encapsulated form, it touches on the inexpressible – the things we carry inside that have no name or place to put them.
Reading a poem and acknowledging that someone else has shared an emotion one has not been able to express offers deep validation and encouragement, giving even heavy poems the power to send spirits into booming.
“I believe we live our lives in the details, and that can kind of bring us down,” Dove said.
Dove used “exuberant” to describe how she felt after reading Chang’s “Obit.” She said Chang’s poems “are sometimes brutal in their honesty about grief. I felt understood.
“I recognized him, and someone else recognized him. Sometimes I think we don’t even know we’re looking for the words,” Dove said. “People ask us, ‘How are you?’, and we say, ‘Fine,’ because we don’t even know what we want to know.”
Chang wrote of the labor pains and losses she suffered while both parents were ill at the same time; her father suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009 and her mother died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2015.
“Fourteen years of living in their disease certainly changes the DNA,” Chang said. “It changed who I am. It changed the way I write.
Before “Obit” spoke to readers, it filled a need of its own.
“I was trying to write a connection book,” Chang said. “I wrote the book I needed. I needed comfort. We spend our lives running around. Poetry makes us stop and think more clearly about things we don’t even recognize in ourselves.
At a time when war and painful current events threaten to desensitize people and diminish empathy and energy, poetry offers a bold wake-up call and calls for a return to sensibility. Coming together to hear and speak can be a way to combat conditions in life that can drain vitality and hope.
“Poetry forces you to stop and think and feel, rather than being desensitized. I think it awakens you to who you are and who you were born into,” Chang said.
“The more time we spend with these emotions and the arts is one thing that can save us as a species. Otherwise, we are in a terrible cycle of war and violence. We should be celebrating each other, not killing each other.
Coming together to share and listen to poems is an especially important act in the face of the pandemic and world events, Dove said.
“This goes for all arts and all businesses. In the face of such evil and destruction, we must do things as best we can,” Dove said. “You can be a citizen of the world and give and help. We cannot allow them to crush our imagination and our compassion.
Organizing and attending festivals in difficult times “means everything,” Chang said. “It’s a time to reflect and connect with others who have been through hell.
“Coming together and having a festival is a form of resistance. I will celebrate the human condition.
“It’s a triumph,” Dove said. “Yes, we are here and we are still fighting. It’s a good fight. We are a community. We reunite.
Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Festival of the Book, said poetry has the power to “take us to a place where we otherwise would not have reached”.
“I think poetry gives us the opportunity to get out of our own mental space and into that of the poet. … Certainly, the poetry that will be read that day by Victoria Chang and Rita Dove will be remarkable.
The Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center is located at 233 Fourth St. NW. If you plan to attend the event in person, festival staff recommend that you arrive early. From Monday masks are compulsory, capacity is limited to help ensure safe distancing and entry requires up-to-date proof of vaccination – full vaccination plus booster – or a negative COVID-19 test, but c It’s always a good idea to check jeffschoolheritage center.org for any updates on site security protocols before you go.
To watch the livestream, go to vabook.org and click the link in the event listing.