WCU program gives poets a voice for 20 years

Michael Peich started the West Chester University Poetry Conference, a literary phenomenon that celebrates its 20th anniversary this week at the WCU campus. Courtesy photo

“I don’t want any poetry that rhymes or has traditional meter. That stuff is over.”

These words were spoken by a poetry teacher at West Chester University over 25 years ago.

Fortunately, Michael Peich wasn’t interested in taking that particular lesson to heart. A lifetime passion for poetry and the written word would later culminate in the West Chester University Poetry Conference, a literary phenomenon that celebrates its 20th anniversary this week at the WCU campus.

Peich, along with a close friend, poet and writer, Dana Gioia, decided many young poets were returning to “form” poetry that followed the conventions of rhyme and meter and they needed a place to learn their craft.

They hatched plans for the first poetry conferences and in 1995 they came to fruition. A modest showing of 80 to 90 people attended. “I thought we were only going to do only one. One and done, but at the end of the conference the attendees wouldn’t let us out of the room until we agreed to do a second,” laughed Peich.

Twenty years and hundreds of participants later, their humble idea of bringing together poets and word artists has blossomed into the largest poetry conference in America.

The attendees of the conference are an eclectic grab bag from different walks of life.

Teachers are there to refine their craft and learn new techniques for their lessons. Several are already accomplished authors while some have just started to explore their craft and their passions. One early attendee, Rhina Espaillat started her writing career later in life, first starting and caring for a family. Years later she would become recognized in the poetry field and taught conference workshops. In 2010 she returned as the Keynote Speaker of the conference.

A sense of community has evolved over the past twenty years. Now, when people attend the conference, it feels like a family homecoming with the comfort of a family dinner, plenty of after dinner wine and socializing and a taste of the first day of school. Peich proudly posits that “this event has enabled hundreds of poets and given them the tools that have led to publications and books. Journalists have been created, even marriages and children.”

Sophia Galifinakis, a professor of Business Communication at the University of Michigan, made the trip down from the Wolverine State for her first conference experience. “I’ve just always had a sheer interest in poetry ever since I received my graduate degree,” she said. Jeanne Delarm-Neri is a poet herself arrived from Connecticut and is looking forward to her first experience as well.

The conference is comprised of workshops in rhyme and meter, sonnet writing, and narrative panels discussing contemporary issues. The Keynote Speaker is Natasha Trethewey, a United States Poet Laureate and celebrated author. She is currently the State Poet Laureate of Mississippi. A concert will be performed by Grammy Award-winning vocalist and pianist, Diane Schuur.

Over the years the conference has maintained its core theme: the study and appreciation of contemporary poetry, but it has expanded into different areas such as spoken word and more hip hop themes. “It tells a story and that is what this conference is all about,” explains Peich. “Taste is something you develop by exposing yourself to different things.”

This led him to invite Natalie Merchant, the noted pop singer, to perform in concert, singing the works of various poets in 2010.

Spoken word may have origins going back as far as the Ancient Greek Olympics, but it wasn’t until the 1960s did it breathe back to life in New York during the Harlem Renaissance.

It became a favored form of beatniks everywhere and today usually carries an urban flair. The conference further explores the musical concept of lieder, the setting of poems to music and song, commissioning original pieces especially for the event.

Peich retired from the conference in 2010, and it has now been coordinated by Dr. Kim Bridgeford the past three years. He considers himself retired, but continues to work in the art of hand-printed book making as founder of Aralia Press.

Now he meticulously places the letters and words of his favorite poets into a visual style that is meant to accent their beauty, by subtly adding his own physical style.

“You need to take risks,” Peich offered. “You have to have vision if you’re going to do anything in the Arts.”

Information: www.wcupoetrycenter.com