On Sunday, April 15, after the Pitchapalooza event at St. Rose, we will gather down at McGeary’s for a Word Fest kickoff cocktail party and a Founders Reading featuring some of the poets that have been on the Albany Poets website since its conception. Poets performing at this reading will include Mary Panza, Don Levy, Marcus Anderson, Mojavi, A.C. Everson, Dan Wilcox, Thom Francis, and R.M. Engelhardt.
When Albany Poets was still in its infancy, we had a reading featuring the original poets on the site which, at that time was AlbanyPoets.org…
The local poetry scene and the Albany Poets website looked much different than it does today, but the goal was the same, to promote the poets and poetry of upstate New York.
I recently sat down with the founder of Albany Poets and the Albany Word Fest, R.M. Engelhardt, to discuss the origins of the organization and the annual event.
It’s already been twelve years?
It seems like a lifetime since the days when we once began what was to be known, and to eventually become Albany Poets, and then there soon afterwards, the idea for the Albany Word Fest. But the real question is how did it all start?
Well, imagine this.
Astonishing. One wonders how we ever found out about any events at all.We now all live in an age where everything is taken for granted, and all the information we want, need is at our own Googled beckoned call. But back in the late 1990’s believe it or not, the internet wasn’t as accessible to everyone and it was very hard to organize the events which we now do on a daily basis with the simple click of a few buttons on say Facebook or from a sleek mailing system. Yep. It’s hard to believe isn’t it? That poets actually had to hear about readings and open mics via the newspaper or by seeing a flier or even by word of mouth.
What? You mean that people found out about poetry readings in newspapers? What the hell is a flyer? Why are you putting words in my mouth? (I’m kidding, obviously)
But all joking aside, here in Albany we actually already had a pretty damn good networking system put in place which we once called “Go to lots of other poetry readings and ask other poets where the other damn readings are.” And it worked really well, but then one day I realized that something was missing. Why? Because we already had great turnouts and crowds at our open mics but I kept thinking of different and new ways to reach out to even more writers & poets out there and wanted to somehow make us (Albany, NY) a more well-known Mecca to poets in some of the other cities and spoken word scenes across the United States. After all, we already had an amazing thing happening here, so why not let everyone know about it?
Hence, the idea for Albany Poets came to life in late 1998.
And I swore that all of our poetry … words would be read, noticed and reckoned with, not to mention, remembered.
Although at first it was to be called AlbanyArts.com and to cover everything. An idea that was light years before many of the local media news groups out there now that could have been quite successful. But alas, poetry & my friends in the poetry scene was what I loved & I knew best. So the spark for the poetry group Albany Poets went onward. Its first inception however was a struggle. I had asked several friends, called webmasters in interest of how to create it but I got very little response or help. Not to mention they all wanted money to create it. Things were looking bleak and by 1999 I had almost scrapped the idea out of frustration. But then, a happy miracle & coincidence happened that, without, Albany Poets would have never come into being. And that miracle was in the form of a somewhat quiet kid with glasses who was reading some very cool poems at open mics regularly like mine at Stephanuccis Coffee House & at Mary Panza’s poetry mic at Borders Books. A guy who you now all know as “El Presidente”, or to be more precise, Mr. Thom Francis, now the President of Albany Poets.
It was at a reading where I first mentioned in a conversation my idea to Thom and told him about the problems I was having with creating a website and how to go about it. And, unknown to me, Thom was a very talented website builder. He loved the idea and we immediately hung out and went to work on it with my one vision & with his new vision visually for a poetry site that would help out the poetry community and spread the word about their readings, poems and all their events here in upstate New York and in other nearby places. AlbanyPoets.org was the name at first, and lo and behold it worked. With me as its director and with all our media experience & background, Thom and I in the month of May 2000 had created something that neither of us could have ever possibly imagined just how cool it would soon become. I pushed the website, did the advertising & created the events, and Thom made the website work, function and happen. Events and poets got more attention than previously or ever before, new open mics sprung up at venues locally and finally the idea that I once had, the dream … was real. Financially we struggled but we kept the site afloat and other area poets, our friends like Mary Panza rallied around us and helped us keep that idea alive as well. We featured poets and published their work on our site, and did what we did best ~ We spread the word and reached people with our work and emailed it all straight into their lives and mailboxes.
So this is how the group Albany Poets began. Through words. Poetry. Community, and friends.
I can still remember those early meetings with Rob when we first starting talking about this project. I was in Boston at the time doing temp work, so I had a lot of time on my hands to begin building a website. At that time I was writing the code myself and carrying it around on a couple of zip discs. The structure of the site was very simple and to the point with featured poets and a calendar of upcoming readings and open mics. At the time, that was all that we needed.
Now, after 12 years, Albany Poets is doing a lot more than just listing the local, Albany area open mics. We are now promoting readings from Saratoga and Glens Falls up north to the southern NY spots in Woodstock and Kingston. We are also going to be heading east in the next few weeks as we are going to start adding poetry events from Western Massachusetts to the calendar. And when we are not working on the website we are working with Albany’s BIDs to bring poetry to the people at city events (Art on Lark, First Friday, and LarkFest), going to schools and talking with kids, doing after school programs and workshops, running four readings a month (Poets Speak Loud, Java’s Wide Open Mic, and Nitty Gritty Slam), and now a full week of Word Fest.
That started the next topic of conversation, the beginnings of the Albany Word Fest itself.
As for the Albany Word Fest? It’s tradition.
Another events idea that we turned into a reality. Albany Poets in my view had to be more than just a website with words & pictures, articles and event listings. Albany Poets had to be a living-breathing thing. Albany Poets had to have a beacon of some sort, a light. Some-thing or some event that said “Hey! We are right here … Listen!”
So the very 1st Albany Word Fest was held outdoors in a pavilion at Thatcher Park for the mere rental fee of $150.00 upon a summer Saturday on September 8, 2001 to be exact. And lo, all the poets came … and read. From Albany, from Kingston and from everywhere else.
I can remember the first Word Fest in Thatcher Park like it was yesterday. I had just moved back from my year in Boston and was ready to jump back into the Albany poetry scene head first. I had done a few open mics while in Boston and while there was able to get more comfortable in front of crowds. At the time, I was, like Rob mentioned, a “quiet kid with glasses” who got very, very nervous on stage. Before I drove to the event, I printed out a few copies of my new chapbook (my last one, too), The Long Walk Home, and planned out my set list for my spot at the mic. I had no idea who was going to be there, but I knew that it was going to be a great day and I was ready and excited to be back.
And it was a great day. I got see a lot of the local poets that I admired and looked up to step up to the mic. Poets like Dan Wilcox and Don Levy, who are still very active members of the community, were joined by poets who have since passed on, like Tom Nattell and Pat Covert.
And as the Word Fest was getting into full swing that day, I saw a lot of new faces. Poets I had never met. Some were from downstate and I had not traveled to hear them yet and others were new, younger poets that had been coming out to readings in the past year. And those poets heard about the Word Fest and the open mics from the website.
It was a proud moment to learn that out little website project was actually becoming a destination for local poets on the Internet.
And before there was Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter we had the Albany Poets BBS, an online forum for the local poets to discuss what was going on, post new poems, talk about contests, and post submission calls. This was the brainchild of Dain Brammage, who for years before coming into the Albany poetry community was very active on similar forums on the net. He was very excited to be a part of the growing team and before long took up control of that part of the website. Before social media took over the web, Albany Poets was already connecting people.
All the scenes changed, but the poetry, words and events still continued and remained. And we helped out a lot of poets and pushed the media envelope as best we could. We grabbed a few headlines and helped to make some news. It was beautiful. Then in 2004 I handed over the reigns as the Director of Albany Poets to Thom. For eight months I moved to a little place just 30 miles outside of Key West, Florida for a change of pace and to work and write. And Thom since that time has, with the help of his board of directors (Mary Panza-VP, Keith Spencer and others) done an incredible job in keeping poetry & the poetry scene going here in upstate NY. The Albany Word Fest is still a beacon and a focal point for poets to annually gather at. And the idea, the philosophy of Albany Poets itself is still simple, and still essential. And that philosophy is the philosophy of a community, a community made up of friends and a community made up of poets. Which clearly states, and says;
“Albany Poets mission is to give everyone the platform to share their poetry with the world. Whether it is at an open mic, on a website, or in print, Albany Poets strives to integrate poetry and spoken word into the Capital Region.”
And we, they still do. Albany Poets has changed the very face of poetry and it’s perception in upstate, NY and I am, like any father, very proud of my family and of my friends who are all writers and poets who continue to foster an idea that one man had to help out and support others of our kind and profession.
“Poetry Lives In Albany, NY”
Still … And always will.
Yes it will, Rob. Yes it will.
Please join us on Sunday, April 15 at 6:00pm at McGeary’s to celebrate the past, present, and future of Albany Poets as we kickoff the 2012 Albany Word Fest.
For more information on all of the events happening at the 2012 Albany Word Fest, be sure to check out the website www.AlbanyWordFest.com. You can even sign up to be part of the annual Word Fest Open Mic on Saturday, April 21.