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Arts & Culture

Poems Celebrate Hartford's Collective Identity

Ed Wierzbicki
Poet John Stanizzi, at center, with Hartford Loves Poetry participants at Hartford Public Library Albany Branch.

It was evident from Saturday’s grand finale of "Hartford Loves Poetry: A Community Celebration" that the city loves the sound and soul of its many voices. It was also proof that people are thirsty for authentic human stories told aloud by their neighbors that creatively reflect ancestry and history.

Bessy Reyna, Hartford poetry festival curator.
Credit City of Hartford MECA
City of Hartford MECA
Kate Rushin recites a poem at the Ropkins Branch Library in Hartford.
Credit City of Hartford MECA
City of Hartford MECA
Jose B. Gonzalez recites a poem at the Park Street Library Branch in Hartford.

Hartford Loves Poetry, an inaugural two-week festival April 7 to 19, was organized and curated by award-winning poet Bessy Reyna, and sponsored by the City of Hartford’s Marketing, Events and Cultural Affairs Division in cooperation with the Hartford Public Library. Held at ten branches across the city, one of the goals was to inspire the city’s neighborhoods to come together in a community setting to write original poems.

Saturday’s final collaborative event featured 22 poets and readers from a diversity of backgrounds who converged on the downtown branch to share poems in numerous languages. Many also revealed personal stories about their heritage, or offered up their feelings about the power of the written and spoken word.

With courage and poise at the podium, and some occasional raw nervousness, each reader was eloquent in unexpected ways. Unpublished poets were invited to read a favorite piece that reflected their country of origin. Many shared personal memories about childhood and family life, or provided a unique insight on their cultural identity.

As an example of the festival’s success, Reyna explained how one participant at the festival had read aloud -- in Greek -- the poem “Candles” by ConstantineCavafy. From the poem:

Days gone by fall behind us, a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles; the nearest are smoking still, cold, melted, and bent.

Later, the reader confided how she could never again look at a candle in the same way. 

"That is the power of poetry," Reyna said, "to open up a new way to see the world."

One performer at the grand finale was award-winning author and poet Joyce Ashuntantang. 

Credit University of Hartford
University of Hartford
Joyce Ashuntantang.

A University of Hartford professor and a dynamic, physical presenter on stage, she explained how sharing her poems in Kenyang (Cameroonian culture) is an opportunity “to give back to my own language….to keep it surviving.”

Addressing Saturday’s large crowd in the downtown Hartford  library auditorium, Ashuntantang spoke of never wanting to forget her childhood village. She said the focus of her creative work is “to not forget the blood that runs through me.”

"Language can inspire national pride, spirituality, and the freedom of the artistic soul."
Bessy Reyna

The closing ceremony could just as easily been called "Bessy's Big Bash for Cultural Pride." Reyna's early Cuban roots have long required her to navigate between two languages and cultures both in life and in her writing. She understands the need to stay connected to who we are, and from where we’ve come.

A long-time passionate advocate for creating writing programs and poetry events “that explore all the cultures that Hartford has to offer,” Reyna shared with the audience her belief that “language can inspire national pride, spirituality, and the freedom of the artistic soul.”

In planning the two-week festival, Reyna hadn’t imagined that the closing event would also provide the participants and audience members lessons about many of the personal roadblocks to those creative freedoms. Reyna told the crowd, “It did not occur to me we’d hear people’s voices who have come here from other countries, who had no choice.” 

A Connecticut Master Teaching Artist, Reyna’s popular workshops on writing and poetry -- often in collaboration with the Hartford Public Library -- have long been a creative means to connect people to one another, and an active way to share her love for literature. A former Latina Citizen of the Year, Reyna's approach to writing poetry aims to liberate and empower through a technique she emphasizes: “It’s okay to say how you feel.”

Poets who helped lead poetry workshops over the two-week festival included Kate Rushin, Antoinette Brim, Jose B. Gonzalez, Marianela Medrano, Leslie McGrath, Pit Pinegar, Joyce Ashuntantang, and John Stanizzi. Saturday’s event showcased the festival’s focus on an appreciation of the diversity within Hartford’s neighborhoods, with over two dozen works read aloud in numerous languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Polish, Malayalam, Tamil, Bosnian, Quechua, Spanish, Ukranian, Portuguese, Greek, Hungarian, Patois, Chinese, German, and Italian.

Notable presentations included “Look What Jamaica Come To,” written and performed by Vjance Hazle in Patois; “Nasledje,” by Sandra Bakaj, performed by Alisa Dzananovic in Bosnian; and a poem to her grandmother by Adelia Santa Cruz in Quechua.

Reyna hopes to keep building on the festival’s initial success, and find new opportunities to keep poetry alive with the city’s residents. When asked about the first series, Reyna summarized, “It was all beyond my expectations and wildest dreams.”

Ed is an Emmy Award-winning producer and arts writer.

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