April marks the 20th year that National Poetry Month has been celebrated, as inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. As one of the largest literary celebrations in the world, bookstores, organizations, publishers, schools, libraries, poets, and many more gather throughout the month to shed light on the written word. Specifically, it’s all about highlighting succinct stories, abstract ideas, emotions, and more through rhythmic cadences or concise verbiage, whether didactics, ballads, fables, free verse, or sonnets.
Locally, Old Books on Front Street will begin their celebration this Saturday, April 21, wherein bookstore owner Gwenyfar Rohler (and encore writer) has a lineup featuring well-known poets, an open mic, a workshop, and lots of other thought-provoking activities. We caught up with Gwenyfar to find out about Couplet—the annual event she holds in honor of National Poetry Month each April.
encore (e): Tell me how Couplet began.
Gwenyfar Rohler (GR): We started Couplet when we moved into our new building [in 2011]. We have a lot of poets in the area, and I was trying to find a way to develop an event that would both celebrate and enhance their work. So we have workshops with regionally known poets who travel here, coupled with reading opportunities for our local writers.
e: How has it grown?
GR: Well, that first year we accidentally scheduled it for Super Bowl weekend. Somehow the only four people in America who didn’t realize that were planning this together. The next year we moved it to April for National Poetry Month. Like many events, it waxes and wanes, depending upon resources from year to year. Some years we have had book launches from our in-house micro press, New Books on Front St. This year our spring release was all prose, so that wasn’t appropriate for this event.
e: Tell me about your choice of keynotes for the 2016 event; how did you narrow down who would speak and do a workshop? What about these authors are most impressive to you?
GR: Actually, this year’s line up blows my mind. Shelby Stephenson, the NC Poet Laureate, said he would be happy to come. Knowing how busy his schedule is (especially in April), we asked him to pick the date best for him and we built the event around that. His most recent book is published by Press 53.
I have been chatting with Kevin Watson off and on about coming for an event. When we confirmed Stephenson was coming, he marshaled additional Press 53 writers and planned a workshop about working with a poetry press. We usually have a publisher present. In years past it has been Bull City Books and Sable Books for example.
Unfortunately, Watson discovered he was double booked for the weekend and is not coming; though, three of his writers will be here representing the press. But he promises us we will have a workshop with him in the future.
e: How will Stephenson’ role in Couplet unfold? Do you know what he’ll read, or have you asked for anything specific of him?
GR: It is an incredible honor to have Mr. Stephenson visit. He will read from his new collection, probably some of his older work and hopefully talk a bit about his journey and what the work of the poet laureate includes. He has a big heart and a deep, warm personality that is incredibly inclusive. He really is the perfect candidate for the poet laureate of our state.
As far as asking anything specific of him? No. He is a pro—his experience and body of work speak for themselves.
e: For folks unfamiliar with Val Nieman and Sam Barbee, tell us about some of their works, what their poetry does for the genre overall and how they break the mold of what some may consider when thinking about poetry.
GR: We have hosted readings and workshops with Val Nieman before—and we always welcome a chance to have her in the store! We got introduced to her and her work through Richard Krawiec—one of my favorite poets (and publishers). Her most recent book is “Hotel Worthy”—though she also writes fiction (we carry her novels, too).
Sam Barbee is from here (though he currently resides in Winston-Salem) and a UNCW alumni. I am endlessly impressed with the accomplishments of our creative writing grads. It is really wonderful to be able to welcome both talented writers back to the area and offer their fans an opportunity to reconnect and learn about their newer work.
e: What can folks expect from Nieman’s workshop? Is it for all levels of poets?
GR: Yes, definitely of benefit to poets of all levels. Nieman is a truly gentle teacher who brings years of experience and sensitivity to her work. She is able to speak across boundaries of experience and exposure to create a learning environment that is safe, productive and meaningful. She’s a pretty darn incredible writer, too.
e: For folks intimidated, or maybe not even into poetry, per se, will the fest appeal to them? Will these authors appeal to them in ways they may not expect?
GR: I hope the lineup will appeal across the board. The workshops and open mics are designed to give poets an opportunity to improve their skills, which include delivery skills. Performance is just as an important part of the work as how it appears on the page.
“Famous First Lines,” the event held Friday night, April 22, is really aimed at works-in-progress. I like to think of it as sort of like a jam at a music club. It is a place to try out things that aren’t maybe 100 percent where you want them and to see how they play with an audience.
Also Allison Ballard and Shelagh Clancy of SeaLeaf Books will be on hand to discuss publishing and editing services with prospective authors.
If anything, I think the weekend is about discovery—for writers and the audience. We have more talent here than many people realize. This is a great opportunity to connect with people who share a creative passion and are at different points navigating the dream to get there.
e: Craig Kittner will do an open mic. What can we expect from this? Or what are you hoping to bear witness to during this part of the day?
G: Craig is actually working on a poetry manuscript for our micro press, and we are planning to launch in the fall. Addy McCulloch has hosted the open-mic in the past; it seemed like it would be nice if she could actually come and enjoy the festival instead of working it for once. Addy has helped us put it together every year, and she is not only one of the most talented writers I know personally, but an incredible advocate for writers and poets especially.
Craig seemed like a logical choice: He’s an actor, so he is good at speaking in front of people. He is a strong poet, too, and he has a nurturing quality about him that makes people feel safe. Looking at all those qualities, combined with his forthcoming book, made him a logical choice.
As his publisher, I hope he will read a few selections from the manuscript. He produces a lot of nature-infused memory work that is quite lyrical and evocative.
e: Anything else readers should know?
GR: All events are free and open to the public, with the exception of the Literary History Walking Tour, which begins at 1:30 p.m. and is $8.
Celebrating National Poetry Month
Old Books on Front St.
249 N Front St.
April 22, 8 p.m.
Famous First Lines
Reading of works-in-progress
April 23, 11 a.m.
Press 53 Reading, with Val Nieman, Sam Barbee and finale with NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson
~Break for Lunch~
Poetry Workshop, 2 p.m.
With Val Nieman
Open Mic, 4:30 p.m.
Hosted by Craig Kittner
Literary History Walking Tour, 1:30 p.m., $8. Led by Gwenyfar Rohler
SeaLeaf Books will be present throughout the day to discuss publishing/editing options with authors.