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Poet’s Paradise

Poetry at Round Top inspires springtime bards
Written by Clayton Maxwell.

Moth Baldwin

"Clayton, look at this moth” shouts the poet Sharon Olds, calling to me across the green lawn in front of the concert hall at Round Top’s Festival Institute. Despite having just met her, I am not surprised to have one of the world’s most renowned contemporary poets call out to me about a moth on a car.

Poetry at Round Top

This year’s event takes place April 15-17 at the Festival Institute. Weekend passes cost $100; daily passes available as well. The 2016 lineup includes Robert Hass, Terrance Hayes, Carmen Tafolla, Dorianne Laux, and others. To register, see www.poetryatroundtop.org.

This kind of eager, open delight in small beauties seems normal at Poetry at Round Top, a festival that San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye has dubbed “Paradise for Poets.”

In the full bloom of springtime, the festival’s home—the romantic, rambling 200-acre campus of Round Top Festival Institute, one of the most respected classical music venues in the country—lends itself honestly to such comparisons to paradise. With venues such as the ornate 1,000-seat Festival Concert Hall, transplanted Victorian homes with wrap-around front porches, and a 19th-Century chapel that feels like a sacred temple amid lush green lawns, the campus itself transports you to a poetic state of mind.

The easygoing friendliness of the festival makes it possible to talk to some of the best poets writing today. People I’ve never met invite me to join them in reciting poetry at lunch, whisk me aside to show me a bird’s nest with three pale blue eggs hidden in a rose bush, or simply stop me to tell me about their favorite poetry book. This openness to others and to the world around us defines Poetry at Round Top, where poets of all levels, ages, and styles gather around the proverbial campfire to share their love of words.

An event that has occurred every April now for 15 years, this little bit of lyrical heaven stands out as one of the top poetry festivals in the country, attracting celebrity poets such as last year’s Ellen Bass and Richard Blanco, the Cuban-American who wrote and delivered the inaugural poem for President Obama’s second inauguration. Two U.S. Poet Laureates have graced the festival: W.S. Merwin, who was here the day before his honor was announced, and Ted Kooser, a Nebraska farmer-turned-poet who drove down to the festival in his truck.

That one of the country’s most inspiring poetry festivals should be thriving in Round Top is the result of a shared vision and much diligence by festival co-founders and former Michener fellows Jack Brannon and Dorothy Barnett, along with James Dick, the founder of the Round Top Festival Institute, which has flourished here since 1971.

“James called me about 15 years ago and said, ‘Jack, I’ve always wanted poetry out here. Could you start something up?’” explains Brannon. “And I said yes, because there are a lot of wonderful poets here, so we decided we’d start with Texas poets and see how it goes.”

These days, the featured talent comes from across the nation as well as Texas, while the 150-200 attendees hail mostly from the Lone Star State. Both Brannon and Barnett have retired from running the festival, but Co-Director Katherine Oldmixon, a poet and English professor at Huston-Tillotson University, now carries on the mission with Brannon’s godson, Jesse Bertron, a poet in his own right.

The festival’s offerings are varied, including formal readings and panels on such topics as “The Language of Poetry” in the main concert hall, open-mic readings, and casual readings that seem to happen organically. There are the smaller workshops with the established poets; these are very popular and require advance registration. In the chapel, a remembrance ceremony called “Distance Prevails Not” features poetry from artists who have died since the last gathering. There are book signings by the authors, opportunities to purchase books and journals, manuscript-critique sessions with accomplished poets, and intimate readings that take place after dinner over wine and candlelight.

At an evening reading in the stone basement beneath the chapel, I meet Richard Royall, the soft-spoken managing director of the Round Top Festival Institute, who tells me as he pours red wine into my plastic cup: “I know it is spring because the poets have arrived.” Along with the bluebonnets dotting the green fields around the Festival Institute campus, I can think of no better harbinger of spring.

“One reason I really do love the festival,” says Brannon, “is that it offers poetry at its best. I want people to experience how truly wonderful it can be to hear poetry read out loud, under the right circumstances. Not all poetry readings are wonderful, so one of my goals is to show how very wonderful they can be.”

I am lucky enough to sit in on a workshop titled “What is Metaphor?” by one of my very favorite poets, California-based Ellen Bass. This warm, wise woman speaks about how a metaphor invites us to find similarities in a world that is constantly focusing on differences. When we say, “this is like that,” she explains, we get a glimpse into the oneness of the world. In the cozy living room of a Victorian home, she gives us objects to hold in our hands, and we then brainstorm for metaphors; for example, a string of amber beads in a plastic baggie becomes a gaggle of debutantes waiting for a party. This is fun.

And then, for the rest of the weekend, I see metaphor everywhere, even though this particular poetic talent is not one I come by easily. And I realize how Bass’ exploration into metaphor actually serves as a metaphor for the whole weekend: Here we are, MFA students, professional and aspiring poets, and a few random poetry lovers like me—all seemingly very different in so many ways. But this weekend, deeply steeped in our mutual love of the art, we are united by the happy similarities between us, even if we share something as simple as the sight of a moth on a car.

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