April is National Poetry Month, and Athens has multiple events to help celebrate the occasion.
Athens Poet Laureate Wendy McVicker and the state of Ohio’s Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour are making it so every month could be considered poetry month in Athens.
Athens was one of the first cities in the state to have a poet laureate.
“My understanding is that the poet laureate of Athens kind of encourages those people to explore their own creativity,” Councilwoman Beth Clodfelter, D-At Large, said. “And so they don't just go talk to them, and then put poems in front of them and ask them to read them, which could be great. But they get them writing and starting to think about, ‘How do I turn my ideas into a poem?’ The fact that the city of Athens has made this intentional decision to select one person at a time to be responsible for doing that, I think is a really nice thing about our town.”
McVicker said she always wanted to be a fiction writer. She first started writing as an adult when she had two small children and found herself only being able to write during their naptime. She then realized writing poetry was a better fit for her.
She started getting active with her children’s school and going into classrooms as a volunteer helping the students with poetry. She then started visiting other schools, art centers, libraries and many other places through the Ohio Arts Council for about 20 years.
“The thing that I personally have enjoyed the most about Wendy McVicker’s tenure as the Athens Poet Laureate is that she writes poems on the sidewalk in front of her house,” Clodfelter said. “So it's just amazing. Just encountering it, there’s a bright spot in the day.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, McVicker’s term as poet laureate was extended until the end of 2022. McVicker has many ideas for Athens, such as “Poetrees” which would involve combining the ideas of planting trees and poetry together to help the environment and get more people involved with the arts.
McVicker is the southeast regional co-coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, an annual, national poetry recitation competition for high school students. McVicker, along with Stuart’s Opera House, supports students through workshops to prepare them for the event.
“I believe poetry is the language of the heart,” McVicker said. “We are taught in school a lot about discursive language, language that can tell you what happened, language that can explain to you how things work, but we aren’t always given the language for talking about what happens inside ourselves. And to me, that is poetry.”
McVicker frequently posts videos of poetry readings on her Facebook page. She also hosts “River of Words,” a conversation series with regional poets, through WOUB. Her next episode will feature Stephanie Kendrick and be available for listening on April 13. Past interviews with other poets, including Gunter-Seymour, can be streamed on SoundCloud.
“I just hope that people will go and read a poem out loud.” McVicker said. “And if they enjoy that experience, read it out loud to somebody else, because poetry is meant to be out loud.”
Both McVicker and Gunter-Seymour believe that their jobs as poet laureates are to help other poets get their voices out and get people involved in poetry all over the city, county and state.
Gunter-Seymour said she started to write poetry to cope with pressure and trauma that came from a family issue she was dealing with. She said someone told her to try poetry because poetry uses less words to say more and really makes a person focus on the writing.
“I think it's a real honor for the community of Athens and the poetry community of Athens that Kari Gunter-Seymour has become the state of Ohio Poet Laureate,” Clodfelter said. “I think it says a lot about the quality of the poets that we have here.”
Gunter-Seymour is a ninth-generation Appalachian. She recently published A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen, which is a collection of poems centering around her family history and hometown.
“It helped me bring some order to the chaos that I was feeling,” Gunter-Seymour said. “I feel so strongly about the fact that poetry can literally help heal people. It's therapeutic. Writing it can help heal people, sharing it can help heal people. It also builds community and expresses things with beautiful, selective, perfect language.”
On April 7 at 2 p.m., Gunter-Seymour will host a virtual reading and Q&A event through Ohio University Southern. More information on upcoming events with Gunter-Seymour can be found on her website.
Gunter-Seymour also hosts Spoken & Heard with Stuart’s Opera House monthly. The virtual event features award-winning poets, authors and musicians from all over the country. The next event will be held April 15 at 7 p.m. on Zoom.
In addition, The Athens County (and Friends) Poets & Storytellers is holding a virtual open mic event Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Anyone can sign up to attend, and there are still some open spots to actively participate.
Clodfelter, McVicker and Gunter-Seymour encourage people to celebrate the month and make connections with others and their inner-selves through this medium.
“You get around poets and you have friends for life,” Gunter-Seymour said. “We're just trying to tell our truths and build our communities and make the world a better place. So any opportunity to lift up others, you know, especially the group in Athens, I can speak for them that everybody here works really hard to lift each other up. And I've seen that across the state.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article included the wrong name of Athens Poet Laureate, Wendy McVicker. The article has been updated with the most accurate information.