A vow of poetry: Area writers will write 30 poems in 30 days to raise money for the Center for New Americans in Northampton

Last modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013

It’s not uncommon in the Valley to see flyers and signs advertising charity runs, in which sponsors donate money for every mile an athlete completes. Next month, however, the Center for New Americans in Northampton will put on a very different kind of marathon.

The Center’s “30 Poems in November!” is an annual fundraiser now in its fifth year. Poets from the area (and a few more far-flung participants) vow to write one poem every day for the entire month. The writers ask family, friends and others to donate a set amount per poem. At the end of 30 days, each poet submits one of his or her just-completed works for inclusion in a printed anthology, which will be published in December.

First-time participant Deborah Bix of Millers Falls began writing poetry last winter.

“It came as a surprise to me. I was never a ‘poetry person’ as a youngster,” she said in a recent interview. Despite her relative newness to the genre, Bix anticipates little difficulty coming up with daily writing ideas.

“I write all the time so it’s not daunting — it’s fun,” she said. “I don’t write long poems. I think my average poem is no more than 15 to 20 lines. I expect that some days I’ll write a bunch and some days I won’t, and it’ll all work out.”

Even so, Bix, who works as an instrutional aid for a local special education department and is a “mom on duty,” says she has to squeeze in time for writing when she can.

“Often, I’m writing poetry [in my head] while I’m driving, which is a problem because I can’t remember when I get home,” she said.

Bix says her poetry is often inspired by nature or by events from the past, and is her “way of processing it now, years later.”

A big success

It is apt that the Center for New Americans uses literature as a fundraising method.

The organization, which has been operating for 20 years, serves new immigrants in Northampton and the surrounding area, teaching them English. The nonprofit organization also provides resources for recent immigrants and their families, such as childcare, literacy classes and citizenship application assistance. It annually offers services to 450 students from over 50 different countries speaking 35 languages.

The 30-poems-in-30-days fundraiser began in 2009. The idea came from Lesléa Newman, Northampton’s poet laureate at the time. Then-mayor Mary Clare Higgins suggested the center be the beneficiary. Sixty poets participated that year, and together raised $12,000.

“We were shocked. It was beyond our wildest dreams, we were really incredulous,” said Laurie Millman, the center’s marketing and development coordinator. No one, she says, had expected the event to be so successful.

Since that first year, the number of writers involved has remained around 60, but the amount of money raised continues to increase; last year, “30 Poems in November!” raised $20,000 for the center, part of which came from a grant from the Xeric Foundation, founded by Peter A. Laird, the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Planet Racers comic books. The grant is used to fund a poetry-writing program for its students.

Students at the Center for New Americans also participate in “30 Poems in November!” (though they don’t raise money), and have their own anthology published at the end of the month. Their poems are written sometimes in English and sometimes in their native languages.

A way to jump-start

No matter how advanced one’s writing abilities, however, choosing to create a poem every day for a month is no small undertaking. This year’s event chairwoman, professional poet Terry S. Johnson of Northampton, has submitted poems for the past two years, and has come up with strategies to keep herself on track.

“Before November starts, I think about topics I might want to write about,” she said. “For instance, one year I was taking care of a sick friend, and I decided to write a poem a day about a piece of medical equipment they were using. I ended up writing a poem about a nebulizer for asthma. ... If I’m really stuck I write a haiku.”

As event chairwoman, one of Johnson’s responsibilities before and during “30 Poems in November!” is to teach a writing workshop. Straw Dog Writers Guild, one of the event’s sponsors, which operates throughout western Massachusetts, will host this earlier program, titled “Poetry Prompt Extravaganza.” Johnson is a founding member of Straw Dog, and says she hopes the workshop that will be held in Easthampton on Oct. 19, will give a confidence boost to writers who aren’t quite sure where to start.

“Prompts are a way to sort of jump-start someone if they’re stuck,” she said. “I’ve also written out 30 prompts for the month of November,” which will be posted on the Center for New American’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/pages/Center-For-New-Americans/125663334711.

According to Millman, the center’s marketing and development coordinator, many of the “30 Poems” participants take an interest in the event because of its connection with literacy and Northampton’s immigrant community.

Johnson says she has always been passionate about this cause, but it became particularly meaningful after she began working as a teacher at the Mark Meadows Elementary School in Amherst in 1985.

“It was a very multicultural school with students from around the world who spoke over 20 different languages, in a student body of 200. I was just struck by their difficulty learning English and the difficulty that some of their parents had,” she said. “It’s very heartening to know that you can use a skill to help others develop a skill.”

Bix has also had experience working to aid immigrant families, including participating in previous fundraisers. The annual reading following the completion of “30 Poems in November!,” however, is a time for celebration, not for dwelling on hardships. Poets, students at the Center for New Americans, and community members come together at the Smith College Poetry Center to hear the participants read their works.

For Millman, it is always a momentous occasion.

“It’s the most supportive reading anyone would ever find,” she said. “People are laughing, people are applauding, sometimes people are crying. People don’t want to go home.”


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