Patrick Donnelly appointed seventh poet laureate in Northampton

Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Patrick Donnelly once studied classical singing and acting, with an eye to becoming an opera singer. Although those plans did not work out, he also had a deep interest in writing that he subsequently developed — and now he intends to bring his literary and performance background together in a new role.

Donnelly, who lives in South Deerfield and teaches poetry at Smith College, has been appointed Northampton’s newest poet laureate by the city’s Arts Council. He’s the seventh artist to hold the position, which was created in the early 2000s and comes with a $2,000 stipend.

Donnelly’s tenure officially begins next month and runs into 2017. He succeeds Richard Michelson, a poet and children’s book author, and the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Donnelly, 58, said he’s honored by his appointment and excited about the position — one he views as a sort of caretaker of a poetry scene that’s already filled with “an incredible amount of energy.

“I think the poet laureate should really shine a light on the other poets in the community and help promote their work, let poetry thrive here,” he said. “There’s so much going on, so many poets performing at a high level ... the (poet laureate) is really icing on the cake.”

With a chuckle, Donnelly noted that he moved to the area in the early 2000s with some trepidation after living for some 24 years in New York City. He followed his spouse, Stephen D. Miller, now a professor of Asian languages and literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to the area.

“Neither of us knew quite what to expect,” Donnelly said. “But we found out what a rich literary and artistic community it was. ... We’ve been really, really happy here.”

In addition to publishing two well-received collections, 2003’s “The Charge” and 2012’s “Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin,” Donnelly has published poetry in numerous journals, including American Poetry Review, Slate, Ploughshares and The Yale Review. He has taught at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Lesley University in Cambridge, and he directs the poetry seminar at The Frost Place, a summer program at Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire.

Building on his performance background, Donnelly has developed a series of workshops for writers that aim to improve their public speaking skills and help them deliver their poetry more powerfully. One of his goals as poet laureate, he said, is to host free workshops in the city that will focus on teaching poetry as an oral art.

In the past, Donnelly has worked with poets on group performances — “choral poem projects” — that he also plans to introduce to local poets, community members and young people. The focus will be on literary work that can be performed by “choirs” of speakers, he said.

“In my experience, writers generally don’t have these kinds of skills,” he said. “But they’re not that difficult to learn, and they really can enhance your writing.”

Among the hats he wears, Donnelly also works as a translator on projects with Miller. The two have translated classical Japanese poetry and drama dating back 800 to 1,000 years, with Miller working on literal translations of ancient Japanese characters and Donnelly turning the work into modern English poems and plays. Donnelly also spent three months in Japan last year on a fellowship to learn more about the language and culture.

There will be an inaugural reading by Donnelly in the fall. In the meantime, he said, “I’m really looking forward to the next two years.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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