Poet laureate, times two: Easthampton appoints Jason Montgomery and Alexandra Woolner the city’s new poets laureate

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  • Jason Montgomery and Alexandra Woolner, seen outside their Holyoke studio, are the new poets laureate for Easthampton and will be recognized during Easthampton Poetry Day festivities on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jason Montgomery and Alexandra Woolner, seen outside their Holyoke studio, are the new poets laureate for Easthampton and will be recognized during Easthampton Poetry Day festivities on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Alexandra Woolner and Jason Montgomery, the new poets laureate for Easthampton, with one of their innovations: an old ticket dispenser converted to offer short poems for 50 cents. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jason Montgomery and Alexandra Woolner, here outside their Holyoke studio, are the new poets laureate for Easthampton and will be recognized during Easthampton Poetry Day festivities on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jason Montgomery is seen here at Readywipe Gallery in Holyoke during the installation of his “Calaveras de Coronavirus” exhibit in 2020. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALEXANDRA WOOLNER

Staff Writer
Published: 4/20/2021 11:18:23 AM

EASTHAMPTON – Easthampton marked a new phase in its artistic life three years ago when it appointed its first-ever poet laureate, veteran wordsmith Gary Metras. Then last year, to recognize the growing interest in town in the written word, the city extended the tenure of its second poet laureate, María José Giménez, from one year to two and declared April Poetry Month in Easthampton.

This year, there’s another twist: Easthampton has appointed not one but two new poets laureate for the next two years. And in selecting Jason Montgomery and Alexandra Woolner, the city is also recognizing the value of collaborative projects that connect poetry, music, visual art, and other artistic expressions.

As Pasqualina Azzarello, city arts coordinator at Easthampton City Arts, puts it, the many collaborative arts projects Montgomery and Woolner have hosted in town and elsewhere in the Valley over the last several years “have truly helped to shape and create what poetry means and can mean.”

Montgomery and Woolner, who are married, wear a number of hats in addition to their poetic ones. Montgomery, a California native, is a visual artist and playwright who also serves as director of development and communications for the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Springfield. Woolner, originally from Worcester County, has developed innovative ways to encourage people to write poetry; she was previously an ESL teacher in China, South Korea and France and today works in international education.

In 2016, the two co-founded Attack Bear Press, an arts collaborative that in addition to publishing some poetry chapbooks has developed several shared projects, art installations and workshops. For instance, the “No-No Project” brings poets to Easthampton’s Union St. Records to record them reading their work, after which store owner Kevin Walker and other musicians produce a backing soundtrack for CDs and EPs.

In a recent shared call, Montgomery said his and Woolner’s selection as Easthampton’s new poets laureate “is very exciting. We’re really honored because it feels like the kind of collaborative work we’ve been doing has been validated.”

For her part, Woolner noted with a laugh that “Attack Bear Press doesn’t really make money, but we can’t help but make art, and it’s really nice to be recognized for that.”

Flexing artistic muscles

Though the couple has worked together on any number of projects, they’ve also staked out their own grounds artistically. Woolner, a 2007 graduate of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says she began writing poetry when she was younger as a way to calm her “frenzied mind” and has continued to write verse, predominantly for herself and friends.

She’s channeled much of her energy into shared poetry efforts such as the “Poetry Vending Machine Project,” for which she has refurbished old ticket- and sticker-dispending machines and filled them with short poems on notecards that people can purchase for 50 cents. The machines have been placed in various places around town and in the Valley in recent years; one is currently at Amherst Books.

Woolner also calls herself “a big typewriter enthusiast,” and she’s produced public workshops that encourage people, especially younger ones, to try tapping out a poem on a typewriter, as well as “Poetry on Demand” events where a local poet will whip up a new piece on the spot — on a typewriter — in response to a prompt or request from someone.

“Until now I’ve mostly been focused on finding ways for sharing the work of other poets, and finding ways to get other people interested in writing poetry, making it more fun,” she said. But her selection as an Easthampton poet laureate, Woolner added, “might be the kick in the butt to start sharing more of my own work.”

Montgomery says he’s followed a somewhat more conventional path in more recent years with his poetry, publishing work in journals such as Cape Cod Poetry Review. But with a master’s degree in theater and playwriting, and his work as a visual artist, he’s also drawn in different directions. He says his work is also informed by his Chicano/Indigenous Californian background; he grew up in a small town just north of the California-Mexico border.

For instance, he’s created an art installation called “Calaveras de Coronavirus,” which is made up of thousands of paper postcards depicting calaveras skulls, each of which represents 15 people in the country who have died from COVID-19. The exhibit also has 15 painted clay calaveras skulls arranged on the floor. (Calveras are skull-shaped objects associated with Mexican recognition of the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos.)

The exhibit, previously displayed in Holyoke and in the A.P.E Gallery in Northampton, is now in North Adams. Artist Jen Wagner, another member of Attack Bear Press, provided illustration art for the cards in the show.

Montgomery says his work with the “No-No Project” and other collaborative art efforts has convinced him that poetry can become more accessible and moving to people if it’s coupled with other mediums such as music and visual art. “It can of course stand on its own, but there’s also a great appeal to making it part of a larger artistic expression,” he said.

The couple say they’ve had to curtail a good number of their collaborative projects in the past year because of the pandemic, though that may have been, to some degree, a blessing in disguise.

“We’ve often found ourselves kind of overextended, taking on more projects and work than we realized, so in a way we’ve been able to take a breath and think more long-term about different projects,” said Woolner.

They’re looking forward to developing some more of those projects over the next couple of years as COVID-19 hopefully fades away. This Saturday, on Easthampton Poetry Day, they’ll get their official introduction as the city’s new poets laureate, and Attack Bear Press will also be releasing two chapbooks of work by local poets (see sidebar).

And both say they’re happy to be part of what Woolner calls “a really quirky, artistic community. It’s just a great place to be.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.
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