Arts Lifestyle

West Hartford Poets Laureate Celebrated

West Hartford Poets Laureate pose with the mayor. Bottom row left to right: Mayor Shari Cantor, Maria Sassi (WH Poet Laureate 2005-09), Dennis Barone (2009-11), Benjamin S. Grossberg (2020-present) Top row left to right: Julie Choffel (2017-20), James Finnegan (2011-13), Christine Beck (2015-17) & Ginny Lowe Connors (2013-15). Photo courtesy of Chuck Coursey

West Hartford’s current and former poets laureate attended a celebration and reading on Monday.

By Harlan Levy

A crowd of about 45 poetry lovers filled the West Hartford Senior Center community room Monday night Oct. 2 to celebrate, meet, and hear poems read by the seven people to date who have held the position of our town’s poet laureate.

The poets – all published authors – each read two of their poems aloud. They included (seated in chronological order from left to right): Maria Sassi (2005-2009), Dennis Barone (2009-2011), James Finnegan (2011-2013), Ginny Connors (2013-2015), Christine Beck (2015-2017), Julie Choffel (2017-2020), and the current Poet Laureate Ben Grossberg (2020-present).

Mayor Shari Cantor addresses the crowd with town poets laureate seated in sequence from first to the present. Photo credit: Harlan Levy

“It’s a day to recognize past and present West Hartford poets laureate and how important culture and the arts are to our town,” said Jason Congdon, president of the Bishops Corner Neighborhood Association, which organized the event. “Poetry helps us to choose words to express the human condition, and today, with everything going on, using words to express ourselves is the preferred way to do it.”

Mayor Shari Cantor attended the event as well, bringing a proclamation passed by the Town Council declaring Oct. 23 to be West Hartford Poet Laureate Day. The proclamation has a deep meaning for her, she noted, because she was personally responsible for the legislation that created a town poet laureate, the first one in all of Connecticut.

It all started back in 2004, Cantor told the crowd, when she had just returned to her CPA career after her fourth son – born with a rare heart condition – had entered second grade, needing less of her time. Then-Town Council member Chuck Coursey – now chairman of the West Hartford Commission on the Arts – encouraged her to fill a vacant Council seat.

“He said I’d be part of a team and it wouldn’t be that busy,” she recalled. “That was not accurate, the way I do things,” she added with a laugh.

She was appointed that year and successfully ran for a full term the next year, winning every subsequent election since.

In 2005, future poet laureate Ginny Connors urged several Council members to consider creating the position of town poet laureate. Cantor met with her and agreed.

“It touched me, and I thought it would be a positive thing for the community,” she said. After doing some research, she called other towns about it. “I found that nobody else had one in Connecticut, so I grabbed it and said I’d love to do it.”

Not everyone was equally enthusiastic. “There were people who asked why I was wasting my time on it and said that taxes were already high,” she said. “But because there was no financial commitment – it was a time commitment from volunteers – most people thought it was a good idea.”

Cantor said that she has some artists in her family, “and I’ve seen what it does for people to see and hear this art form, and how sharing it influences students and others.”

Cantor also said she has a history with poetry. “Every Sunday morning when I was around 10 and 11, I’d wake up and read poetry from books I had taken out from the library,” she said. Favorites included Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost. “It was my way of thinking and feeling in my own space, a moment of privacy, and I found it very comforting, cathartic, and inspiring.”

Cantor admitted that she has written some very simple poems herself, every time one of her four sons had a bar mitzvah or a bris, “but nothing like [that of] the town’s poets laureate.”

Coursey noted that the event was very well received “and another example of what makes West Hartford so special.”

Several of the poets at the event read work that focused on life in West Hartford, including fourth Poet Laureate Ginny Collins, whose poem, entitled “Visible,” was inspired by the town’s Fernridge Park:

Beneath the brook that swirls in the upper bend,

then tumbles out of sight beneath a footbridge, stones shine

like gray pearls. Minnows zigzag in their glitziness

as if they have a mission, invisible to us.

Beneath the brook, my daughters dip their fingers, stir it up,

content with just each other and with me, a rare occurrence,

the leaves a patchwork canopy, the grass as soft as prayers.

The children babble as if they have a mission, inaudible to me.

Beneath my thoughts of dinner, homework done, not done,

my struggle to control their juggle for position on our family tree,

a language, eerie as a keekowah, bubbles up, notes of shifting leaves, the water’s gloss, bird calls, the minnows with their minnow music.

Beneath all this, a moment of pure peace, when a secret life

turns palpable, becomes a silken cord that links us to the water,

trees, birds, even to the minnows, as if they have a mission,

to hold us to this place, this grace.

Poet Laureate Ginny Collins. Photo credit: Harlan Levy

After all seven finished reading, the floor was opened to questions. One audience member asked how children might be led to develop an interest in poetry. Beck, the town’s fifth poet laureate and a former teacher, gave a simple but direct answer: “Read to them,” she said.

Yet first Poet Laureate Maria Sassi may have summed the entire evening up best, asking, “What would we be without poetry?”

NOTE: Want to hear poetry? The free Wordhouse Reading Series program on Saturday, Nov.18 at 2 p.m. features West Hartford’s second Poet Laureate Dennis Barone and award-winning poet Amy Nawrocki reading selections from their published works at the Noah Webster House, 227 South Main St. For more information contact Jim at [email protected], 860-508-2810.

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