Poetry Fires Flare On a Warm Night In Pittsfield

UP the hallway steps to the cluttered Writer's Room on the second floor of the Community Arts Center, the poet Peter Chelnik trudges heavily. Around his neck a blue handkerchief hints that the man is not as gloomy as his trudge.

Three people follow him like eager punctuations. Their footsteps are muffled, their spirits high even if they are lonely. A well-publicized, free poetry workshop on a warm night in downtown Pittsfield does not, will not, and cannot draw a crowd.

In fact, despite Maya Angelou reading a poem at President Clinton's inauguration, and Rita Dove as poet laureate at the Library of Congress, the popular unpopularity of poetry in the United States is hard to deny.

Unafraid, Mr. Chelnik throws open the door of the Writer's Room, flips on the overhead lights. His three participants - a journalist, retiree Daniel Green, who has published more than 400 poems, and his wife, Leona - cluster around a table, ready for engagement with the tools of life: words, ideas, and putting them together to make something new and clear.

Elsewhere, tens of thousands of people in Berkshire County are doing something else. They miss Chelnik's scratchy, gruff sort of irritated voice explaining his Prairie Fire Esthetic for poetry. "One little flame," he says, "can set the whole prairie on fire."

A product of New Jersey and New York, Chelnik has forged his esthetic from the passion, rhythms, and anger that pushed Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. "Poetry should joggle your mind," says Chelnik, "punch you in the stomach with images that snap."

Just as he begins to read his poem, "I'm Angry on Prairie Manhattan," a grinning, young face under a baseball cap suddenly appears on the fire escape of the second story window. "Hey," says the voice on the other side of the dirty glass, "open the door."

Chelnik goes down to open the door. Unbelievable. A teenage boy has hoisted himself up to the fire escape in a dark alley, climbed to the second floor to attend a poetry workshop. He wants to be here. For poetry. Unbelievable.

In minutes, three energetic teenage boys named Neal, Neal, and Mike, clad in T-shirts, and a middle-aged man named Julian join the others to make eight around the table.

For the next hour and a half, it is a good-natured wrestling match. The bright ideas of youth meet the radiant ideas of experience as intents, hazards, passions, and assumptions are shared and challenged. Poems are read. Quick, angry poems are written. Trope and metaphor. Ham and eggs.

Chelnik asks,"Why is poetry so maligned?"

"Depends on the country," Leona says. "Europeans have always read and loved poetry."

"You mean standing next to the architecture of a French cathedral is more inspiring than a Burger King?" Peter says with a deadpan look.

"I reject your statement," Daniel says. "There is a great acceptance of poetry now; poetry is being published."

"There's no money in poetry," Julian says. "None."

"What would happen if poetry was on MTV?" Peter asks.

Verbal high fives: Turn MTV on to poetry!

By 9 o'clock, the room is hot. Appreciation for being there begins to show. "I was thrilled to see you here," Leona says.

After handshakes all around, everyone descends the stairs to drift away in the warm night. "What I want to do is change the 5 percent of society that is seriously into the arts," Peter says, "and move it up to 15 percent."

Maybe there should be a plaque on the wall by the door. The prairie fire started right here one warm night in Pittsfield.

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