The Boston Poetry Marathon: 3 Days, 17 Hours, 100 Readers
It’s on the outskirts of Inman Square, but you must be able to spot the “186” from the Cambridge and Hampshire Street intersection, flanking the right façade of a faded brown triple-decker. You can’t help but tilt your head 45 degrees and stare at the giant white numbers that each must be close to eight feet tall.
The “186” denotes 186 Hampshire St., and on the left side of the building, past the sign for a psychotherapy office, you’ll find the entrance of Outpost 186 at 186 ½ Hampshire St., the setting for this weekend’s Boston Poetry Marathon. About 100 local and out-of-town poets will squish into the tiny gallery space Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 14 to 16, to read some of their original work. And in between readings, they will take smoke breaks, catch up with friends and give feedback on each other’s performances.
At past Boston Poetry Marathons, Jim Behrle says he’s seen some of the individuals that comprise what he calls “the Mount Rushmore of poetry.” These are the kinds of names that have stuck around in the poetry world, ones that loom large like Inman Square’s “186”—Robert Creeley, John Wieners, Forrest Gander.
Based in Jersey City, Behrle is now one of the organizers of the whole weekend with Boston-area poets Mitch Manning, Audrey Mardavich and John Mulrooney. The first one he attended as a senior in college impacted him profoundly.
“Over the course of the weekend at Blacksmith House in Harvard Square, half a dozen of the people became my future colleagues, half a dozen become my friends,” he says. “It was an earth-shattering event for me. When it happens, there are 20 amazing things you will never see again.”
Sean Cole (now a producer for "This American Life") and Aaron Kiely founded the three-day poetry reading event in 1998, and as time has moved forward, the organizers, venues and format have switched up. You’ll see a diverse range of poets—slam poets, haiku masters, academics and everything in between.
Each poet will have the floor for eight minutes. Behrle jokingly says that he’s got a special stare he’ll throw your way if you’ve hit the 10-minute mark, and at the 11-minute point, he’ll start slipping you notes that say to wrap it up.
According to Mardavich, the time limit makes the weekend function democratically.
“You’ll have people who are very accomplished and very well known and people doing it for the first year along side them, and they all will read for eight minutes,” she says. “It creates a wonderful atmosphere, because the focus is on the poems, not on prizes.”
It’s harder to ignore the uphill financial climb as an artist these days. As much as possible, Boston Poetry Marathon tries to leave money out of the equation. The operation is entirely volunteer run, and Mardavich emphasizes that the weekend is about sustaining a literary scene. A hat will be passed around, and the organizers just hope they can break even to pay off the cost of renting Outpost 186 three days straight.
“The wonderful thing for me is that poetry exists outside the world of money,” she says. “It’s about the art, about the poems, about the community. It’s expensive here in Boston, yet poetry continues thrive and the Boston Poetry Marathon grows every year.”
You’d expect by the end of the weekend chock full of poetry (almost 17 scheduled hours over three days) that you’d want to take a break from it. On the contrary, Behrle says the high dosage works differently on some people.
“As a poet, you think you might not be getting out enough to readings, and then all of the sudden, you’re wiped out by the end of the Marathon,” he says. “But it’s invigorating. I bet a lot of people go home and the first thing they do is write a poem, because they heard something that inspired them or they thought, ‘Hey, I can write something better.’”
For this year, Behrle says that he is unsure what he’ll share with the crowd. In a last minute panic, it’s often on the bus ride from New York City to the Boston Poetry Marathon he’ll produce a poem or two that he’ll pilot at the event.
“A few days ago, I actually had a friend who was on a Lucky Star bus that got in an accident,” he says. “Maybe I’ll write a poem on this trip called ‘Unlucky Star.’”