Word X Word Festival in Pittsfield

Words have been in the air all week in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the Word X Word  festival is in its 4th season. An 8-day series focused on poetry readings and unconventional literary events, the festival attracts some of the big names in the national performance-poetry scene. 

The Word X Word festival was launched by Pittsfield restaurateur Jim Benson as a forum for words—as sung by musicians and read by writers. But leaders of the small festival learned it didn’t have the funds to truly compete with bigger music festivals. So while music is still included, the festival is now focusing on what it does best: showcasing spoken word poets, many who are stars of the United States’ slam poetry scene. And to make the decision to attend a poetry reading even easier, this year, all of the festival’s events are free.

These poets are highly accomplished, but Benson knows they might not be household names in Pittsfield. The lure, he says, is to try something that’s unfamiliar but very likely to be interesting.

“Word X Word is about creating an unexpected moment. So, I think it’s very easy to buy a ticket to a concert to see somebody that you know and hear what you expect to hear, and Word X Word is simply not that.”

Part of the charm of the festival is its shoestring nature, spanning a variety of spaces in Pittsfield’s downtown, from Barrington Stage Company to art galleries and even a barbershop, where a multi-night poetry slam is typically a festival highlight. On Tuesday, poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz performed amid the dangling brassieres in a lingerie shop. Her poem examines the strange phenomenon of Central Park squirrels becoming addicted to crack.

“They are spending their days attacking humans for crack. They are not long for this world. What everyone should be focused on is to get humans to stop taking crack. And once we figure that out, the squirrel problem will take are of itself.” 

Afterwards, Aptowicz, who is in town for a full week of events, says the Word X Word audiences are enthusiastic and engaged.

“The selection of poets and the variety of poets that Word X Word chooses really helps to excite audience members and they end up coming back day after day after day. So as a performer and a writer it’s thrilling to be able perform in front of audiences who are so new to it but so open and willing to engage with you as a performer.”

Taylor Mali, a four-time national slam poetry team champion and part-time resident of Housatonic in the Berkshires, says this week performers leave behind the preconceived notions of a poetry reading.

“You have to be accessible, you have to be immediate, you have to be engaging  if it”s not high energy. There’s nothing against being lyrical and beautiful and reflective, but you better know how to perform that well. This is not your grandmother’s poetry reading. This is not the type of reading where you have to pretend you like everything.”

Nor is the material too abstract for the uninitiated to grasp.

“Something went bump. How that bump made us jump. We looked and we saw him step in on the mat. We looked at we saw him, the cat in the hat.”

That’s Pittsfield novelist Gabriel Squailia performing Dr. Seuss at an event featuring homegrown talent.

Mali curated the poetry for the festival’s first three years, bringing in peers from the upper echelon of performance poetry like Rives, Buddy Wakefield, and Derrick Brown. This year, Brown, who is also an influential literary publisher, booked the talent and scheduled a week of rough-and-tumble events, like this Saturday’s poetry Olympics, when teams of poets will compete in categories from haiku writing to something having to do with hot sauce. Brown’s own performances use sound effects and some theatrical elements.

“Poetry shows used to be something quirky that you’d take a date to, and most of it was bad and there was a long open mic and those days are dead. I want to make a poetry show as unforgettable as a rock show.”

The Word X Word festival continues through Saturday.