Slam poet Aptowicz makes noise from quiet cottage in Berkshires

The poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is not shy about making a loud noise in a quiet space. That’s what she is doing right now in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she’s turning a secluded writing retreat into a hotbed for slam poetry. 

Tucked away on a quiet side street outside the center of Lenox is the Amy Clampitt House, named for the American piety who spent time in the Berkshires before her death in 1994— a small, light-filled cottage where select poets are awarded six-month residencies to live and write. Thirty seven year-old Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is a lifelong urban dweller. Living in the country for the first time, she is making herself right at home.

“Welcome to the Amy Clampitt house. This is the fireplace, where I have learned how to make a fire through YouTube. Thank you very much, Internet.” 

Raised in Philadelphia, Aptowicz was a fixture on New York City’s slam poetry scene for a decade. She co-founded the influential NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam, and even wrote the book on the scene: Words in Your Face is a 2008 history of the birth of slam poetry in New York.

Like many who slam, her mission is to confound the expectations of people who thought they didn’t like poetry.

“When I get invited to schools or even performing arts centers and people go — “Oh, a poet, okay…” — like it’s a vitamin they have to choke down. And I think they’re surprised when they see how engaging it can be, and how human and contemporary and fun and funny that it can be. And serious.” 

James Burden is a chef and sometime poet in nearby Pittsfield. He saw Aptowicz perform as host of a poetry slam at the city’s annual Word By Word festival, and says her, quote, “inspiration value” got him writing again.

“I think she did her piece ‘Crack Squirrels’ and the whole room was just, like, jaw dropped and cheering by the end of the poem. And I think that’s something there needs to be more of in the world.” 

Aptowicz spins the profound from the mundane. In “Taft,” she wonders what went through President William Howard Taft’s mind just before he called for help, when he infamously got stuck in a White House bathtub.

“Poor, naked Taft, President of the United States and stuck in his cold marble tub, mustache wet with exasperation. How long did he sit there, cold and silent, realizing that he needed help [to get] freed? How long did he stand naked in front of those men to thank them? Or did he dash off, modest towel fluttering behind him like a white flag?” 

While at the Clampitt House, Aptowicz is finishing her next volume of poetry, and working on another book. But she’s also turning the place into something of a poets’ roundtable. So far she’s invited six other poets who are well-known in the slam world – like Buddy Wakefield and Taylor Mali — to tape a podcast in which they perform from the house and talk about writing. It’s distributed by the IndieFeed network. Maeve O’Dea, the program director at the foundation administering the residency, says this is unusual.

“Some of the residents who go into the house really just want to be in that space and do their work and have that quiet time and it’s a wonderful place for that.” 

But it doesn’t seem that quiet time is really Aptowicz’s forte. Even if she’s got the poetry thing down, she’s still figuring out how to live life in the country.

“I remember thinking I was doing such a great job until I was moving firewood and I got this giant splinter in my palm and then I thought, ‘Who helps me with this? Help me, ghost of Amy Clampitt!” 

Aptowicz will continue her podcast series until August, when she’ll perform at Word X Word again and then head to Austin, Texas. The full recording of her poem “Taft” can be found on NEPR.net.

Listen to Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz perform her poem “Taft” here.