Picnic Season in The Sunken Garden

 Last summer in the Sunken Garden. Photos Courtesy Hill-Stead Museum. 

Last summer in the Sunken Garden. Photos Courtesy Hill-Stead Museum. 

It’s a glorious day for the New Englander, when they can finally throw off their shoes and sink their feet into summer grass. It’s the first of sign of a season, a season full of wine in plastic cups, musky back-of-the-car blankets and if you’re lucky, a dinner of cheese and crackers. It’s picnic season.

The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival is one of the best things picnic season has to offer—nights filled with poetry on the campus of the historic Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn. There are three events left this season featuring the 2017 U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, as well as poets Andrea Gibson, Solmaz Sharif and Javier Zamora. Each evening begins at 5 p.m. with a prelude interview. The headlining poet starts at 7 p.m.

Smith reads Wednesday July 11; a full schedule of events is available here.  

This year marks the 26th Season for the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. Nicknamed the “Tanglewood of Poetry” after the award-winning chamber music festival in Massachusetts, the festival draws internationally known poets including current and former U.S. Poet Laureates. For Smith, it’s chance to step out from behind the page and read from her new collection, titled Wade in the Water.

For her, live poetry readings are where her serious interaction with poetry began. She went to her first readings as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where she “started to understand that it was a history I could belong to, a tradition I could participate in.”

Before that, any poems she read were by long-dead authors. As she watched readers take the mic, the stage, or the lectern, she realized it was a living art form. Two years after writing one poem in particular, a new layer of meaning emerged.

“It’s not an immediate result art form,” she said of her craft. At the same time, a live reading “allows you to hear poem the way the poet hears it, that’s always going to be different from your image.”

She calls that “access to the creator," which the audience will have at each show, too. Each poet gives a prelude interview before the performance, during which audience members can walk right up to the mic to ask questions. In the off-season, the museum brings poets to Hartford public high schools. The Fresh Voices Poetry Competition invites students from any New England high school to polish their poetry for performance. Five winning poets read at the final night of the season. This year, they’ll take the stage before poet Andrea Gibson.

Lisa Lappe, the festival director, said the competition draws hundreds of submissions each year, and gives young poets a chance to perform in a high profile literary event.

And young people do show up to the festival every year. This year, Lappe said, she’s guessing that many of them will show up to see Andrea Gibson.

Gibson—who uses they/them pronouns—looks more like touring musician online than poet. Their website is full of tour dates, they’ve got more than 35 thousand followers on Instagram and their videos rack up 50, 100 and in one case, 700 thousand views. In fact, most of their poetry is sold as albums, not books. Hey Galaxy is their most recent album: each poem is layered over instrumental music.

Gibson represents a community moved by slam poetry—a tradition that formally began in 1980s Chicago, and has developed a robust network of competitions, as small as a single high school or among a diverse international audience. blossomed into high school, college, statewide, regional, national, and international competitions since. On stage, the tradition turns Gibson into a firecracker, their words enunciated for impact, and punctuated with movement.

Which makes perfect sense to Lappe. “Poetry was intended to be spoken out loud,” she said. “There’s a difference between reading a poem on a page and sitting and looking at the person who wrote it as they perform it to you.”

Part of the festival’s mission is to attract audience members who wouldn’t call themselves “poetry people.” It’s where the prelude interview comes in—a welcome guide for fans that also provides context for first-time participants. With a mission to bring more diversity to the audience, the Hill-Stead Museum has also partnered with Hartford Public Library to provide 500 complimentary tickets to library patrons and Hartford residents.

Who is that audience? Just about anyone, Lappe said, 26-year veterans, millennials looking for a night out, and kids dancing between the flower beds and picnic blankets, and diehard fans seated alongside first-time festival-goers. And right around 7 p.m., as the sun is beginning to set, everyone hushes up to hear the first lines of poetry.

Tickets are available on The Hill-Stead Museum’s website. They are $15 online; $20 at the gate; and free for children under 18. Parking is free