By Arshia Simkin, via the Orange County Arts Commission

On October 15 and 16, the town of Carrboro held its free annual West End Poetry Festival — a two-day event that celebrates all things poetry. Featuring a workshop and poetry readings, the festival was a vibrant celebration of ways in which poetry enriches a community. According the festival website, “The West End Poetry Festival is sponsored by the Town of Carrboro and is planned by the Carrboro Poets Council … with the assistance of Jackie Helvey and the staff of Carrboro’s Recreation and Parks Department and the support of the Carrboro Arts Committee.”

While last year’s event was all virtual, due to concerns about Covid-19, this year’s festival included both virtual and in-person components. The event kicked off on Friday, October 15, with an evening Zoom workshop by local poet Crystal Simone Smith. In her introductory remarks, Smith emphasized the rarity of having a festival that was free and open to the public. In her lecture, Smith took participants through several classic forms of poetry, including sonnets, the terza rima, haikus and haibun. The talk was a great introduction to the many formal structures of poetry: I had never heard of a “haibun” before and learned that it is a “a Japanese genre of writing that mixes chiefly autobiographical prose with haiku.” Smith also touched on more experimental forms such as blackout and erasure poetry.

As decidedly a writer of prose who hadn’t attempted poetry since probably elementary school, I was nervous about attending a workshop full of poets, but my worries soon dissipated as Smith gave clear explanations, bolstered with illuminating examples. She reassured participants: “The only way you can get good is that you have to be a practitioner.” Of haikus, Smith said, “I wrote a haiku a day for a whole year” and her current fellowship at Duke University focuses on haikus that engage with slavery. Of blackout poems, Smith cautioned: “the stronger the original text, the stronger the blackout poetry is going to be.” Smith’s own three blackout poems — which are published on the prestigious Poetry Foundation website, and which engage with the Black Lives Matter movement and racial injustice — do just that; they transform George Saunders’ 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo to powerful effect. Her poem titled Rodney King opens with the haunting lines: “He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow.”

Participants also had the opportunity to write their own poems and to share them; sadly, against Smith’s advice, I didn’t have any worthy text at hand to mark up, so I grabbed an old copy of the New Yorker. As I attempted to make a blackout poem from the “Briefly Noted” section of the magazine, which featured a review of Lauren Groff’s new novel, Matrix, I realized just how hard it was to extract meaning out of an established text. Nevertheless, it was so fun to try, that I kept working for an hour after the workshop was over, attempting in vain to turn the other book reviews into art. (Reader, I did not succeed, but the opportunity to engage with a new — and highly addictive art form — was a blast.)

Matrixby Lauren Groff (Riverhead). The author, whose previous fiction has probed contemporary American communities, sets this novel in an impoverished twelfth-century English abbey, where the protagonist, Marie, is sent at the age of seventeen to be prioress. A half-royal orphan used to court life, she looks upon the role as a living death but becomes adept at eliding medieval strictures of faith and gender. Wrestling with a multifaceted devotion—tenuous piety, thirst for power, love for her sisters in the abbey—she creates an “army of nuns” who undersell male scribes and rout unscrupulous tenants. Through Marie, Groff explores how a society’s religious and gendered constraints can be turned on their head to create a utopia.

(Arshia’s attempt at a black-out poem using the “Briefly Noted” section of the New Yorker)

The event continued on Saturday, October 16 at the Carrboro Town Commons, where each weekend the local farmers market usually takes place. Under the wooden open-air pavilion, members of the community masked up and gathered for the “Poetry in the Round” session, in which participants read poems in a poet’s circle. Abigail Browning, a poet and member of the Carrboro Poets Council, then read the “community poem,” which was a collective poem composed of lines that members of the public had submitted on the themes of “United,” “Poetry,” and “Service.”

The concluding event, which began at 5 p.m., was the “Featured Poets” reading, in which former and current poet laurates of Hillsborough, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill read a selection of poems. (If you missed it, you can still hear a sampling of the readers at the West End Poetry Festival’s YouTube channel.)

Among those reading at the festival was William Davis, the 2016-2018 poet laureate of Hillsborough and a spoken word artist. In his opening remarks, Davis emphasized the impact that poetry has had on his life and the many doors it’s opened up for him—especially after a troubled upbringing with a mother in prison and a father struggling with addiction. His lively performance style and the focus on hope and renewal in his poems drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Fred Joiner, a poet and curator based in Chapel Hill, current Poet Laureate of Carrboro, and chair of the Orange County Arts Commission, read several poems in a manner inspired by his Jazz musician father (who was also in attendance)—improvising what selections to share as inspiration struck him.

Of the festival, former Carrboro poet laureate Gary Phillips, and also a reader at the festival, told Aaron Keck of radio station 97.9, The Hill: “What poets do in times of hardship, in times of great need, is that they help create meaning. And what we want to do is reiterate that poetry is essential, that it’s one of the things that binds us together, one of the things that allows us to look outside the box, one of the things that allows us to open up our perceptions and our hearts to figure out how we can proceed forward.”

What I appreciated about these two days of attending the festival was the extent to which art seems intertwined with the very fabric of Carrboro; the emphasis on inclusivity and diversity at this event; and the open access to the public. Despite the sometimes-gloomy weather, which threatened rain and blustery winds, it was a wonderful to see so many come out to gather, listen, and share. Whether you’re a poet, an aspiring poet, or simply looking to get more art into your life, the West End Poetry Festival is must-attend event. Learn more about the festival and the featured poets at has partnered with the Orange County Arts Commission to bring more arts-focused content to our readers through columns written by local people about some of the fantastic things happening in our local arts scene! Since 1985, the OCAC has worked to to promote and strengthen the artistic and cultural development of Orange County, North Carolina.