Metro, Arts

Finding Inspiration at Mass Poetry’s Evening of Inspired Leaders

Mass Poetry aspires to inspire. With a mission to nurture poets, facilitate writing, and expose Massachusetts residents to poetry through programs like the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and Raining Poetry, the nonprofit hosted its fifth annual Evening of Inspired Leaders at the Huntington Avenue Theatre on Monday, March 25.

The Evening of Inspired Leaders is a fundraising event that showcases the power and influence of poetry. This year, Mass Poetry aimed to raise $70,000 to contribute to its current and ongoing projects. In addition to its day-to-day tasks—sending poets into classrooms, hosting workshops for writers, and installing programs that get poetry out to the public—the organization is overseeing a long-term project. In collaboration with Grub Street, another Boston-based nonprofit promoting creative expression, the construction of a downtown office space and workshop center will occur in the next few years with the fiscal contributions of their donors.

Pioneers from a variety of fields had an opportunity to read some of their favorite poems. The 17 speakers sat on folding chairs in a semi-circle around the podium from which they all spoke for around five to 10 minutes. Unreluctantly, each recited his or her poem confidently with a brief but telling explanation of the choice.

Sydney Chaffee, a ninth grade teacher and 2017 National Teacher of the Year, was one of the first speakers, and she set the tone for the rest of the program with Anne Sexton’s “Words.” She reminded the audience and speakers of the power of words that necessitates conscious and deliberate cultivation of words. Just as mindfully, John Barros, Boston’s chief of Economic Development, (reading “Displaced Soul” by Nelson Cunha) and New Mission High School senior Rebecca MacLean (“Soulless” by MacLean) reflected on the challenges of existence that trouble humanity.

Singer, songwriter, playwright, author Amanda Palmer read a poem she had written that very morning. Having brought two poems with her to the event, she decided which she was going to read halfway through. The program noted that Palmer would be reading a poem written by Neil Gaiman, award-winning author and her husband, who would follow her reading with one of her poems.

But plans changed, inspiration struck, and the reading of one poem prompted the reading of another. When geneticist, molecular biologist, mathematician, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard Eric Lander recited Maya Angelou’s “Human Family.” He inspired Palmer to read hers, unnamed, which comes like a sequel to a previous poem she wrote. A poem which faced a lot of hate from all directions because it dared to sympathize with one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

One at a time and from left to right, the speakers approached the podium in the middle of the stage. WBUR radio personality Meghna Chakrabarti, who hosted the event, introduced them in small groupings. Sprinkling in introductions of the speakers, reflections on their poems, and excerpts from poems by Mary Oliver, Chakrabarti sustained the theme of home that rang through other poems, especially those read by Chief Executive Officer of Silver Lining Mentoring Colby Swettberg (“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes), CEO of Cue Ball Group Tony Tjan (“Newfoundland” by E.J. Pratt), and Boston Public Library president David Leonard (“Let in the Light” by Danielle Legros Georges).  

Mayor Yvonne Spicer of Framingham, Mass.; Mass. Senate President Karen Spilka; and writer Neil Gaiman read poems about women, intelligence, and resilience (Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” and Neil Gaiman’s “Mushroom Hunters,” respectively).

Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston Elaine Zecher preached compassion with Alberto Ríos’ “When Giving is All We Have” and “Psalm 15.” Langston Hughes’ “Madam and the Census Man,” read by President and CEO of YW Boston Beth Chandler, addressed the challenging concept of identity through humor. Author and teacher David McCullough, Jr. and Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s chief of Arts and Culture, read poems about nature—Mary Oliver’s “Clam” and Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here”—that encourage understanding and respect.

Seventeen brilliant voices recited 17 unique poems. A doctor, a rabbi, a student, politicians, artists, and teachers shared memories and musings that made each all the more meaningful. Common themes emerged, weaving the program together. While some poems were known well by the audience, others were new and unfamiliar. But all of the poems that were read had inspired the leaders who read them, and they all hope to inspire the rest of us, too.

Featured Image by Mary Wilkie / Heights Editor

March 31, 2019