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The Poetry Block Party Is Coming Back to Pilsen

What to expect at this year’s bash and what’s changed since 2017.

A performance by The Happiness Club at the 2017 Poetry Block Party.   Photo: Sarah-Ji Rhee

On Saturday, July 27, the fourth annual Poetry Block Party kicks off at Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art for a day of readings, workshops, concerts, and more. A collaboration between the Poetry Foundation and Nate Marshall and Eve Ewing’s Crescendo Literary organization, the party will feature performances from both established poets and emerging artists courtesy of the event’s Incubator Program.

Though the festival is ostensibly based around poetry, it has grown to represent broader community engagement, with previous block parties bringing in resources like bike repair programs, voter registration seminars, and queer health panels. As the festival returns to Pilsen for the first time since 2017, the Poetry Foundation’s community and foundation relations director Ydalmi Noriega fills us in on what to expect from this year’s event and how organizers tailored it to serve their host community.

What is the Incubator Program?

It’s a space where a poet that thinks of service as an integral part of their work can come for training. If you want to [hone] your creative practice, you can go to workshops — perhaps you have an MFA, perhaps you have a group of writers with whom you share your work regularly. If you’re an organizer, there’s places where you can do an Organizing 101 or political education workshop. But there wasn’t a place where you could come and think of those two things in tandem.

We’ve had poets that are working with youth in recovery in Boston, for example, or working with activism around the water crisis in Flint. In those communities, they’re not seen as “the poet” — they’re seen as the activist who maybe does poetry on the side. In the Incubator, we want to honor the whole work these fellows do in their community, and provide tools they can use when they return to those communities.

Tell us a bit about this year’s faculty.

We have two faculty poets this year. The first is Parneshia Jones, who’s based in Chicago. She’s a poet and an editor at Northwestern University Press who’s [helped] poets of color find publishers to get their books out. Our other faculty poet is Ken Chen. Ken is a lawyer and [former executive director] of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. He’s helped elevate the voices of Asian American writers, but he’s also worked through the lens of legal activism for migrant justice.

We’ve talked about service and activism and community. What is poetry’s role in all that?

On a literal level, poems can tell the truth. We keep hearing that there’s been this rebirth of poetry over the past few years. In a very basic sense, poems explain the world in a way that watching the news might not. Out of that understanding can come a desire to serve, to organize, to ask more questions. Through the language that is opened to you through poems, you might become a better participant in a march, a more active listener, or a better person. Also, poetry allows people to come together in a physical sense, whether it’s through a workshop or open mic or block party. It allows for an exchange of ideas, which is essential.

Community and foundation relations director Ydalmi Noriega speaks at the 2019 Pegasus Awards. Photo: Peter Wynn Thompson/AP Images for Poetry Foundation

What’s new this year in terms of community resources and festival goals?

What is different this year is the issues that are top of mind for a lot of people. We always work closely with our local partner, which this year is the National Museum of Mexican Art, and we ask [them] which organizations they would reach out to. This year, the Pilsen Alliance will be there, as will Mujeres Latinas en Acción, which has been a staple in the community, the Immigrant Workers Project, and Working Bikes.

I think the overall goals haven’t changed, but our ability and expertise have. What mattered to us the first year was, like, how we get the sign-off from the police commander for permits. Now we know how to do that, so we can think about how to more deeply engage with the community. It’s important to us that this isn’t just, “We’re here for a day and we’re done, bye!” Our thinking has evolved in respect to the longer-term implications of the event.

For example, we’ve had relationships with local CPL branches after previous block parties. It can be as simple as an after-school program coming to the Poetry Foundation for a field trip, or the PF staff have quarterly workshops out in those neighborhoods. After our first year in Pilsen, one of our fellows returned there as the bilingual poetry instructor at the Museum’s summer camp the following year.

It’s the festival’s second year in Pilsen. Has anything changed since last time?

Absolutely. The country has changed. The neighborhood has changed. There’s a lot of concern about our current political moment, [so] we’ve invited organizations who focus on [immigrant] justice.

But some things haven’t changed. Our aims for that day are still to celebrate the community, poetry, music, and art. We’re all committed to making a Saturday program available to everyone who comes [so they can] enjoy their afternoon, find the resources they came for, write a poem, put the kids in the bouncy-house.

The last two and a half years have been really difficult for many of us. We’ve resisted, supported, protested, whatever it is we feel our duty to do. But we’ve also continued to do things like read books, cook out in the park with our friends, and go dancing. I hope that the Block Party can be one of those things that people find joy and respite in. Because despite all of the traumatic and tragic circumstances, we all have to continue to live our lives.

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