Literary Arts Friends continue new tradition of Favorite Poem Project

The Hall of Philosophy is a sacred space for many Chautauquans — it’s where many of Chautauqua’s noted lecturers come to speak.

But with the Favorite Poem Project, the everyday Chautauquan has a chance to speak there, too.

“Poems are meant to be spoken out loud,” said Georgia Court, a member of the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends. “They’re not meant to lie flat on the page. And this gets them right out there in the air, where everybody can see them and hear them.”

The event, which the Friends sponsor, will take place at 4 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Readers in the program will read their favorite poems and offer a brief explanation of the meaning that it has to them.

The Favorite Poem Project has a special impact on the audience, because one can hear the music of the poems and then understand why they are important to the speakers, Court said. Seeing the audience’s faces change from boredom to enchantment is one of her favorite parts of the event.

“These people walk out of these readings saying to each other, to me and the people who just read, ‘Oh my gosh, that was fabulous,’ ” Court said. “And then they’re asking how they can do the same thing.”

Fred Zirm, president of the Friends, said reading a poem is like “taking a journey,” and the Favorite Poem Project allows the audience to go on that journey as well.

Court agreed.

“It’s very personal, but the audience is taking that risk with you,” Court said. “They become part of that poem.”

The nationwide initiative for the Favorite Poem Project was headed by Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate and a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle author. Court worked with Pinsky to get the project started in Chautauqua when Pinsky visited as a CLSC author in 2009.

The Favorite Poem Project is a celebration, not a competition, Court said. The participants read poems from the canon, not their own poetry. According to Court, the most important part is recognizing the effect that poetry has on people’s lives.

Court saw this firsthand when she hosted a version of the event in Sarasota, Florida, where she owns an independent bookstore. Court said a woman told her she had never spoken in public in any large capacity, but she was eager to participate in the Favorite Poem Project.

“It was so heartfelt,” Court said. “And when she was finished reading, she told me, ‘That may very well have been the finest experience of my life.’ She felt so good about that — her ability to share with that audience, and her ability to stand in front of them and do this gave her a real feeling of satisfaction.”

Court said that could be just as true of any Chautauquan, and she can’t wait to see what this year’s iteration of the event has to offer and to see it change some people’s minds on poetry.

“You look out at that audience, and to a large extent, it’s an audience of people who have come because their spouse or child or friend is reading, and they have been dragged there to listen to poetry,” Court said. “I’ve heard this story time and time again. And once they have heard 17 people read a poem that is meaningful to them and learn why it’s meaningful to them, it is so moving that it’s unbelievable how that affects people.”