By Christina Wood
Angela Narciso Torres admits she wrote some pretty bad poetry when she was a kid. Unlike countless other teens pouring out their hearts or communing with their angst in late night writing sessions, however, Torres returned to poetry later in life.
She was living in New York with a husband and kids of her own, when she decided to sign up for a creative writing course. “I could not write a short story to save my life,” she says. The last section of the course covered poetry, however. “I was surprised; I was really into it.”
Of all the literary genres, Torres says poetry is the hardest to explain. “Poems are used at weddings and funerals because there are a lot of things in life that are unsayable,” she says. “The language has to not only have a good fit in terms of sound and sense, but it also has to be fresh. It’s figurative writing, it’s metaphor, it’s language that can elicit emotion.”
Her studies – combined with a lot more living – have allowed Torres to far surpass her teen efforts. She is the recipient of the 2019 Yeats Poetry Prize and was a finalist in the 2019 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Her second collection, What Happens Is Neither, will be published in March 2021, while a new chapbook, To the Bone, is due out next month.
Torres, who also has a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is on the faculty of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which returns to Old School Square in Delray Beach from Jan. 20 through 25. The festival, now in its 16th year, presents leading poets at a number of public events, including readings, talks and panel discussions. Poetry workshops, which require an application, are also offered.
For the second time in its history, the festival will be hosting a sitting U.S. poet laureate. Joy Harjo, the festival’s special guest this year, was selected for the position about a month after her participation in the festival was announced. “We could not be more thrilled to congratulate and welcome Joy Harjo, whose poetry often merges the global and the personal, and the imagery of the natural world with that of the inner one,” Susan R. Williamson, director of the festival, said when the appointment was announced.
Harjo, the country’s first Native American poet laureate, also has a host of other honors and awards to her name, including the Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation for Lifetime Achievement and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. Her memoir Crazy Brave won several awards, including the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the American Book Award. Her ninth book of poetry, An American Sunrise, was published in August. A renowned saxophonist, she even has five award-winning music CDs.
Harjo, who is from Oklahoma, will also be interviewed on stage by fellow poet and festival faculty member Laure-Anne Bosselaar on Tuesday. The following day, she will deliver the annual Thomas Lux Memorial Reading following the festival gala.
Also slated to serve as a faculty member at the festival is Ilya Kaminsky, whose book Deaf Republic was one of five finalists for the 2019 National Book Awards in Poetry. A Russian-American poet, critic, translator and professor, Kaminsky is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Metcalf Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and the Dorset Prize. He will kick off the festival Jan. 21 with a workshop called “Craft and Voice.”
Patricia Smith, the author of eight books of poetry and a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize, is the festival’s poet at large. A two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, Smith will present readings to high school students in Palm Beach County during the week of the festival in addition to her evening appearance at the festival on Friday, Jan. 24.
The festival’s faculty, including Torres, will be in the literary trenches, leading workshops, critiquing manuscripts and giving readings of their work. “The Palm Beach Poetry Festival is once again offering a nationally recognized, world-class learning opportunity with more than a dozen of America’s most engaging and award-winning poets,” Williamson says. “In addition to our workshops, the festival brings the voices of America’s most beloved living poets to the Crest Theatre stage. We work hard to present a diverse group of poetic voices, each expressing in their poems what we sometimes find inexpressible.”
Torres is one of three faculty members who will be providing one-on-one consultations with conference participants. “It’s very hard to teach poetry. It’s hard to learn to write poetry. It such an elusive thing,” she says. And, unlike many other endeavors, where practice makes perfect, “Writing one poem doesn’t teach you how to write the next one.”
In addition to helping aspiring poets develop their skills, Torres says there’s another service she’s willing to provide conference participants – restaurant recommendations. As a resident of Delray Beach, she’s well qualified.
If You Go
The Palm Beach Poetry Festival’s public events begin Tuesday and include daily craft talks, interviews and readings. For details and ticket prices ($15), visit www.palmbeachpoetryfestival.org.