Poetry festival returns to mark new biography of James Wright

By LINDA COMINS

For The Times Leader

MARTINS FERRY — A one-time renewal of the James Wright Poetry Festival is being offered to mark publication of a long-awaited biography of the Martins Ferry native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

A free, one-day edition of the festival is planned April 21 at the Martins Ferry Public Library, located at 20 S. Fifth St. That section of the street also is known as James Wright Way in honor of the city’s famous native son.

Wright, who died of cancer in 1980, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1972 volume, “Collected Poems.” He and his son, the late Franz Wright, were the only father and son to have both won a Pulitzer for poetry.

Thomas Flynn, longtime chairman of the festival’s organizing committee, said the event has been revived to celebrate the release of Jonathan Blunk’s 2017 book, “James Wright, A Life in Poetry.” Blunk and the poet’s widow, Annie Wright, are among the featured speakers set to appear at the library.

“Jonathan (Blunk) called me last summer and asked us to do a festival again,” Flynn said. “It just clicked.”

Attracting poetry enthusiasts and Wright fans from across the country, the festival was an annual event offered in the late poet’s hometown from 1981 through 2007. Reflecting on the lineup of participants over the years, Flynn said, “In addition to the well-known poets, we tried to bring in poets who were inspired by Wright.”

He said the event was stopped in 2007 because some committee members retired or moved out of the area. “We wanted to end while it was still going well,” he remarked.

At that time, organizers had a reserve of funds left from the program and decided to wait for publication of the Wright biography before planning another event, Flynn said. “We didn’t expect it would take 10 years,” he added.

Flynn, a retired professor of English at Ohio University Eastern, explained that another author began work on a Wright biography 18 years ago, but a book never materialized. Eventually, Blunk offered to take up the project, and Annie Wright gave her blessings to the authorized biography, Flynn said.

“It’s really thorough,” he commented, referring to Blunk’s book. “It’s a great resource for future scholars … We’re pleased.”

The book contains 400 pages of text and 50 pages of footnotes, Flynn pointed out. Citing the author’s attention to detail, he said Blunk and his wife and Annie Wright took a trip to Italy to visit sites where the poet had lived.

Completion of the long-anticipated biography is important and timely because the poet’s contemporaries are now elderly or have died, Flynn said. For instance, Annie Wright, the poet’s second wife, is 88 years old.

Over the years, Blunk attended the poetry festival in Martins Ferry consistently and taped interviews with various people while he was in town, Flynn said.

However, it required “a leap on Annie’s part” to select Blunk as the official biographer. “He (Blunk) has published pieces on Wright, but this (writing a full-length book) was new territory for him,” Flynn said. “He did an admirable job.”

Blunk’s book has received a strong review in the New York Times and favorable reviews in other publications, including the Wall Street Journal.

“The book helps cement his (Wright’s) place in American poetry,” Flynn commented. “That might help bring attention back to him.”

The festival opens at 9 a.m. and concludes with an 8 p.m. reading.

Morning sessions are planned in the library’s auditorium, which has seating for only 60 people. Elizabeth James, the library’s adult and reference librarian, said registration for that portion of the event has closed because the room’s capacity has been reached.

The afternoon and evening sessions, to be held in a larger area of the library, are open to the public, she said.

Those who have already registered may attend a writers’ workshop at 9 a.m. and an 11 a.m. discussion of contemporary literature led by Blunk, poet Maggie Anderson and Stanley Plumly, a Barnesville native who is Maryland’s poet laureate.

Of the registrants, “the majority are people who have attended in the past,” Flynn said. “It will be something of a reunion for them.”

Likewise, the chairman said, “Both Maggie Anderson and Stanley Plumly have been here four times. The audience was very consistent over the years.”

Public presentations will begin at 1:30 p.m. with an open reading. “A lot of people who come to the festival are poets and writers,” Flynn said, and the open reading gives them an opportunity to participate in the creative venture.

At 2 p.m., Plumly, Anderson and Blunk will present a reading of Wright’s poetry. Anderson will offer a reading at 3 p.m.

Ohio’s new poet laureate, Dave Lucas of Cleveland Heights, will give a reading at 4 p.m. A longtime festival tradition will continue at 4:30 p.m. with the screening of a vintage video of Wright reading and discussing poetry.

The final stanzas of the festival will feature remarks by Annie Wright at 7 p.m. and remarks by Blunk at 7:30 p.m. The celebration of poetry will end with a reading by Plumly at 8 p.m.

Noting that the featured poets will sell their books at the event, Flynn said, “It’s thrilling to go to a festival and be able to read the material later.”

The festival is being presented by Ohio University Eastern with financial support from the Eastern Ohio Arts Council.

Flynn said, “We’ve been fortunate to have the assistance of the library over the years. We really couldn’t do it without the assistance of the library.”

James, who joined the library’s staff in October and has lived in the Ohio Valley for three years, said events such as the festival provide opportunities for the facility “to be reaching out into the community.”

Organizing this year’s event are Flynn; James; Anthony Orsini, library director; Donna Capezzuto, OUE’s head librarian, who is handing registration; and Richard Greenlee, a former OUE dean, who is coordinating the poets’ appearance.

Wright’s hometown has always been the perfect location for the festival because he “was so much a poet of place,” Flynn said.

Some of the spots mentioned in Wright’s poetry have vanished from the local landscape, but a number remain and can inform readers’ understanding of his themes. Flynn observed, “When you read a writer, you develop a mental picture of what the writer’s life was like.”

Festival visitors can observe a tension between Wright’s view of his hometown and the pride of some longtime residents who resented his depiction of their city. James commented, “He (Wright) could see the beauty, but he could also see the cracks in the foundation.”

Wright, who died at age 52, rarely returned to Martins Ferry as an adult. “Martins Ferry began to loom larger in his work in the end, but he still did not come back,” Flynn said.

Flynn doesn’t think the festival will be resurrected again. “This will draw down a significant portion of our funds,” he said.

“I don’t foresee another one. But, 2007 was that last one, too,” he added wryly.

Blunk, Wright’s biographer, is a poet, critic, essayist and radio producer. He was co-editor of “A Wild Perfection, Selected Letters of James Wright.”

Anderson, a former resident of West Virginia and Ohio, now lives near Asheville, N.C., and is the author of five books of poems. Well-known to area audiences, she also has participated in the Wheeling Poetry Series at the Ohio County Public Library.

Plumly, who has been Maryland’s poet laureate since 2009, is a professor of English and director of creative writing at the University of Maryland. Rita Dove, a former U.S.poet laureate, has called Plumly “the successor to James Wright and John Keats.”

Lucas was chosen as Ohio’s second poet laureate in January. He is a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

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