WordXWord seeks to change world conversation with conversation

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PITTSFIELD — Education. Gender. Race.

The themes for WordXWord's first three Poets Creating Conversation series events haven't been light fare by any means. That's because WordXWord has an ambitious mission.

"To change the world," WordXWord Director Bill Yehle said by phone on Thursday.

And to generate such a shift, the organization's gatherings need some weight behind them.

"It sounds like a joke, but the point is you can only do it one conversation at a time," he said.

For Yehle, those conversations begin with the poems, unaccompanied raps or short stories created by people from different demographics during this new series. It kicked off on Feb. 26 at the Berkshire Museum with "Education in America" and continues on Monday with "Incarceration in America." WordXWord has spurred dialogue before, holding a week-long spoken word/slam poetry festival every summer in Pittsfield and various readings throughout the year.

"Our best events create that opportunity for conversation because someone comes to tell their truth to an audience that's not necessarily like them," said Yehle, who later noted that all WordXWord events are free.

Poets Creating Conversation, however, ritualizes the act of delving deep. During the events, participants have four minutes to present their work. Multi-voice pieces are permitted, and audience members are encouraged to respond to the works during and after the performances.

"We are a poetry event, and I don't want people to like poetry less. I want these events to break down our expectations, which are, 'Poetry's boring. It's going to be too long. It's going to be too much talking.' We try to move these things along," Yehle said.

The initial "Education in America" night came less than two weeks after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

"It became a discussion of guns instead of education, which is fine, because that's what the community needed to talk about at the time," Yehle recalled, noting that both teachers and students, including a 12-year-old, participated that night.

"Gender in America" followed on March 26. The night offered a variety of perspectives.

"The poems that [were read] came at all angles of the gender issue in America, whether it's gender identity or the #MeToo movement, and there were older poets and younger poets," Yehle recalled.

They inspired some rumination.

"That one was probably our most successful to date because — I thought the Museum was going to kick us out — people were staying and talking. It did exactly what we wanted it to do," Yehle said.

Poets Creating Conversation was originally intended to be a three-part series, but its popularity has Yehle thinking that it will be a monthly event. "Incarceration in America" is the series' fourth episode.

"I don't know what will happen," Yehle said.

"Working in America" has already been scheduled for June 25, and "Summer in America" will lighten things up on July 30 during the organization's annual festival. But don't expect any more fluff beyond that; mental health, aging, health care and, perhaps, gun control are potential future themes.

"I think this will become an ongoing series until we run out of gas," Yehle said.

IF YOU GO ...

What: "Incarceration in America," WordXWord's Poets Creating Conversation series

When: 7 p.m. Monday, May 21

Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield

Admission: Free

Register: Participating poets register at wordxwordfestival.com; web@wxw365.org

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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