Word play: Poetry Alive! celebrates 30 years

LEAPING OFF THE PAGE: "Instead of asking what a poem means, we ask, 'How would you perform this poem?'" says Poetry Alive! founder Bob Falls. Recent performers, above, brought poetry to life at WB Williams Elementary in Swannanoa. Photo courtesy of Poetry Alive!
LEAPING OFF THE PAGE: "Instead of asking what a poem means, we ask, 'How would you perform this poem?'" says Poetry Alive! founder Bob Falls. Recent performers, above, brought poetry to life at WB Williams Elementary in Swannanoa. Photo courtesy of Poetry Alive!

Bob Falls had been working on an idea for a show using poetry to explore the stages of a person’s life but didn’t initially see himself as one of the performers. After moving to Asheville in the early 1980s, he was cast in a play at the Asheville Community Theatre, and as he gained experience, he began to realize that maybe he could be onstage as well as behind the scenes. When Falls auditioned other actors, his roommate James Navé volunteered to take a role. In 1984, the first Poetry Alive! show was born.

It was 30 years ago that Falls and Navé debuted their production at seminal (and since-closed) venue McDibbs in Black Mountain. The hundred or so people, mostly friends, who saw it couldn’t have known that the duo’s brainchild would eventually be experienced by over 10 million (and counting) worldwide.

Past and present generations of Poetry Alive! combine forces for a 30th-anniversary celebration at White Horse Black Mountain on Friday, Aug. 15. The lineup includes Falls and Navé with current Poetry Alive! owners Carney Gray and Michelle Schwantes, as well as past cast members like Allan Wolf, Glenis Redmond and others to be announced. Gray describes the anniversary show as “performance followed by stories, reminiscences and socializing.” The city of Asheville also pays tribute to the achievements of the organization by proclaiming Aug. 15 as Poetry Alive! day.

For three decades, Poetry Alive! had up to nine teams performing across the country, taking a blend of vibrant performance and poetry workshops into classrooms and teachers conferences. Falls explains that the group’s success in reaching students lies in its focus on presentation rather than academic scrutiny. “Instead of asking what a poem means, we ask, ‘How would you perform this poem?’ Once a student begins to engage [with poetry] in that way, all that analysis becomes very concrete and tangible,” he says. “Once you begin to add the setting and the actions and character to it, that analysis does take place. Then, when they begin to start writing their own poetry, they’ve got a framework that they can operate within.”

It was a teacher in the audience of the ’84 debut who first recruited Falls and Navé to perform poetry for her students. The approach that stemmed from that simple genesis resonated with educators. Today, the core Poetry Alive! team runs shows and workshops five days a week and offers teacher training sessions over the summer.

“I was lucky enough to join Poetry Alive! in its infancy, back in 1989,” says Wolf. “I had left behind a safe, predictable teaching position with the Virginia Tech English department. Back then, Poetry Alive! was anything but safe and predictable. The travel was brutal. The work was exhausting. The pay was pitiful. After every tour, I swore I’d quit. But every year I went back on the road — I did this for 15 years.”

He continues, “By the time it was over, I had memorized nearly 1,000 poems and recited poetry to nearly a million people from Seoul, South Korea, to Altoona, Kan. I learned that poetry was not something you studied but something you experienced.”

Many Poetry Alive! alums have gone on to succeed in other creative pursuits. Navé helped develop and run Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way creativity camp in New Mexico and now serves as director of poetry for LEAF. Wolf has published seven books of poetry for children and young adults, including the Audie Award-winning The Watch That Ends the Night. Glenis Redmond has won many awards, including Best Poet in Xpress’ annual Best of Western North Carolina readers’ poll for more than a decade.

Falls sold Poetry Alive! to Gray and Schwantes three years ago. Schwantes explains that they’re “taking the company in an exciting direction. Our focus is really not only on the literary, but using poetry as a lifelong learning tool.” One goal, she says, is to expand the “theatrical aspects of the shows so that they’re more engaging, dynamic, and speak to this generation of students” by incorporating current events and pop-culture to keep the process relevant to contemporary students’ experience.

WHAT: Poetry Alive! 30th anniversary celebration, poetryalive.com
WHERE: White Horse Black Mountain, whitehorseblackmountain.com
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 15, 2 p.m. $12

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About Rich Rennicks
Rich Rennicks is a freelance writer living in Asheville, NC. He provides advice for those traveling to Ireland at www.atriptoIreland.com.

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