2021 Global Poetry Festival Continues to Shine Amid Pandemic and Unrest

by Anton Malko

Directed by BWL’s Departments of English and Technology, the 2021 Global Poetry Festival once again brought together an impressive array of artists, students and educators from around the world for a weeklong celebration that coincided with National Poetry Month.

“Poetry taps into a universal desire to form connections through language and performance,” said Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III, who established the Global Poetry Festival led by Assistant Headmaster Ryan Clinesmith. “We are proud to host this event to provide a platform that fosters those connections and that creativity,” Mr. Carnabuci said.

Among the headliners for the 2021 festival was Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2015-17, who was joined by over 20 performers at more than 25 events, including post-graduate poets from Bennington College and The International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Together, they demonstrated artistry and intellectual transcendence over obstacles which, as threatening as they may be, cannot derail the educational missions of our institutions.

“The pandemic has allowed more poets to connect from all around the world,” said Chris Merrill, Director of the International Writing Program. “The poets and student poets who participated in the festival experienced that.”

As the festival delivered to its audiences, the staff at BWL stepped up to ensure events were professionally produced and astutely hosted, with the work of students and artists preserved on YouTube, Instagram, BWL.org and elsewhere on the Internet.

“The Birch Wathen Lenox School had been moving forward programmatically and putting together high-level curriculum in a difficult climate,” said Mr. Clinesmith. “It’s something we should all be proud of, especially in light of diminished programming throughout New York City.”

Even more remarkable in 2021 was the school’s capacity to take on significantly increased responsibility for the technical production. As the festival took participants around the world, it remained interactive and accessible with an increased role this year for the BWL faculty and staff backstage and behind the camera.

“Every event was curated with care and intention, and every poet was an inspiration,” said Kyabell Glass, Global Poetry Consortium Project Liaison at BWL. “Poetry is a powerful vehicle for healing and it was wonderful to see how it brought our community together.”

The 2021 Global Poetry Festival once again brought together an impressive array of artists, students and educators from around the world for a weeklong celebration that coincided with National Poetry Month.

(Follow our YouTube and Instagram for a recap!)

For students and their parents, the event was inspiring. For the administration, the net effect was uplifting. Artists and scholars who brought their strength to the 2021 Global Poetry Festival included:

  • Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2015-17, a graduate of UCLA who received a Masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a 2015 recipient of the L.A. Times Book Prize's Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement who has taught at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and served as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at CSU-Fresno, and as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2011-16.
  • Ross Gay, author, poet, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, holder of a BA from Lafayette College, an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD in English from Temple University, who teaches at Indiana University
  • Ronny Somek, the Israeli poet and author of, among other works, children’s books with his daughter Shirly Someck. Mr. Somek’s Hebrew poetry readings were given English translations by Chris Merrill, Director of the IWP, who served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO from 2011-18 and was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities. Merrill was a frequent webinar host at the 2021 festival.
  • Taylor Mali, the writer, poet, spoken-word and voiceover artist, graduate of the Collegiate School, Bowdoin College and Kansas State University, where he received an MA in English/Creative Writing, and past president of Poetry Slam, Inc.
  • Alexandra Newton Rios, the bilingual poet, translator and professor, and holder of a dual MFA in English and Translation in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa, following her undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College
  • Alea Adigweme, author and performance artist who graduated from Reed College and earned her MFA in Nonfiction Writing, MA in Media Studies and Graduate Certificate in Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies from Iowa, and currently pursues an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studio Art at UCLA
  • Poupeh Missaghi, a writer, a translator both into and out of Persian, an editor and educator who holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Denver, an MA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and an MA in Translation Studies
  • Haifa Abu Al-Nadi, a 2018 IWP Resident, fiction writer, screenwriter and translator from Jordan who teaches English at the Applied Sciences University in Amman, translates for the Kalima and Al-Qattan foundations, and who participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department
  • Tomasia Jones, a poet, media maker and communications specialist who holds a Master’s Degree in Media Studies from the New School
  • Tehila Hakimi, a Hebrew-language poet, fiction writer and mechanical engineer from Israel and winner of the 2015 Bernstein Prize for Literature
  • Batsirai Chigama, poet and fiction writer and winner of the 2019 Outstanding First Creative Published Work from the National Arts Merits Awards in Zimbabwe, who participates courtesy the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State

Events to cap the week included an IWP Between the Lines Open Mic and a Bennington College Student Reading, both featuring exciting young poets sharing their work and the motivations that drive their craft.

"This event shows that we are still able to connect during these difficult times," said Marie Stella Foolchand, a two-time Poetry In Voice finalist, 2016 Bilingual Champion, graduate of École secondaire Étienne-Brûlé in Toronto and fourth-year student at York University in Canada who participated in a webinar hosted by Shared Studios. "Through virtual events like this, we can connect with artists from around the world." 

Between the Lines poet Halima Zaghbib said the festival allowed “exchanges with other folks from different backgrounds that share the same aims and crafts to learn more about the different approaches one can take to be more inclusive, more open and more knowledgeable to develop and be/do better.”

Added Ms. Missaghi: “The Global Poetry Festival was a wonderful opportunity for students to be in the presence of a wide range of poets and writers, to be invited to push the boundaries of what is possible, creatively and critically. This is a resource to be blessed with at any time, but particularly during this period when we all need to be reminded that we exist and flourish in community and with other artists.”

Faculty and students were equally inspired.

“It was very enriching, a mind journey after months of confinement,” said Agnes Bajela, a language teacher at BWL. “My students listened and interacted in French with a poet from California, in Spanish-French with one from Argentina and in English with one from Zimbabwe. It broadened their horizons.”

“I loved hearing each of the poet's own inspirations that influence their writing, that then influences others,” echoed Zachary Asnis, a senior at BWL. “I had a great time participating in each of the interactive workshops.”

The success of the event reaffirms its foundation for the next Global Poetry Festival, forecasted to keep growing toward its 2022 date. Students from the Global Poetry Consortium member schools, 11 institutions across four states, Washington, D.C., the United Kingdom and Europe, will have the opportunity to participate live.

"The festival serves as a stage and space for cultural diplomacy, bringing artists and students together across borders and discipline,” said Mr. Clinesmith, a graduate of The Hill School, Emerson College and Hunter College, the last from which he received an MFA in Poetry. “Moments in which we can share human perspective are always of the utmost importance to understanding and healing, but especially so during a time when we are increasingly isolated from others. The Global Poetry Festival will continue to act as a platform for student voice and empowerment well into the future. I look forward to facilitating the Global Poetry Consortium's continued growth and mission to bring people together through poetry as an act of cultural diplomacy."

First produced in 2020 by BWL in partnership with Shared Studios, the consortium and festival launched in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic with audiences at Greenwich Academy in Connecticut, Milton Academy in Massachusetts, The Hill School and The Shipley School in Pennsylvania, Washington International School in the nation’s capital, the Frances Holland School and Westminster School in London, and Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland. Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn also joined the 2020 event as an affiliate.

Having vaulted its success with the 2021 festival, the Global Poetry Festival has already begun to build excitement for 2022 with the hope that BWL will be able to invite audiences in person. For more information on the Global Poetry Consortium and/or the Global Poetry Festival, please email globalpoetryconsortium@gbwl.org or call 212-861-0404. Institutions interested in joining the consortium should fill out an Interest Form