Over 500 students from all over the Los Angeles area arrived on campus to engage in workshops, listen to speakers and participate in an open mic during the fourth annual Wider Than The Sky Poetry Festival on Saturday.
While students from Harvard-Westlake were welcome to attend, the event was mostly geared toward students from LAUSD schools and community centers, English teacher and program director Darcy Buck said. This year, the organizers also worked with School on Wheels, an organization that provides tutoring to homeless shelters, and the Bright Star Charter Schools to bring more students to the festival.
“There is a lot of stuff that is being done kind of on the fly, and that feels like part of the spirit of the festival,” Buck said.
“We never know quite what is going to happen, so it is evolving from year to year, but also from moment to moment as we are trying to be really responsive to who is coming.”
A key part of the festival is the financial support the school receives from the Poetry Foundation, an organization that provides transportation to bring kids from all over the city to campus, Buck said.
“What began as something for the Harvard-Westlake community that also seems to reach other independent schools has become something where our focus is really on serving the youth of Los Angeles more broadly,” Buck said.
At this year’s event, a memorial was held for Max Ritvo ’09, a former student who passed away in 2016. Ritvo was an active writer throughout his time at the school and went on to pursue writing after graduation, Buck said. One of the featured poets this year, Kaveh Akbar, held a tribute for Ritvo, and Ritvo’s mother read a poem.
This year’s keynote speaker was the engineer, published poet and author Richard Blanco. Blanco was selected by former President Barack Obama to be the fifth poet to read at a United States presidential inauguration. In his presentation, he focused on explaining how he has connected his love of poetry with his love of engineering. He also discussed his Cuban heritage and his experiences growing up in America within a Cuban community.
“It’s really great that we’re getting poets from outside of Harvard-Westlake to come and speak to us and so many other people,” poet ambassador Anna Katz ’20 said. “There’s a kind of feeling that everybody is experiencing a similar yet different perspective.”
Attendees each participated in two workshops, such as “I Just Want To Feel Everything,” which explored the intersection between music, poetry and feelings and “When Media Intersect: Visualizing Your Poetics” led by Jackson Kroopf ’06, which discussed incorporating media into poetry.
“The thing I have loved is when the workshops end, and the kids come out of the classrooms and they are just so lit up and energized and moved and made alive by what they are experiencing,” Buck said.
Two workshops were offered to teachers as well. Upper school English teachers Sara Cohen and Eric Olsen led a workshop to advise teachers who are interested in coaching their own slam poetry teams, and middle school English teacher Zachary Greenberg conducted a workshop which gave teachers a space to share their own love of poetry.
The final activity of the festival was the open mic for students to go on stage and perform their poetry. Matteo Lauto ’18 led a workshop called “Slam That Poetry: Turning Written Word Into Spoken Word,” which helped participants turn their written poetry into performance pieces for the open mic.
“I’m super excited to run my own workshop because [I was] able to spread knowledge about slam poetry and give people a healthy way to express themselves,” Lauto said.
Students interested in helping with the festival were assigned to be either festival ambassadors, who worked with visiting students, or poet ambassadors, who were each assigned to aid one visiting poet for the day.
Caity Baskin ’19 volunteered to be a poet ambassador during the event, where she helped the poet she was assigned to by leading her through the program.
“I really want to be able to see the impact that this kind of exposure to literature has on these kids,” Baskin said. “Also the opportunities to speak at the open mic is a chance to use what they have learned at the workshops and share it with their friends and audience members. It is not necessarily a comfortable experience, but it’s breaking a lot of boundaries.”
Katz decided to become a poet ambassador because of her love of poetry and the written word, she said. In preparation for the festival, Katz researched her assigned poet to learn her work and poetic nuance.
“I am excited to see the work and mentorship that comes out of the program,” Katz said. “When there is a common perspective, you can really feel the energy of the program.”
The festival was created in 2014 by Senior Advancement Officer Jim Pattison and after taking a year off in 2015, has been held three more times. The festival aims to celebrate poetry, and help in the school’s commitment to ‘purpose beyond ourselves,’ and service to the Los Angeles community, according to its website. “Whether it is our students, the Harvard-Westlake students, or the students who are visiting, it feels like a lot of people come here with some interest in poetry, but not a lot of experience,” Buck said. “Some of them have maybe taken a class, or do some writing on their own, but have not had a lot of access. But watching what happens when they encounter these incredibly gifted, kind, generous, insightful, artful practitioners of poetry [is amazing].”