PITTSFIELD -- Jennifer Falu lived in the Virgin Islands with an aunt when she was 14 -- she was having a hard time there, she said, and both of her parents were still in the states. One day, on television, she heard Jessica Care Moore on "It's Showtime at the Apollo" performing poetry.
"I found spoken word," she said. "It was poetry not just in books, like Walt Whitman. I had never seen anything like that before, never knew it existed."
Moore is now an internationally known poet and performer, and Falu recently ranked third internationally in the Women of the World Poetry Slam.
From Sunday, Aug. 17, to Aug. 23, she and Franny Choi -- a finalist in the Women of the Word Slam and the Individual World Poetry Slam -- will return from the 2014 National Poetry Slam to join the lineup of poets in this year's WordXWord Festival, filling the downtown with slams, storytelling, workshops, readings and flying words.
"WordXWord last year was the most magical festival I'd ever been to," Choi said. "I kept using that word, magic. No other festival in the country I've been to is so fully integrated into the community it's in. The first night, we walked into a bar with [Word XWord poet] Jonathan Sands and talked to 10 people -- people were talking about his show."
She loved the festival's ways of encouraging poets to interact, to form relationships with the community.
"Having ‘office hours' in the coffee shop was such a great idea," she said. "You have more access to living, breathing poets. It's fun, and it's a great crew."
Falu is also excited to come back to Pittsfield, she said. She had a good time in North Adams in June, and she looks forward to performing and spending time with friends.
She will give a workshop on understanding racial identity through poetry.
"So many things I discovered about myself through poetry," she said -- "feelings about culture, tradition -- trying to promote tolerance, to see what comes out. Talking in parables."
Her father is Puerto Rican by way of Senegal, she said, and her family has traditionally focused on the Latin side, food, religion. Growing up Catholic, she had not paid attention to the African side. Through poetry, she is learning to navigate and explore the way the world sees her and her dad. He's brown-skinned, dark. Spanish people would call him names, thinking he couldn't understand, and he would speak Spanish back to them.
Choi too has found her way, through poetry, to learn and to face pain.
"One of the most important functions poetry has served for me is a way to re-engage with parts of my body and life that have been defined by shame," she said.
"As a queer Asian-American woman of color, my body has been marked as ‘other' in most spaces I've entered in my entire life." she said.
She will offer a workshop on "Body Language," poetry talking about the body, to share that engagement. She has found it a helpful workshop for people of color, women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities -- and just about anyone.
"I don't know anyone who doesn't have a complicated relationship with some part of their body," she said.
She will ask people not only to think about such a part of themselves but to think warmly of it.
"Celebration is an important counterpoint to shame," she said. "Poets find it so much easier to write sad and painful poems."
She has written both and found comfort in them.
"My friend, Jon Sands, always says the creative process will never leave you, abandon you, move to another town," she said. "It's like a friend to me. At the darkest parts of my life, that's what I turn to. A lot of people say, ‘Poetry saved my life.' I don't think they're exaggerating."
As Falu discovered a contemporary poet in the media, Choi discovered Alan Ginsberg and poetry written in contemporary and blunt words. Now, she often works with middle school and high school students, at the age when she first found poetry as a solace.
"Those ages are wonderful to work with," she said. "[Those ages] are crucial to people in development. It's great to be present at an important juncture in someone's life, helping in the discovery of poetry and voice."
Falu also works in schools and coaches young slam poets. She and Choi agree that hearing poetry and learning about poets today, all over the world, can give students a sense that poetry belongs to them.
When she goes into schools, and someone says, "she'll do poetry for you," the students groan, she said. They think it will be boring -- until they hear it.
She wrote "10 Things I Want to Say to a Black Man" for men's month at church.
"It's about gratitude, appreciation and love," she said, "wanting black men to know they are loved -- even if you mess up a couple of times, no matter what the world thinks of you as a human being. We're so much better at expressing what we don't like, distrust, unhappiness. The other side we hold so close to the chest. We're scared to tell people we love them, even though we want that for ourselves. That's the beauty of poetry. We get to say things we're scared to say off-stage."
So this week, people walking casually around downtown can hear Choi launch into a poem like "Mud," walking through a relationship in an organic landscape of pond water and water weed, rich with life and yet empty of people.
And Falu, in "!0 Things," turns herself into water, deep and clear and open in the sunlight. She turns to look the room full on with sadness and warmth in her voice.
She says, "You can swim -- can't you?"
If you go ...
What: WordXWord Festival
When: Aug. 17-23, 2014
Where: Downtown Pittsfield
Events: 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17 - Story Slam Semi-Finals, Dottie's Coffee Lounge, 444 North St
7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18 - Poetry sCrawl, Dottie's to Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Ave
7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19 - Feature Night, Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave
7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20 - WordXTeens, Lichtenstein Center
8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21 - Poetry Slam Semi Finals - Dottie's
6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22 - Story Slam Finals, Berkshire Museum, 39 South St
8 p.m. Friday - The Encyclopedia Show, Berkshire Museum
6 p.m. Saturday Aug. 23 - Poetry Slam Finals, Berkshire Museum
8 p.m. Saturday - Whose Slam Is It Anyway?, Berkshire Museum
Workshops: 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18, Bears Bears Bears with Robbie Q Telfer
11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, Body Language with Franny Choi
3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, Poetry and Hip-Hop with Jive Poetic
11 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, Exploring Racial Identity with Falu
3 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, Outside the Box with Thomas Fucaloro
Full schedule at wxw365.org