Berkshire Festival of Women Writers opens with poets, Madonnas


In the title poem of "Frost in the Low Areas," Karen Skolfield's narrator and her partner confront a health survey — "He would live to 76 and I, 86."

Facing the winter, she invokes " the sharp odor of garlic. Basil. / Parmesan cheese. Tonight, / a frost the herbs / won't survive. Twilight / we worked the rows, frantic, our gentleness gone. / Behind us, nothing but stems / and their faint heat. Before us, / the first crisp morning."

Skolfield, a veteran of the army who earned her MFA in poetry and now teaches at UMASS Amherst, has won wide acclaim for her first collection of poetry.

She has gathered poets Amy Dryansky, Sarah Sousa and Michelle Valois and publisher of Perugia Press Susan Kan to share their experiences with publishing in "From Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We'd Known" on Sunday, March 1, at Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield — the opening event in this year's Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

The first books panel will open a month-long series of 100 events rich in memoir, poetry — from contemporary psalms to images of Mary — workshops leading new writers into the craft or following a finished manuscript into book form On Sunday night, novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro will give a keynote at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington,on women giving themselves "Permission to Write."

Skolfield too took time to gain confidence in her writing. After a period of not writing poetry for 10 years, though she was writing magazine stories and occasional fiction, she took up poetry again after her children were born. She began writing daily with friends, she said.

Her book was accepted for publication in 2012.

"Going into publishing is so unknown," she said. "It's lonely. No one gets into the nitty gritty with you."

The book came out late in 2013 — and then it took off. She won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry, and she has also won the 2015 Arts & Humanities Award from New England Public Radio for an emerging artist, and other honors.

Having a book recognized has braced her, she said, and brought her into a larger community of people who care about words.

"I love being around people who read and write," she said. "At the Massachusetts Poetry Festival last year, [National Book Award finalist, poet] Cornelius Eady read — people were at the edge of their seats. I could feel the collective breath, breathing in rhythm with him. You feel like you're floating on air."

A writing conference also brought poet Celia Bland into contact with artist Dianne Kornberg and led them both into BFWW this year. Bland teaches at Bard College on the Hudson River, and Kornberg lives on an island in Puget Sound, in Washington state.

"Dianne's work was striking, dramatic, pure," Bland said, "not cluttered or gimmicky. She brought the text into the photographic images — she had really thought it through."

When Bland sent Kornberg a set of poems called "Captions for Cartoons Not Yet Drawn," she began a collaboration that has led to a book, "Madonna Comix," and a show opening Tuesday at Bard College at Simon's Rock.

The "Captions" poems played with the idea of a comic book style, Bland said. She had written a series of poems after her own children were born, wishing a comic book heroine existed who was a mother. And then she thought of Mary, of the powerful virgin mother of God. She has seen Mexican Madonnas, she said, with a color and energy that made her think of super heroes. So she wrote about the Madonna as a new mother with an infant, as a teenager wanting a date, as a middle-aged woman living through her son's death, as a sacrifice, willing or unwilling as an old woman.

Kornberg enjoyed the challenge of creating a new work that responds to or engages a poem. Working from her remote island, she said, the poems led her into new explorations.

She too thought of how it felt to become a mother.

"It's the fear of the huge responsibility for this miraculous thing that's happened to you," she said. "It's a terrible joy."

In her images, she draws on a woman's physical body, on photographs of a pregnant dancer, on birds as symbols of sacrifice, and on a 1950s comic, "Little Lulu" — a black-haired girl with a red dress and a down-to-earth voice.

"Dianne's work has a wildness," Bland said, "a layering of colors, bright and vibrant and sinuous."

Her many travels on foot, with a donkey, on an airplane, through check points, as images of the Madonna have traveled across the world, Bland said. In Vilnius, Lithuania, she has seen a chapel, a shrine to the version, with walls covered with hundreds of hearts. People pray to this Madonna to have their broken hearts mended.

She is a mother, Bland said. She is a figure of consolation, sorrow, loss and comfort at the same time.

Like the many voices in the monthlong festival, from the Latin American economists in Pamela Yates' film to Rachel Carson — she is a woman of power.

If you go ...

Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

'From zero to one: First books and what we wish we'd known' panel 11 a.m. Sunday, Miss Hall's School, 492 Holmes Road, Pittsfield.

2015 Festival keynote: Dani Shapiro, novelist and memoirist, 7 p.m. Sunday, Bard College at Simon's Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington.

Writing for social justice: Brenda Opperman, 4 p.m. Monday, and "Education of the Virgin" from Madonna Comix, talk and opening 5 p.m. Tuesday, Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Berkshire Dating 101: Open mic with Nell McCabe, 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, Mission Bar & Tapas, 438 North St., Pittsfield.


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