A poetry fort? Perhaps!
A poetry fort? Perhaps!Andy Downing

Zach Hannah wants to see you build a poetry fort

For ‘6-1-Fort,’ which takes place at Franklinton Farms on Saturday, July 15, Hannah has challenged local writers like Marquita Byars to construct ‘poetry forts,’ inspiring confusion and creativity.

Five years ago, Marquita Byars couldn’t have imagined herself standing in a public park and reciting a poem she had written through a bullhorn. Yet that’s precisely where she found herself in April, surrounded by a small crowd in Goodale Park for “SHH, They’ll Hear You.” 

“I don’t even think I’d used a bullhorn until that day,” Byars said, and laughed. “For me, it was exhilarating, and I was just hoping it would touch somebody. … The whole way, I was just thinking, ‘Okay. Let’s go for it. Let’s do it.’”

This idea has increasingly become a guiding principle for Byars, who picked up a pen and resumed writing poetry five years ago, returning to the craft at age 60, decades after she first experimented with the form as a child. Byars, 65, said she was inspired to again take up writing after happening across a copy of Hanif Abdurraqib’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, which was set on a bench of materials free for the taking at Yoga on High. “And so, I took the book home, and I read the book. And it moved me,” Byars said. “And I felt moved to write a poem. And I did.”

While Byars’ initial steps back were somewhat hesitant – she said she wrote two poems in that first year and maybe three more the next – the arrival of the pandemic and the discovery of Writers’ Block poetry night served as ignition points that have fueled this later-in-life creative rebirth. “I’m at a place where I probably have more life behind me than I have in front of me,” Byars said. “I don’t know how much longer I have here, and I don’t ever want to have to say, ‘Oh, I wish I had done that.’ I’ve always had an adventurous spirit. And I always want to try things.”

So, when Zach Hannah, who along with Su Flatt brainstormed “SHH, They’ll Hear You,” announced plans for a new poetry-themed event, Byars was one of the first to sign on, even if she’s still not entirely sure what she’s gotten herself into.

“Zach put out on Facebook, ‘If I did something like a ‘poetry fort,’ who would come?’ And I said yeah, because I’m up for trying anything,” said Byars, who will join Hannah, Flatt and other local writers for “6-1-Fort: A Poetic Excuse,” which is scheduled to take place at Franklinton Farms beginning at noon on Saturday, July 15. “I still don’t know what it’s going to look like. And I don’t know how to build a fort. … I’m going to bring a couple of chairs, some blankets. And if I can get it standing up, maybe I can get in there. And then maybe another person can get in there, too.”

Once she completes the framework, Byars said the intent is to make the interior a place of sanctuary, complete with candles, printed copies of poems she has written, and a yoga mat for sitting. “I’m going to make it tranquil,” Byars said. She also plans to write a new poem that echoes this idea, with the verses creating space for quiet contemplation.

These are the types of flights of fancy Hannah hoped to inspire when he and Flatt stumbled upon the idea, which emerged while the two were trying to brainstorm a use for the dozens of discarded 8- to 12-foot cardboard tubes Hannah accumulated from his job. (Hannah is also providing 36 rolls of packing tape, assorted boxes, and biodegradable ground stakes participants can use in creating their structures.)

“If I were to have told people, ‘Build a fort and later we’ll have an open mic,’ not a single person would have been confused,” Hannah said. “But I’m telling them to build poetry forts, and the secret is there’s no difference. … If it’s just a blank white sheet and a pole, it’s a poetry fort. … I think on the day of, when faced with building materials, space, time and community, it’s going to be really straightforward, and people are just going to go for it.”

Hannah estimated  participants will construct “10 to 15 forts,” and while he’s trying to temper expectations, he said he’d be thrilled if a few folks collaborated on a compound, or if one of the structures somehow incorporates a tunnel.

While the event is rooted in whimsy – Hannah said he was never allowed to build forts while growing up in foster care and joked “6-1-Fort” is partially his way of making up for lost time – the poet does see similarities between constructing a verse and transforming pillows and blankets into an elaborate castle. “Kids don’t know what they’re doing when they set out to build a fort. You just start adding stuff, and that’s kind of the writing process for poetry,” he said. “A lot of times I don’t know what I’m aiming for, and even if I do, it’s uncertain. And it’s bottom-up design, where everything is in service of trying to make it work. It’s really the same thing for me.”

Of course, Hannah is much more comfortable with a pen and paper than wielding cardboard tubes, blanketing and packaging tape, which is part of what drew him to the concept in the first place.

“I’m not much of a building person. I’m not a handyman. This isn’t like, ‘Hey! I’m going to run an event off something I’m good at. Everyone else have fun! Try hard!” he said. “No. I am just as much in the dark and at a loss as to what to do as everyone else. And that’s what’s exciting. Me and a bullhorn is a natural fit. … Projection and being loud and performance, that’s all a parlor trick. That’s all water. But building forts and interpretation… I don’t know. I’m intimidating myself. And that’s good.”

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