Eileen D’Angelo is the founder and director of the Mad Poets society and the president of the Philadelphia Writers Conference. In my journey to learn as much as I can about Philadelphia’s Writing Scene, I asked her a few questions about her extraordinary contribution to Philadelphia Writers over the last 20 years.
Jerry Waxler: When did you attend your first Philadelphia Writers Conference.
Eileen D’Angelo: It was in the very early 90’s. I belonged to a poetry group called Cadence Crafters, a chapter of the Pennsylvania Poetry Society. I was their youngest member and they sent me on a PWC writers’ club scholarship. I was afraid of going, but I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity. It was!
Jerry: You are the founder of the Mad Poets Society and also President of the Philadelphia Writers Conference, an organization that caters to all genres. I always thought poets had a different interest than prose writers. Can you explain how or why you reached across these genres?
Eileen: Poets and writers of other genres have much in common. At the heart of all writers is the love of words. The main difference between them is that poets try to communicate using an economy of words. No matter what someone writes, poetry or prose, there is a love of language. Every writer has the form they feel most comfortable working in – flash fiction, memoir, poetry, novels. Poets who tend toward narrative poetry love to tell stories, and can stretch beyond poems and experiment in flash fiction and memoir. It’s all about the words ! My connection to the Philadelphia Writers Conference was through three poets who were board members: Alice Wootson, Lisa Newswanger (now Lutwyche) and Joe O’Loughlin. The PWC makes a comfortable home for poets. When I came on board, I suggested a second poetry course, since there are many aspects of writing poetry, and the idea was received warmly, hence the current two courses.
Jerry: Do your poet friends also write prose?
Eileen: Absolutely. Many of my friends, who have written and published poetry, first, have branched into other genres and also published novels, memoirs, and romances. Karen Blomain, author of several poetry collections wrote the award-winning A Trick of Light; Daniel Hoffman, the former United States Poet Laureate, wrote a book on Edgar Allan Poe and wrote a biography of WB Yeats. Our own PWC board member, Alice Wootson, writes romance novels, in addition to poetry. I have half of a historical romance in a filing cabinet and several chapters of a memoir, but it’s the poetry that keeps my fingers on the keyboard, or a pen in my hand.
Jerry: Other than reading poetry assigned in high school and college, I didn’t continue interest in poetry into adulthood. Tell me about your own love for poetry and how that love might emanate out to the rest of us.
Eileen: First, I want to address your comment about poems assigned in high school and college. I think that although my school teachers tried to encourage poetry, it ended up turning out exactly the opposite. I loved poems but I would get frustrated having the same six poems being used as samples, year after year. (Yes, I tend to exaggerate!) But students would groan after hearing “Fog comes on little cat feet…” and “into the valley rode the six hundred!” the thousandth time.
I didn’t want to be the only person in the class who blurted out “Wow, we’re doing a section on poetry!” especially since some of the teachers beat the love right out of poetry. What I hated most was having a teacher tell me what a poet meant – in absolute terms – as if he or she were there to find out directly from the poet, personally – and as if a poem can only mean one thing. The best thing about poetry is that every reader takes away something from the poem. They find their own truth in the words. Good poems give you room to stretch and room to explore.
One of my son’s English teachers (at Academy Park High School) used a brilliant method for making poetry fun. He appealed to them using singer-songwriters of the day. My son came home from school with a paper explaining poetic devices using lyrics from songs, including a line from a Warren Zevon song as an example of alliteration: “Little old lady got mutilated late last night.” The lesson inspired my son. I found him listening to Metallica, in his room, because he heard that Metallica put The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to music. Headbanger music and poetry! What better way to tap into a 16 year old’s head and connect him to poetry ? It was genius.
Jerry: How did you develop so much interest in writers in general and poetry in particular?
Eileen: As a child, I remember being fascinated by books, especially a collection of old picture encyclopedias. Before I could even read, I remember being “attached” to those books all the time, and my older sister reading to me. I still remember seeing the colorful illustrations, one of the ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and another of a unnaturally huge spider under the definition of radiation! Another favorite book was a children’s poetry collection, full of classic poems by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson, with gorgeous illustrations that sparked my interest and imagination.
When I was five or 6, I made up stories about imaginary characters and wrote a long poem about the sinking of the Titanic (after watching the old black and white movie, “A Night to Remember.”) Poetry came into my life, big time, when I was 12 or 13, when one of my aunts bought me a small book of poetry from the local card shop. It was a book of love poems by Sara Teasdale. That connection to Teasdale’s work was my first experience with poetry exactly like William Bryant’s description: “If I feel physically that the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry!”
Jerry: How can you explain your willingness to do all of this volunteer work for regional writing organizations?
Eileen: In my early twenties, I was a hardworking poet, but not a public one. I was shy and insecure about meeting other poets and I didn’t have much confidence at public readings and most readings were in Philadelphia. I hated being in front of a crowd, so it was rare that I read any work aloud. I liked writing in the comfort of my home and sending the poetry out to editors of literary magazines and I found success in doing so.
When I started coming out to lectures and poetry readings in Delaware County and other areas, there wasn’t much mingling afterward. Very few people came out of their shells. People showed up, listened to the featured poets, and left. I never knew if they wrote poetry, enjoyed hearing it aloud, or if they were only there because they knew the featured poets personally. There was no real connection or fellowship. I was a quiet member of the audience, and I got to know a handful of other poets from attending.
After winning an award in the Full Moon Poetry Competition, I was approached to take over the coordination of the poetry reading series, the “Full Moon Poetry Walks.” They were sponsored by the Delco Parks Department at the Hunt Club Mansion in Media. It was a big step and I had to get over my fear of public speaking. I decided that after each program, I would make an effort to meet each person, find out their stories, and encourage them to keep attending. I realized the benefits of emerging from poetry as a solitary endeavor to finding it a great connector in a social atmosphere.
I guess the true answer to the question is that the people I’ve met along the way these many years have brought out my desire to volunteer. I’ve had the good fortune to meet amazing poets and watch them grow. I’ve met some of my dearest friends on the Philly literary scene – and I am thrilled when I meet a young poet who shows a great deal of promise, or someone of extraordinary talent who is just beginning, and/or just beginning to share their work with a wider audience.
My driving force is to create supportive forums for people to stretch their voices. I remember those days of being intimidated by the poetry scene many years ago, so I wanted Mad Poets readings (and any other event I coordinate) to be warm, welcoming, encouraging events. My connection to Philadelphia Writers Conference was the same—me, being unnerved to show up the first time, but now wanting to show others what a wonderful, beneficial experience it can be.
To read more about Eileen’s amazing vitality and dedication to the Philadelphia regional writing community, visit her “about” page. http://www.madpoetssociety.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=23&Itemid=24
For more about the Mad Poets Society http://www.madpoetssociety.com/
For more about the Philadelphia Writers Conference, including their next event June 11, 12, and 13 http://www.pwcwriters.org
To read Jerry Waxler’s 200+ essays and interviews about memoir writing http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog