Leonard Gontarek believes in poetry’s abilities to make change.
Even more so, he believes in the ability of language to bring about that change, no matter how slowly the revolution may creep in.
Gontarek, a Philadelphia native and professional poet, runs a series of poetry readings and writing-centric events at the Green Line Cafe on Baltimore Avenue. On Sept. 27, Gontarek will be hosting an outdoor reading called Three Dozen Poets for Change.
The event is part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a global effort that focuses on bringing attention to activism through solidarity within the arts community. The poets invited to speak will be reading selections of their own work, as well as the poetry of Denise Levertov, an American poet who dedicated her life to social activism.
“We can speak out about issues eloquently through poetry,” Gontarek said. “We can’t all pick up a guitar, and we can’t all just pick up a paintbrush and paint. But we do all have access to language.”
Gontarek said being a poet has changed his own life; it allows him to hear a rhythm, a lyricism, in everyday life. He also feels there is power in being a poet. Gontarek said that because poets are not experts in anything other than poetry itself, it allows writers to incorporate endless interests and ideas into their work. He hopes public readings can open that world up to even more people.
“It gives you a real sense of validation and self-worth,” Gontarek said. “I’m always trying to convert people to just read a couple poems, because I feel like they’re missing something. And poets never miss out on that something.”
Gontarek said he thinks there is something in poetry, music and art that people naturally crave and move toward.
“When people are grieving, when they want to celebrate, they really look to poetry to find the words they want to say,” Gontarek said. “That says something. There is a love and desire for poetry.”
There are so many different entities telling the general public what to think of current events, and Gontarek said that being able to speak about the world’s issues and debates in the relaxed atmosphere of a poetry reading is crucial to fostering change.
Gontarek said he “has no agenda,” or there are no driving set of ideals or principals behind Three Dozen Poets for Change, or any of Green Line Cafe’s poetry readings, for that matter. Gontarek simply wants to provide an outlet in which people feel free to express themselves.
Gontarek said he stumbled upon 100 Thousand Poets for Change online three or four years ago and was immediately interested by how similar it felt to what he was already trying to do with his readings.
“When I saw the number, I thought that it seemed rather enormous,” Gontarek said. “When I looked into it, I saw that their call was getting as many people from as many places to be involved. It seemed like a natural fit.”
That worldwide connection was important to him because he saw the potential for growth – the possibility, one day, of widespread change.
“I wanted people to know it is possible to stand here, reading on a corner in a café, and it can extend out,” Gontarek said. “Maybe we can change.”
Gontarek said he knew he wanted his event to be an outdoor reading. Gontarek said there is something inherently special about outdoor readings that he finds to be a perfect fit for a day about change.
“You hook people,” Gontarek said. “They just stop, because they don’t really know what’s going on. There was a funny moment at Green Line when I saw a man walk by. I saw him slowly, walking backward, come back to the reading.”
These are small steps, Gontarek recognizes, but he thinks each tiny moment is important. He recalled a reading on the night before the United States formally went to war with Iraq, watching the poets and the other protesters in the square across the street from the café.
“No, we weren’t going to actually stop the bigger political action,” Gontarek said. “But, people walking by, going home from work, they’ll see it. They’ll remember.”
Gontarek hopes that the upcoming Three Dozen Poets for Change will help others stop and think, even if only for a passing moment on the sidewalk of Baltimore Avenue on a chilly fall night.
“It’s an opportunity for people to see that the world’s issues aren’t in another country,” Gontarek said. “Those issues aren’t outside of us. They’re right here.”
Vitoria Mier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org