Interview with Bill Burtis about the 20th anniversary of the PPLP with Peter Biello

The Bookshelf: Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program Celebrates 20 Years


Bill Burtis, one of the co-chairs of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program board of trustees, stands with a map from former poet laureate Mark DeCarteret’s outreach project.

This weekend, the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program is celebrating 20 years of building community around poetry. It’s considered one of the oldest municipal laureate programs in the country that provides a stipend and support for the laureate. Each laureate launches a project that’s meant to bring poetry into the community. Bill Burtis is the co-chair of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Board of Trustees. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

How did the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program come to be?

In the 1990s, there was real fear in the community of Portsmouth that the shipyard was going to be closed. The federal government was thinking of closing it up. The effect on thousands of jobs and the whole community—there was a lot of fear about that.

The Music Hall saw an opportunity to do something unusual and creative in the community. They invited Liz Lerman, an internationally known choreographer and dancer, to come and mount a program to bring the community together to communicate about this. It was a tremendous program. I mean, she literally…she had shipyard workers dancing on the Memorial Bridge and on ships in the harbor.

The key thing was that people who wouldn’t necessarily ordinarily come together and talk did so. And it was out of that that Nancy Moore Hill got this idea for building community through poetry. And that was where the idea for the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program came from.

So 20 years!

Twenty years, yes. 1998, the first Portsmouth Poet Laureate, Esther Buffler, began her project, which was really a compilation of poetry from the Portsmouth area. Since then we’re now up to our 11th Poet Laureate and celebrating 20 years.

What does it take to keep the program going for so long?

It takes a board of trustees who basically kind of—we are trustees, so we’re more like stewards of the process. And every two years, the board calls together a subcommittee that is entirely independent of the board to review applications for the poet laureate. Those applications comprise poems, they also comprise a proposal for a project. Those are reviewed independent of the board and the selection committee presents their candidate to the board and the board basically goes with that. And so then we have the poet laureate every two years and that individual conducts a project. The project is usually mounted in about three or four months. Takes roughly a year to complete. And then there’s kind of a goodbye swansong, if you will, that the poet laureate enjoys after the project has been finished.

As an example of a project, tell us a little bit about this map. Who developed it? How did it further the mission of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program?

Well, the map shows the hometown locations for some of the hundreds of people who participated in Mark DeCarteret’s Poet Laureate Project, which is called “Wish You Were Where,” in which Mark invited poets to partner with visual artists and visual artists to partner with poets in a postcard project, so the works of art comprised one side of a postcard and the poems comprised the other. And people actually exchanged these postcards by mail and ultimately they were exhibited in a kind of event.

The idea here was that it attracted folks of all kinds—poets, artists. You didn’t have to be a “poet.” But to submit a poem and join with an artist in the project. So it really became a national project and, as I say, they were hundreds of people and postcards.

And the current Poet Laureate, Mike Nelson—what’s he working on? 

Mike has an interesting and unique project where he’s reaching out to populations whose voices aren’t heard very often. He works with young people at risk. He works with people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. He works with refugees and immigrants, classes, workshops, that kind of thing, to bring their poems forward, to help them write those poems and also started a magazine called Good Fat. The second issue is now out and their poems, as well as the poems of others, are featured in there. But his idea really was to recognize that there are these populations in New Hampshire and in Portsmouth that—you know, their voices aren’t heard, and to give them an opportunity to find expression.

Why does a city like Portsmouth need a poet laureate?

I wouldn’t say that Portsmouth needs a poet laureate. But Portsmouth is a center for the arts. Poetry has been strong there for a long time. I moved to New Hampshire in 1975 and one of the first things I became involved in was a regular poetry reading at what was then a little coffee shop on Washington Street. It’s now part of Strawbery Banke. The Conant Coffee House. And we had a poetry reading there every other week.

Having a poet laureate I think kind of coalesces that kind of community, in a way. The projects serve as a catalyst to bring poets together, but also really to bring other members of the community in to witness poetry, to write poetry, to enjoy poetry in a lot of different ways.


The New Hampshire Beat Festival

An array of amazing artists and speakers will be on hand for an event that will be as entertaining as it is enlightening all backed the masters of improvisational music Larry Simon and The Beat Night Band.

The Beat Festival is a culmination of projects, poets, performers and artists that I’ve been involved with the last year and an awareness and fundraising event for the three organizations that I’ve done poetry classes with. All proceeds from ticket sales and raffle will go to Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth for those going through recovery, The Chase Home for Children in Portsmouth for at-risk youth and the International Institute of New England in Manchester helping refugees and immigrants to New Hampshire. Representatives from each of these organizations will on hand to give us some info and inspiration.

Connect with the Beat Festival Facebook event here.

Check out the article about the Festival and some other stuff by Debbie Kane.

See the poster below for more detailed information about all the presenters and performers that will be at the amazing community event and tickets are on sale now at 3S Artspace at this link!

This beautiful poster made for print created by Mike Teixeira of Deck Presentation







Good Fat Poetry Zine Volume 2

Good Fat Poetry Zine Volume 2 is out and available at Portsmouth Book and Bar!

Once again in this issue, we have local poets from around the seacoast and the larger New Hampshire and regional map. Our poets range from decades of experience to brand new and everyone in-between. And they range in age from 15 to 93! Some of the poems are submitted through the website and email, but mostly the poems in Good Fat are culled from various local open mics in an effort to showcase and build the poetry community and spread the love of poetry from the ground up.

In this issue we have Jessica Purdy, Ellie Willis, Guy Capecelatro III, Joel Carpenter, Rachel Sicari, Jane Vacante, Sylvia Olson, Matt Stefon, Jim Rioux, Mark DeCarteret, Paul Goodwin, Sal Sciretto, Kat Frame, Skip Manning, Kris Ringman, Cleone Graham, Bnod Rai, Gordon Lang, Lisa Townsend, Jimmy Pappas, Carand Burnet, Terry Karnan, Jade Goulet, Pat Parnell, Rosemary Marshall Staples, John Breneman and Dennis Camire.

Or beautiful cover art comes from Bnod Rai. Bnod is from The Bhutanese Sanischare Refugee Camp in Nepal and he’s lived in New Hampshire for the last year. He was a participant in the Raising Voices poetry class at The International Institute of New England in Manchester. Bnod also has a poem in the Zine.

Thank you to Southport Printing Company of Portsmouth for another awesome print job!

Thank you, Portsmouth Book and Bar for sponsoring Good Fat again and for being such an amazing support!

And Thank you Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program for all their support of myself and the community and for making poetry dreams come true.

Submissions are being taken for the spring issue! Go to for more info!

A Holiday Appeal

I know there’s a lot of people appealing for donations this time of year, but if you’re looking for a great local organization to donate to please consider one of these.

This year I ran poetry classes with Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, The Chase Home for Children in Portsmouth and The International Institute of New England in Manchester. These are amazing organizations serving those in our community who are struggling to fit in, overcome great obstacles and find their way. NH Poet Laureate Alice B. Fogel and I teamed up for the class at IINE and artist Christos Vayenas and I partnered for the one at Safe Harbor. They all rely on community support in the form of donations and volunteer work.

Below is some brief information on each one with links on how to contribute. Thank you to the board of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program for their support in all these endeavors.

We all know about the opioid crisis in our country, especially here in New Hampshire. Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth provides free services and support for the many people in our area struggling to get reconnected with themselves and the community. I don’t think anyone’s hearts are more open that those struggling to overcome addiction and those I’ve worked with at Safe Harbor have shown my own heart new depths. Donate to Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth here:

The Chase Home for Children in Portsmouth has been providing free housing, food, clothing and support for the area’s at-risk youth since 1877. In the beginning the Chase Home was an orphanage, but has evolved to provide social, academic, emotional and family services at their location on Middle Road and with home-based services to local teens and young adults. These young people are a lot of fun to work with and prove that with a little bit of listening, giant leaps forward can be made. Right now, the Chase Home is in need of a new vehicle for transportation of their residents! Donate to Wheels for Chase Home here:

The International Institute of New England in Manchester helps refugees and immigrants settling in New Hampshire feel safe, supported and welcome. IINE provides a number of free services that include English and art classes as well as housing and job placement. Our students were resettled from places like the Congo, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Kenya and each one of these new Americans exemplifies the spirit of hard work, optimism and inclusion. Donate to the International Institute of New England in Manchester here:

Thank You!  Mike

Recovery and Connection

“The opposite of addiction is connection” Johann Hari

Throughout this last summer and fall, I’ve been doing a poetry class at Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth and I’ve learned so much. I understand my own Tribe philosophy of “listen and be heard” in a way more nuanced than ever before.

When I saw the movie The Heroin Effect, directed by Michael Venn, at the Music Hall last spring I was moved to tears. Watching the harrowing struggles of those presented in the movie trying to overcome their addiction and reconnect with themselves, their life and the people in it, the depth of their grief was overwhelming. I remembered my friend Cody John Laplante, an amazing poet and artist who died, alone in his room of a heroin overdose. At the end of the movie, Sandi Coyle, who opened Safe Harbor, spoke and answered questions from the audience on stage. She implored us to do whatever we could to compassionately engage those with addiction and help in some way deal with the crisis our community faces.

Johann Hari’s quote from his TED Talk says it all and provides the direction that the community, law enforcement and lawmakers need to go in. The decriminalization of addicts and the compassion coming from so many officers and precincts is a major paradigm shift in the right direction, but we all need to open our hearts more. Addicts are those among us who are more sensitive and vulnerable to the greater crisis of disconnect in our culture. No amount of social media will help us regain that connection, and no amount of punishment is going to heal the addict or our society. Compassion is the only approach that works, but it requires us to look within and deal with the disconnect within ourselves. The addict’s problem is not an individual issue, it’s a cultural one. 

I’m so grateful to the folks at Safe Harbor and the people I’ve worked with in class for sharing their stories with me. If there’s anything sacred in the world, it’s a vulnerable heart ready to listen and engage with others without judgment. In the realm of recovery, these sacred hearts are in abundance, and they have so much to teach us.


Good Fat Poetry Zine

I’ve had this idea to do a poetry zine for a long time as a sampler of the many poets I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and knowing over the last couple decades and it’s finally here. Submissions for Good Fat came from around the seacoast, deep into New Hampshire, as well as some from Maine and Mass. And I’ve enjoyed discovering lots of new poets in the process.

In this issue we have poems from Zachary Little, Lindsay Jean Elitharp, Richard Foerster, Kayla Cash, Marybeth McNamara, Crystal Paradis, John-Michael Albert, Theresa Madison Monteiro, Angela Whiting, Heidi Therrien, Alfred Nicol, Jonathan Stoker, Shane Morin, Wendy Cannella, Lauren Wb Vermette, Maren Tirabassi, Barbara Bald, George Jack, Alice B. Fogel, Midge Goldberg, Katherine Leigh, Todd Dowey, Tammi Truax, Samantha Hayford, Carla Desrosiers, Julie Dickson, Andrew Periale, Shir Haberman and myself (couldn’t resist)

Thank you Anna Nuttall for the gorgeous artwork on the cover!

The power of listening and being heard is a gift that this community of writers gives to each other month after month, year after year at the many local readings throughout the region. This zine is one more way to give that gift and to reach outside those circles as well.

Thank you Portsmouth Book and Bar for sponsoring this issue and helping to get it off the ground. The zine is available for purchase exclusively at Book & Bar for a whopping 3 bucks. Thank you Southport Printing Company in Portsmouth for a great print job at a sweet price. And Thank you Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program for all your support in making this poetry dream come true.

Submissions are already being taken for the next quarterly issue. Go to for more info!


The Chase Home Poetry Class

Down past the West End in Portsmouth, far from the concerns of hotels, parking garages and noise, as you’re heading towards the highway, tucked way off the road down a little winding driveway you’ll find The Chase Home for Children. Although this is not its original location, The Chase Home has been in town since 1877, first as an orphanage and now as a home for at-risk teens and young adults.

I believe a community’s, and thereby the world’s, problems begin and end with the issue of listening and being heard. Despite the increasing connectivity of technology, I see a greater sense of emotional disconnect than ever before, especially between kids and the adults around them. The kids I’ve had the privilege of teaching at The Chase Home are desperate for connection—real connection. They’re all there because the important connections that should have been made in their life, for the most part, have failed.

Poetry and the writing exercises we do in class together give these young adults an opportunity to express themselves in a safe atmosphere and allow for the vulnerability necessary to break down defenses that have built up over time. I know from my own childhood how isolating it can be when you feel no one is listening. I also know how that feeling can lead to self-destructive behavior. It’s been so rewarding to see these kids be creative and open up, letting the sensitive beautiful human beings that they are have a say and take part in a community of compassion. The Chase Home has been doing that for a hundred and forty years in Portsmouth and I’m so grateful to them for allowing me to be a part of it.

The Chase Home relies on donations, volunteers and community support to care for their residents. If you’re interested in making a contribution, please visit their support page.

Below are some of the writing and poetry art collages we’ve done in class over the summer.

A Fantastic Summer With Poets in the Park

Poets in the Park 2017 has come to a close. This summer we gave the stage to women and they reached hundreds of locals and visitors alike with the words of the women poets and writers that have inspired them throughout their lives. With a variety of voices from the region and beyond they helped us all step outside the echo chambers of thought and discourse and introduced new perspectives.

Women, as with many things, are still underrepresented in the field of writing which means their voices are under-heard in society. Poets in the Park was an incredible opportunity to do something to correct that imbalance and reach the ears of the general public.

I’m so honored and grateful to NH Poet Laureate Alice Fogel, NH Youth Laureate Ella Wheeler McGrail, former Portsmouth Laureate‘s Kate Leigh, Kimberly Green and Maren Tirabassi, Portsmouth City Councilor Nancy Pearson, Jenna Dion, Tamara J. Collins, Kayla Cash, Pricilla Cookson, Amanda Giles, Lauren WB Vermette, Cara Cristina Chanoine, Katherine Towler, Crystal Paradis, Taygra Longstaff, Jessica Purdy, Executive director of the NH Black Heritage Trail JerriAnne Boggis, Shetarrah Byfield, Jubilee Byfield, Wendy Cannella, Julie Dickson and Marybeth McNamara for participating and making this series an amazing one and something our community can be proud of.

And a HUGE Thank you to Ben Anderson and the Prescott Park Arts Festival for sharing your stage with us and giving us this opportunity. I’m already looking forward to next summer when we get to do it all over again!



Poets In the Park – Women Reading Women

Here it is, the incredible list of women writers for the Poets in the Park – Women Reading Women series at Prescott Park! Each Thursday before the stage production of Mary Poppins, three amazing local/regional women poets and writers will take the main stage to read the work of, or read something they wrote about, another woman poet or writer of their choosing from history, recent or past.

In the 21st century, women writers are still underrepresented by a wide margin. Here is a quote from the book “Poet on Demand” about the life and times of Celia Thaxter by Jane E. Vallier: “A rewriting of the female literary history is perhaps the major academic and aesthetic responsibility of our generation of literary scholarship…work that includes the establishment of accurate texts, the recasting of biographies and the re-evaluation of literary traditions.”

With this in mind, we give the stage to women so they may continue to write their own history and establish the path for all of us towards a more equitable future. Twenty one women in all participated and read to crowds who may not normally have any relationship with poetry. Thank you to Ben Anderson and PPAF for sharing your stage with us!


link to Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce post about Poets in the Park