Free Verse poetry fest celebrates the subversive power of verse. With pancakes. 

Feast of words, a festival of language

click to enlarge Andrea Gibson performs at the Music Hall this Fri. Oct. 18 - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Andrea Gibson performs at the Music Hall this Fri. Oct. 18
The page is turning this time of year in Charleston. The Wine + Foodies have long since left the table; Spoleto fans are resigned to chamber music reruns on NPR; and the SEWE crowd is off mucking around in some field or stream somewhere.

Now is the moment for readers and writers and lovers of language to claim their space, and no better entrée than poetry, no better platform than Free Verse, the jam-packed poetry festival created by Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker. With out-of-the-(pizza)-box programming, the festival is a bold tee up to the Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival on its heels in early November, and YALLFest right after that.

This is Free Verse’s third year, and Amaker “dreamed big,” inviting poetry superstars like just-announced National Book Award nominee Jericho Brown and spoken-word celeb Andrea Gibson to Charleston.

“These are two masters. I’m here to learn from them,” says Amaker, who also showcases local and student talent to celebrate both the power and playfulness of language. The festival’s 10 different performances, readings, and poetic playdates are inclusive, innovative, inspiring, and yes, free (with just one affordable exception), and through this accessible, imaginative programming — think Cocktail Bandits and Quentin Baxter on drums for a Poetry + Jazz night at the Gibbes — Amaker obliterates any sense of stuffiness or “I don’t get it” from your poetry assumptions.


Who cares if you “get it” when you are mesmerized by rhythm, intonation, and magnetic presence (check out Andrea Gibson on YouTube for proof, and a preview).

“Last year’s festival solidified my awareness that audiences will come and support poetry events in large numbers. This is still a wonderful surprise, because stereotypes, tradition, and negative thinking will tell you that ‘poetry is boring’ and doesn’t deserve a big stage,” says Amaker.

Demonstrating otherwise, this year’s big stages include Andrea Gibson at the Music Hall on Fri. Oct. 18 and the throngs of young poets who will fill the Gaillard for the Youth Poetry Slam on Oct. 19 — one of Amaker’s favorite events. “We too often ignore the weight of young voices. The next poet laureate could be on that stage,” he says. Also at the Gaillard, there’s a Poetic Hip-Hop special event held later this month on Oct. 28.
Touring poet Andrea Gibson knows well the transformative force field of language. With five CDs of spoken word and music, and six books, including Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns and most recently, How Poetry Can Change Your Heart, Gibson writes and speaks with piercing authenticity.

“I’ve spent a lot of time lately feeling into how necessary poetry is to our world. We are watching so much destruction happen as a result of the current administration and creativity is a vital force in inspiring people to actively rise up against it,” says Gibson, whose merch table (and website store) includes totes and tees announcing, “My pronouns haven’t been invented yet,” a line from “Your Life” on Gibson’s January 2018 release Hey Galaxy.

“I’ll be sharing poems that I hope will ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ My set will keep touching back to the idea that even when the truth isn’t hopeful the telling of it is,” Gibson adds. “That’s not to say that I won’t also work to bring some genuine lightness into the room. Laughter is key to my own capacity to energetically show up to what needs changing right now, and humor always finds its way into my performances.”

Like Gibson, Amaker believes the current climate is ripe for something more than ugly tweets. “It’s my opinion that every moment calls out for poetry,” he says, “and Free Verse is one of the many ways to get into the art form.” But poetry in Charleston is far from relegated to a once-a-year festival, he notes. “Our local scene is on fire — take a look at the Poetry Society of South Carolina’s current lineup, and the events put on by Courtnay the Poet. The Charleston area is blessed.”

The fact that so many local venues have opened their doors to Free Verse is key to the festival’s success and reach, he adds. A reach that is wide and wildly fun, underscoring Amaker’s conviction that poetry is public art. Again this year, Enough Pie will be displaying poems writ large in local storefront windows and Charleston Moves is helping Free Verse tag bikes with poems throughout the festival. New this year, D’Allesandros will include a poem on your pizza box. Rhyme that with pepperoni.

This is Free Verse’s genius — mixing it up. From hip-hop to spoken word to impromptu poetry written when you place your Daps’ pancake order on Oct. 20, there are plenty of ways to imbibe in verse. My goal: getting my bike tagged this year. What’s more beautiful than pedaling to poetry?

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