Under new status, Ridgefield poet laureate hopes to expand programming, create festival

RIDGEFIELD — Enhanced programming and a regional poetry festival are what Barb Jennes hopes to accomplish in her last year as the town’s poet laureate, which recently gained nonprofit status.

The Board of Selectman last month approved the position for inclusion under Friends of Ridgefield Community Programs, Inc., which will allow Jennes to generate capital for the poets and programs she hosts. Any funds she raises or grants she receives, for example, will be readily cached for future use.

“Last summer we had a series of … free poetry readings in the walled gardens of Keeler Tavern, and the only cost that we incurred — which I paid — was a COVID cleaning fee for the use of the restrooms,” Jennes said. “I want to be able to offer poets, like any artist, the honorarium they deserve.”

Jennes was appointed Ridgefield’s inaugural poet laureate in April 2020. She was an English teacher at Scotts Ridge Middle School for 13 years and also previously worked as an advertising copywriter for GE.

Now retired, the position has allowed Jennes to jump back into poetry “with both feet,” she said, noting she wrote a lot of poetry during her days as an undergrad at SUNY Albany.

In the short two years of the position’s existence — the entirety of which occurred during the pandemic — Jennes has brought a bevy of poetry workshops, readings and other programs to Ridgefield while garnering recognition from across the state.

“We have great events planned for the spring and summer … to bring national-level poets to town, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet,” Jennes said.

By hosting these “amazing talents” locally, she added, people can “see how accessible poetry is.”

On Feb. 17, the Ridgefield Library will host an in-person poet laureate program in honor of Black History Month. “An Evening of Rap, Hip-Hop, and Poetry” will feature performances from the poet laureates of Hartford, New Britain and Manchester, as well as Hartford’s inaugural troubadour.

“All of these artists are educators with families and come at the art from a very empowering stance for young people, not just young people of color,” Jennes said.

Then on April 23, four Black poets will read poems written from the perspective of Connecticut slaves at The Meetinghouse in Ridgebury.

“Ridgefielders are lucky to have so many different fine arts available to them, and these programs can introduce their family and friends to all the wonderful opportunities (we have) here in town,” Jennes said.

Jennes is also interested in highlighting area poets in the form of a poetry festival sometime in the next year or two. The multi-day event would be hosted in Ridgefield and invite poets from throughout the state to enjoy the “rich wealth of poetry” southwestern Connecticut has to offer, she said.

Some of the selectmen recognized the economic benefit associated with such an event.

“Barb … loves to be able to teach, write and share (poetry) with the residents of Ridgefield,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “She is an excellent representative as our poet laureate.”

Jennes also has a poetry chapbook coming out. “Blinded Birds” will be available on March 25.

To register for the upcoming event at the library, visit ridgefieldlibrary.org.