Lisa Schwartz Reflects On Being First Town Of Newtown Poet Laureate
Lisa Schwartz has been the Poet Laureate of Newtown since 2015. The first one appointed by Newtown Cultural Arts Commission (NCAC) after the Board of Selectmen created the post that year, Ms Schwartz was reappointed to the post in 2018.
Ms Schwartz had every intention of completing her second term, which continues to September 30, 2021, but the opportunity to make a big move changed that plan.
Ms Schwartz will be moving out of town — way out of town, to the West Coast, she has announced — which necessitates an early search for the next Poet Laureate. NCAC announced last week that the search for its next Poet Laureate was underway.
Among the duties of the honorary post are serving as an ambassador in the greater arts community, fostering public appreciation of and participating in poetry and literary arts events, being present for at least one public event annually as requested by the Board of Selectmen and/or the cultural arts commission, and serving as an auxiliary member of NCAC.
The post, Ms Schwartz said this week, “was exactly what I expected it to be: I’ve represented the Town of Newtown as the ambassador of poetry of the arts.”
NCAC Chair Laura Lerman said she and the cultural arts commission were never disappointed with their selection.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with her,” Ms Lerman said Tuesday afternoon. “Her poems are always optimistic, always on point, and always on time.”
‘The Fun Of The Job’
When Ms Schwartz took the post of Poet Laureate, there were few, if any expectations, she said this week. Seated on the deck at Village Perk Café and enjoying a latte under the unseasonable warmth of Monday’s sun, Ms Schwartz reflected fondly about the past 4½ years.
“I was sort of able to mold the job into my own fashion,” she said, citing what she sees as one of the biggest benefits of being the first.
People hear the word poetry, she said, and tend to recoil.
“But the more people hear about poetry, and understand the purpose of it, the more they come around,” she said.
Ms Schwartz says she spoke to Newtown Lions Club and the Rotary Club of Newtown, among other groups. During those appearances she explained the role of the Town Poet Laureate, and explained Risk-A-Verse, the public poetry reading event she and fellow NCAC member Tracy Van Buskirk have organized for a few years.
“They seemed to sort of get it, a little bit,” she said. “They understood the purpose of having a Town Poet Laureate after that, so I think in that regard I was able to achieve some inroads.
“I would counsel the next Poet Laureate to do that as much as possible: The more people get to know you, the more you get asked to do different things, which is really the fun of the job. Don’t be shy. Get out there and talk about poetry.”
Ms Lerman feels the outgoing Poet Laureate has done well.
“She has never disappointed us,” Ms Lerman said. “No one has ever called us and said ‘I called the Poet Laureate and I haven’t heard from her.’
“We’re so lucky that she was the first,” she continued, “because she really set the path for those who follow her.”
Ms Schwartz’s first public event was in the perfect setting for an ambassador of the arts. She was formally introduced by then-First Selectman Pat Llodra during the opening events of the 2015 Newtown Arts Festival. That morning, Ms Schwartz read “Homage To Art,” which she had written for the occasion.
Since then, she has composed and presented original works for the Society of Creative Arts of Newtown, for Flagpole Radio Café, and for “In The Bag: The Art & Politics of The Reusable Bag Movement” when that traveling exhibition made a stop at Newtown Municipal Center in 2018, among other events.
She was among the guests of Sophfronia Scott’s Connecticut Authors Reading Series when it debuted at C.H. Booth Library in November 2015. The following spring she curated a collection of works by local poets for a series that ran in this newspaper for National Poetry Month.
More recently, in December she read an original work composed for the inauguration ceremony of dozens of newly elected and reelected Newtown officials (including her own successful campaign for a seat on the Edmond Town Hall Board of Managers).
Ms Schwartz has also represented Newtown outside its borders. In October 2015 she participated in a reading event with 11 other poets laureate from other Connecticut towns and cities at Cheney Hall in Manchester.
“We were the ‘opening voice’ for Richard Blanco, the 2012 inaugural poet for President Obama,” she told The Newtown Bee in April 2016. “It was my first public event outside of my hometown, the first one representing Newtown on a much larger scale.”
She has also served as a performance judge for Poetry Out Loud, evaluating student recitations for regional semifinalists in Connecticut; and she was a guest of “A Night of Poetry” at Byrd’s Books in Bethel, sharing time with four other poets during a National Poetry Month event, among other appearances.
Ms Lerman again referred to the poet’s hope and bouyancy when asked about her work.
“It’s her optimism,” Ms Lerman said. “I’ve never heard a poem of hers where I heard it and thought ‘Oh, who needs that. Her optimism about the world, and about Newtown, has been so rewarding.”
With fellow NCAC member and resident Tracy Van Buskirk, Ms Schwartz also launched Risk-A-Verse. The annual event, done on a Sunday afternoon in April — timed to coincide with National Poetry Month — invites residents and local employees of myriad backgrounds to read poems of their choice.
The program has continued annually. Ms Schwartz is concerned about the 2020 presentation, however.
“Tracy has a conflict, so she isn’t going to be able to help coordinate the event this year,” Ms Schwartz said. With the huge task of staging and trying to sell her home, Ms Schwartz knows she cannot coordinate the fifth annual event on her own.
“I’d love to see Risk-A-Verse happen this year, but I’ll need help,” she said. “We already have the space rented, but there is a bit of a time commitment that’s needed if we’re going to have another successful event.”
A FUN Afternoon
When asked about her favorite event, however, she smiled and quickly responded: “The FUN event that was an ’80s party.”
Families United in Newtown (FUN) hosts annual fundraisers with themes. In June 2018, its sixth annual family friendly celebration was “Party Like It’s The ’80s.”
Nearly 300 guests responded to the invitation to dress up in that era’s fashions, and dance to some of the best music from the decade that Sunday afternoon.
“This is not to diminish Risk-A-Verse, or any of the other events,” she quickly added. “But I had the most fun writing the poem for that event.
“That was my era,” she said. “I lived and loved it, so it was a joy to write and then read my poem for them.”
A second work was crafted by the Poet Laureate for the FUN event, but read by someone else that afternoon.
“It was such a different tone, about special needs children, that I didn’t feel comfortable going from such a lighthearted poem to a more serious one,” Ms Schwartz explained.
“It was the first time a poem of mine was delivered by someone else,” she said.
Before becoming the town’s first Poet Laureate, Ms Schwartz was poetry editor for the now-defunct magazine The Newtowner. She had also organized and promoted a poetry competition in 2012, with then-State Poet Laureate Dick Allen serving as judge.
She has also been very active in local politics and community issues since her move to town in 1993. In addition to the Edmond Town Hall Board of Managers, she has served on the board of Kevin’s Community Center, as well as the Town Board of Ethics, Legislative Council, and Board of Education. She and her husband Scott have also raised two children.
If there is anything Ms Schwartz regrets from her time as Poet Laureate, it is that she was unable to launch public poetry readings or workshops.
“I never got that off the ground, sadly,” she said.
She is also sorry, she said this week, that she was unable to launch a website. Ms Schwartz would have posted her work, or shared works of others, on a weekly basis.
“If I had the savvy, I would have done that,” she said, laughing. “I’m just not tech savvy, and I kept thinking I would find a high school student to help me with that.
“It’s like so many things in life, where you just think you have plenty of time to take care of things,” she said.
By the end of the year, Lisa Schwartz will be a former Newtown resident, and the former Town Poet Laureate. While already looking forward to being closer to one of her two adult children when she moves to the San Francisco area, she is also a little apprehensive about leaving her home of 27-plus years.
“I’ve raised my kids here, and lived my formative years here,” she said. “It’s bittersweet. It will be dreadfully hard to leave here.”
Serving as Newtown’s Poet Laureate, she said, her voice breaking, has been “an extraordinary honor.”
Anyone interested in co-coordinating the 5th Annual Risk-A-Verse in April is invited to contact Lisa Schwartz at 203-733-4190 or email@example.com.
For additional information concerning the Newtown Poet Laureate position, or to obtain an application, visit newtownartscommission.org (click on NCAC Projects, then Poet Laureate). Applications are due April 6, with NCAC planning to send a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen in May.
Announcement of the next Poet Laureate is expected in June. The next Poet Laureate will serve a 13-month run, from September 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.