Alan Shapiro had done a lot of poetry readings, but he was especially excited about this one.
He’d been asked to read at the Northeastern School of the Arts in Brookline, Mass., his hometown. This was his first appearance in his birthplace as a poet – and an acclaimed one, with a shelf full of a awards and accolades – and he had high hopes when he walked into the room.
Aside from a video camera, it was empty.
“The Northeastern School of the Arts is a commuter school, and after people scatter at the end of the day,they don’t go back in the evening,” said Shapiro, who is on the English and Comparative Literature faculty at UNC. “Nobody had told me that. They planned all along to stream the reading by video. I did not know that either.”
As he stood in the empty room, wondering why he’d had to go all the way to Brookline to do a video feed, the door opened. In walked his cousin Sunny, in her late 80s, and his 90-year-old Aunt Ethel.
“They looked around,” Shapiro said. “And then Sunny said, ‘I can’t understand it. I thought he was such a big shot.’”
Shapiro cuts loose a big laugh.
He was, in fact, a pretty big shot on the American poetry scene, winner of, among other things, two National Endowment for the Arts awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, finalist in poetry and nonfiction for National Books Critics Circle Awards.
And when he reads at the Carrboro Century Center this Saturday as the headliner of the 2012 West End Poetry Festival, he’ll be an even bigger one: Shapiro’s latest book of poetry, “Night of the Republic,” was recently announced as one of the five finalists for the National Book Award.
“It’s tremendous news,” Shapiro said. “Truman Capote said ‘In this profession it’s a long walk between drinks.’ This is a really nice drink. I’m going to nurse this one for a while.”
Shapiro will read and discuss his work at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Century Center in the final scheduled event of the festival.
The celebration of verse, this year built around the theme of “Harvest,” opens Friday at Flyleaf Books with readings and a reception and continues all day Saturday at the Century Center. It will include panel discussions, an open mic, a casual dinner and readings by a number of poets. In addition to Shapiro, participating poets include Carrboro Poet Laureate Jay Bryan, Jaki Shelton Green, Lou Lipsitz, Susan Spalt, Celisa Steel and others.
“They’re such a warm and inviting group of people, and very good poets,” Shapiro said. “They come from all walks of life; they’re not all teachers or academics, and I appreciate that.”
Shapiro has published 10 books of poetry and several volumes of essays and memoir. “Night of the Republic” explores the relationships between public and private spaces and the human beings to populate them. The title section features 28 poems set in public places seen or imagined at night, when they are devoid of the people and activity that is their reason for being.
Shapiro said that theme came to him as a result of wee-hours trip to Harris Teeter to pick up some medicine for his wife.very e srThe eh
“I was there at about 3 in the morning, and it was all lit up, ablaze with light, and the sprinklers were going on the produce, and it all looked just like it always does when it’s full of life, except there were no people there,” he said. “I had never realized what a strange, sort of surreal place it is like that. And once I started thinking about it, I started imagining all these other places at night after all the people have gone. There’s no one there, but they’re sort of haunted by all those people, by their desires, their obsessions, their aspirations, their anxieties.”
The National Book Award winners will be announced in November. Shapiro said winning would be nice, but just being invited to the party – being a finalist – is a prize in itself.
And in the meantime, he’s looking forward to the West End Poetry Festival – assuming people attend.
“Every poet’s fear about doing readings is that nobody will show up,” he said. “And it does happen. Who needs that? I have a very keen sense of my own irrelevance; I don’t need to have it confirmed by a room full of empty seats.
“But I love reading when people do show up. So if anybody’s there, it’ll be a lot of fun.”