These nights in late August have been a fine backdrop for our niece Valentina’s annual poetry festival — la Festa Della Fornace — in her small town of Valle Cascia just outside of Macerata. The weather is less sweltering and more inviting, coaxing us out of our houses and into the balmy evening with its lights and piazzas full of poetry, perfect on a Friday night.
The poetry festival has grown over the years. It has multiplied. The first year it was just a small thing, a procession through the town, some poetry readings by local poets and the like, friends and family gathered round to share their stories and their poetry in private intimate moments. It was such a new thing back then. But now much of that has been replaced by an honest to goodness festival, a three day event that’s been a year in the making. There are exhibits and sculptures and poetry books on display. There is an entire building set up with poems by one poet, and a big wooden gazebo that looks elegant and strange in the middle of small town Valle Cascia. There are readings by important poets who’ve come all the way from Rome. There is even a famous Italian actor (Antonello can’t remember his name) wandering around, the grounds all abuzz with whispers and excitement as people snap pictures and ask for his autograph. This quiet village in the middle of Le Marche now blossoms into a mecca for poets and their stories, one August weekend per year.
Valentina had called me weeks ago asking if I’d be willing to volunteer during the three nights of the festival — Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So Antonello and I were put in charge of manning the info booth and trying to sell the various items — books, tote bags, t-shirts, albums — as people passed by from one event to another. On Friday night we got there at 9 pm to start our shift as volunteers. Valentina had only managed to tell us the time: from 9 to midnight, and when we got there, the whole place was packed with people — milling about, waiting in line for dinner, looking up at the various art on display. We searched for Valentina in the crowds and finally there she was, looking slightly panicked. She stopped mid step and looked our way. “Zio! Zia!” she said, coming over. And she pointed to the long line of people. “It’s already a mess here! The catering company didn’t bring enough food!” And that’s when I noticed that the big long line didn’t seem to be moving at all. There were at least a hundred people, if not more. It was full. The festival had just started. Tonight, it seemed, more people showed up than anyone could have expected.
There were other issues too. Smaller ones here and there. But as the night got going, as Antonello found our spot at the info booth and we started selling tote bags like hot cakes, the evening smoothed itself out. On the other side of the piazza, in the field that led out toward the farms beyond, poets began to speak — their voices booming in the night. We stayed and listened. I walked around and took pictures. Sandro and Stefania showed up, brought us coffee. There was rapturous applause as the poets finished, as the music ended. Night one, it appeared, was a success.
All of the nights were like that — with different poets, with music, with dinner every night. And we stayed each night till midnight or later. During the festival, Valentina and her friends rushed around, waving quickly to say hello, but going about their business just the same. I wondered, as we sold more tote bags and t-shirts, what next year could bring. Does something that started so small and dear continue to grow? Do other cities get involved? At the end of every night we counted up what we’d sold. Every night there was the same applause, the same familiar faces stopping for poetry and music and what they could find in these cool August nights.
But the nice thing about staying all the way through to the end — of packing up and closing shop — is that you get to see the quieter moments. Things slow down. People say goodbye, friends stop for a beer at the makeshift bar in the corner of the piazza. You get to see families hug their kids after everything is over. You get to see people walk home, out of this island of poetry and into their own houses, to turn off lamp lights and close the curtains and fade away into the night.
And so it was for us. As we walked out on that first Friday night after everything was over, past the kids still sitting up at the tables, drinking beers and talking in loud voices, leaning in and laughing, I noticed how beautiful the place really was. I missed the intimacy of the years before, the quiet solitude that poetry can fill even with just a whisper. But this was special, right here. The piazza was all decorated — the gazebo on one side, and the lights, hanging in rows in the square, strung up like Christmas. As we went, all at once music started to play — old eighties music that echoed in the night, and kids got up, ready to dance. Friday’s festival was over. There were two nights left but that first night and all that comes with it, it slid off their shoulders as the music played. It was midnight already, but here in tiny Valle Cascia, the night had just begun.
Today I’m listening to: Like A Prayer by Madonna.