Rivers and Words: A Poets’ Cruise on the Susquehanna
Last Tuesday, on a humid August evening, 84 poets and poetry enthusiasts crowded on board The Pride of the Susquehanna to enjoy the works of some of Harrisburg’s most storied writers. Hosted and organized by Jeanette Trout and riverboat crew member Nicole Zeola, “the Poet’s Cruise” filled the riverboat while giving the arts scene in Harrisburg a new and unexpected venue.
“The Poet’s Cruise was birthed through a strong desire to celebrate local writers in an inspirational environment,” said Zeola. “The Pride of the Susquehanna riverboat strives to unify the community through our many events and we are constantly thinking of new ways to make this possible.”
The riverboat is an odd environment for a poetry reading, which are typically more contemplative and hosted by cafes and bookstores. But as the ship followed its route up and down the shallow river—as amplified poets’ voices bounced off the green steel of the Harvey-Taylor and mayflies reflected the sunset and the passengers’ drinks began to settle in—it was clear the event was a success in more than numbers.
“I ended up scheduling the open reading because we had so many poets that were interested and I wanted to give as many a chance to read as possible,” says Trout. “We, honestly, never thought that we would get the turnout that we did, at one point I was worried that we would have ten people in that boat, but we sailed with eighty-four!”
Beginning with the open reading hosted by Trout and poet Marty Esworthy, the cruise became a fine showcase of Harrisburg’s poetry scene. Themes and styles ran a broad range, from the formalist romance of Bill Fritz to Esworthy’s postmodernist experiments to the unleashed political anguish of the event’s headliners—Tru Selby, Jeanette and her husband local artist Kevyn Knox, and Harrisburg poet laureate Rick Kearns. Particularly fitting were Kearns’ own poems celebrating the diversity and grit of Harrisburg as the riverboat glided past the dilapidated riverwalk and and the green dome of the Capitol shone bright orange from the sunset.
“The idea of it is different, very appealing,” said Kearns. “Reading poems that have significant meaning to me while being outside and on the water created a feeling that I’m still processing, something akin to spiritual joy but I’m still looking for the words to describe it. The sky and surrounding views were spectacular.”
Zeola expressed optimism the event could be replicated in the future. “I’m excited about the success of this event because it will make the expansion of cruises like this possible for next year.” The Pride of the Susquehanna regularly hosts live music and open mic nights for aspiring artists, but the Poet’s Cruise was the first attempt at hosting a reading since 2010.
Back then, Kearns read with a music accompaniment huddled inside the small dining area of the ship. The audience was 6 people, five of which were significantly inebriated and one person who was napping off and on—the perfect audience for an experimental effort!“ says Kearns. “That reading lead to a 4 year collaboration with a great jazz band—the Con Alma Quartet—but it was not the same as reading outside on the cruising boat.”