The Fireside program has provided poetry workshops for children and adults in Pittsfield since 2017. 

The program, which is a collaboration between The Mastheads, Pittsfield Public Schools, Westside Legends, and other local organizations, aims to bring the community together through poetry while also sharing the literary culture and history of the Berkshires.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with organizers to learn more.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Fireside Program has provided poetry workshops for children and adults in Pittsfield since 2017.

The program, which is a collaboration between the Mastheads, Pittsfield Public Schools, Westside Legends, and other local organizations, aims to bring the community together through poetry, while also sharing the literary culture and history of the Berkshires. I spoke with organizers to learn more.

Sarah Trudgeon, The Mastheads: We started a poetry program in Pittsfield Public Schools that – that focused on writing that was done in Pittsfield from the American Renaissance through today.

So, we would give students a little bits of writing that was written in Pittsfield and bring them into that tradition and show them really amazing things were written here and you’re going to write amazing things here, too.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, speaking about the history behind some of the writers in Pittsfield, I know that Fireside, that name has some significance behind it.

Can you all expand a little bit on why you went with Fireside and also touch on some of the literary culture and connection that exists in Pittsfield and in the Berkshires?

Tessa Kelly, The Mastheads: So, one thing I’ll say is that Fireside is actually an integral part of the Mastheads. It’s not – they’re not two separate programs.

Fireside is the name we use for our student poetry programing that’s embedded in sort of the overall umbrella of the Mastheads and the initial – initial thinking around the Mastheads was to really shower love and attention onto Pittsfield and to say that this is a place where really significant developments in American writing have taken place, from Moby Dick being written in Pittsfield, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Thoreau, W.E.B. DuBois, James Van Der Zee, Edith Wharton.

There are all these really significant literary figures who wrote in and around this area, and kind of at the beginning of this project, what we wanted to do was to – to let Pittsfield and Berkshire residents know that this is a part of their heritage that may not be visible, kind of in their everyday experience of the city, but by actually building five little structures that represent this history, the goal was to create kind of physical landmarks that people could see and be reminded of these writers, and then also use those spaces and the associated programing to invite Pittsfield residents to become a part of it.

So, we found that actually working with resident poetry has been really a powerful catalyst to get people across the city to understand our relationship to places in a new way.

Zydalis Bauer: And you all work with a range – a large age range; you start with elementary students and work all the way up to adults. Tell me more about how those workshops and working with the residents, how does that go? What does that look like?

Sarah Trudgeon: For our elementary school students, we do semester-long poetry workshops. So, the students do – they get a full poetry course where they’re writing for an hour every week, and then at the end we do a – we created a student anthology of work.

And then we always pair every workshop with a design project so that not only are students writing and accessing this literary history, but then their words are put out into the city where everyone can see them and where the students can feel empowered and the city can feel empowered and connected.

Zydalis Bauer: I love that. I love that the poet – the poetry is not just shared like within the group in the workshop that it’s citywide. And another unique feature about these workshops and these programs is the Hat House. So, can you share more about what the Hat House is and how it began?

Beverly Bolden, Westside Legends, INC.: When we were developing our Riverway Sitting Park, we had gotten notice that the kids were now sitting on the benches that we had placed there this summer. And so, it got us to thinking about engaging the young folks when they come in there and wait in the park.

We were talking about maybe some great murals, some inspirations, and I suggested once it gets a little colder that we have some type of a box for them, if they forget their mittens, and they’re standing there at the bus stop because Western Mass is known for the very, very cold days.

I want to say it has been a joy to watch everyone in the neighborhood and in Pittsfield dropping things off – socks and gloves – and they’re saying “It’s going to be cold, we need to refill it.”

So, the whole community really has rallied to make sure that the box stays full. And, you know, we had worried about somebody coming and taking all of them and they have not, they have been respectful. And so, it’s really bringing a lot of pride back to the community.

Zydalis Bauer: And the items in the Hat House are unique in itself. I know that there’s a nice little touch to some of the hats that are being offered. Sarah, can you tell me more about what you can see on the hats?

Sarah Trudgeon: On every hat, there’s a line of student poetry. We took excerpts from poems that they wrote this fall, and we worked with a local company called Elegant Stitches to have the lines of student poetry embroidered on the hats.

Zydalis Bauer: Do you want to share some of those lines with us?

Sarah Trudgeon: There were 26 students in our fall workshop and every student has a line of poetry on a — on a hat or on many hats. Some say. “I’m a small bird, but I feel huge.” “If you can’t slay, I will show you.”

Zydalis Bauer: I think there was one I saw that was like, “When I’m sad, I read.”

Sarah Trudgeon: “When I am sad, I read.”

Zydalis Bauer: I loved that one.

Sarah Trudgeon: Yes! “I did good things today.”

Zydalis Bauer: So sweet. 

Tessa Kelly: There was one I loved that says, “I wish to go home now.”

Zydalis Bauer: We can all relate to that one, right?

Sarah Trudgeon: They’re so, yes, they’re so relatable and they’re also so surprising. You just, you can’t imagine – you could never imagine writing such a thing but when you have all of this, these collected voices together, it’s just — it’s really magical.

And then, we also include the anthologies in the house, too, so people can read the lines of poetry on the hat and then go find the poem where they originated, and that’s – that’s just also so special.

Like the poem that “I did good things today” came from, it was just a whole – it just sort of encapsulated like the human experience. It was like, well, sometimes I’m, I’m happy and sometimes I am sad, and I was, you know, I was having this hard time, but I still did good things today.

And it’s just like, it’s just so uplifting.

Zydalis Bauer: And this program, it’s – it’s truly a community collaboration between all of you Beverly, with Westside Legends; and then Tessa, with Mastheads; and Sarah, you kind of heading up the Fireside program with Mastheads. Why do you all do this type of work? What called you to do this community collaboration work together?

Beverly Bolden: Well, I do it because I love the Westside. I grew up on the Westside, it taught me about community and caring, and I just want to give back.

The perceptions have changed so much in the last three years, I want to say, because all the partners that we have that are stepping up to the plate.

Tessa Kelly: Yeah, I mean, I have a quite similar reason, which is that I just really love the city of Pittsfield.

And, you know, when I finished being trained as an architect, I just immediately knew that I wanted to start kind of giving that work back to the city of Pittsfield and figuring out how, you know, architecture can be something more than just, you know, the – the new hotel going up on the corner. It can actually be much more responsive, and it can be much more – it can be much smaller scale and it can be much more quick on its feet.

So, it’s been such a pleasure for me over the past seven years now living back in Pittsfield again, to just be an architect that lives out in the community, participates in community meetings, listens to what’s going on, listens to what people need, and tries to figure out how small, sort of cultural design and built interventions can really uplift those voices and those ideas throughout the city.