by Constance Garcia-Barrio
The adventurous 34th Street Poets will transform the gates of St. Peter’s Churchyard, 313 Pine St., Old City, into a portal between worlds this coming Saturday night. The poets will invite guests to enter the land of shades, or at least touch its boundaries, with “Graveyard Voices: a death-defying poetry performance with musings on aging, loss, death and what lies beyond.”
“This is not your mother’s bookstore reading,” said Germantowner Sandra Chaff, of this Fringe Festival event. “It’s a little edgy.”
Mortality-themed drinks before the show may help guests settle in, but “Graveyard Voices” promises a salutary shake-up. “Reflecting on mortality can create satisfying mindfulness that makes you feel more alive,” said Chaff, who co-founded 34th Street Poets, one of the city’s oldest continuously running poetry groups, in 1992.
Other members include Alyson Adler, Barb Daniels, B. E. Kahn, Cindy Savett and Deidra Lyngard, who writes under the name Deidra Greenleaf Allan. Joining the poets for this performance will be David Daniels and J.C. Todd, a 2014 Pew Fellow in the Arts. R. G. Evans will provide original music.
The poets, who have published books and chapbooks and received numerous awards, represent a range of voices. Add to that variety a disembodied voice that will come “through the ether” and put in its two cents with snippets and lines of poetry during the one-hour program.
Yoricka, the fictional sister of Yorick, whose skull Hamlet so famously addressed, will appear as the event’s official muse. Two poets from the Northwest will offer honest, compassionate and sometimes-odd views of death. Deidra Lyngard, of Flourtown, notes that death may be a tough sell in a culture that aims to nip, tuck and Botox its way to immortality.
“The thought of death can make people uncomfortable, but I find it easier with passing years,” said Lyngard, 67, director of publications at Springside/Chestnut Hill Academy. Originally from Washington, D.C, she likes living near Whitemarsh Farm. “There’s a distilling and condensing of life with age, a deeper appreciation of little things.”
Lyngard has written poetry since childhood. “I was 8 years old when I wrote a ballad about a frog,” she said. “I was so proud of myself. I remember standing in front of my Brownie troop and having everyone listen.”
In college and while launching a career in communications, Lyngard poured energy into other activities, but in 1997 she returned to poetry. Three years later, during a sabbatical from work, she attended the MFA program at Vermont College. It bore fruit. She was named Montgomery County Poet Laureate in 2001, the same year she won a Leeway Foundation Award.
“I write poems that explore the nature of our human boundaries, those troublesome and mysterious divides by which we define life, death and what is other than us. I’ve tried to pick a range of themes for this Saturday. There’s more than doom and gloom.”
Sandra Chaff, 68, born in northeastern Ohio, finds herself in her element in Germantown. “I’m energized by Germantown’s diversity — of architecture, religions and ethnic groups, you name it,” said Chaff, a lawyer and archivist who’s lived in the area almost 40 years.
“At the same time I’m enchanted by the history. There are so many Germantown stories that are part of the larger story of the country’s founding,” said Chaff, who’s been writing for as long as she can remember. “Take Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic. President George Washington, who was living in the city, the nation’s temporary capital, fled to Germantown and governed from here with his cabinet.”
Chaff unearthed lots of interesting and often little-known historical facts while she worked as the archivist and librarian at the Germantown Historical Society from 2008 to 2010. She also noted that Germantown is “awash in cemeteries.” “There’s the Upper Burial Ground (created in 1692) next to the Concord School on Germantown Avenue.
“Then we have the Lower Burial Ground, now named Hood Cemetery, and many, many churchyards, literally, cemeteries associated with churches. I enjoy trying to figure out the lives of the people by names and dates on their tombstone and the names and dates of those buried close to them.”
For Chaff, who’ll present a poem about a cemetery from the viewpoint of feral cats, “Graveyard Voices” provides a unique opportunity. “It’s not often that we can reflect on death in a public forum without the media blitz that surrounds the demise of celebrities. It’s good to do what we can to be aware at the moment of death because it’s got to be one of the most significant and interesting moments of our lives.”
The peace and beauty of St. Peter’s Churchyard — with its sycamores, London plane trees and seven Osage oranges linked to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, beckon. “Let ‘Graveyard Voices’ be the first event you attend Saturday evening,” Chaff said. “Your enjoyment of dinner and later shows will be all the sharper for reflecting on mortality.”
“Graveyard Voices” will be held Saturday, September 6, 6 p.m.-7 p.m. at St. Peter’s Cemetery, 313 Pine St. Come early to enjoy mortality-themed drinks before the show. Gates open at 5:30. Tickets may be purchased at the gate. $15 for general admission. More information at www.fringearts.com.