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Poetry reading to create community

Poetry reading to create community

By Will Broaddus |


Jason O’Toole joined four other poets in a Nov. 18 reading at Purple Couch Bookstore in North Andover.

NORTH ANDOVER — Jason O’Toole is a poet who works to create a community of poets.

He was encouraged to do that by Allen Ginsberg, a central figure in the Beat movement in American literature, who was O’Toole’s neighbor for a time in New York.

”He was telling me, it’s not about the individual, how great a poet you are,” O’Toole said. “It’s about the community you build. I want to create a space for other people—LGBTQ people, persons of color—so that they feel comfortable in North Andover sharing their experience.”

O’Toole and four other poets helped to foster a communal spirit at a reading in November at Purple Couch Bookshop in the North Andover Mall.

The poets appearing with O’Toole were Cristina Cortez, Mark Lipman, Stephen Iannaccone, and Lee Eric Freedman, the latter two of whom live in Swampscott.

”It’s people that are very active in poetry and creating a poetry community, the main thing I want to do,” O’Toole said.

The event also included an open microphone, where those in attendance were welcome to read their work.

”We had poets as far away as Maine come read at the Purple Couch event,” O’Toole said. “There were at least 25 people in attendance.”

O’Toole lives in Andover and was chosen to be North Andover’s poet laureate after serving on their poet laureate committee for several years.

He grew up in Albany, N.Y., where a fourth grade teacher introduced him to poetry by asking the class to memorize and recite lines by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Carl Sandburg.

When he spoke to Ginsberg, O’Toole was open to the suggestion that he should bring poets together, because he had started doing that as a teenager.

”I would say I was going to poetry readings and promoting punk rock shows when I was in high school,” O’Toole said. “I would book a hall and we would have four bands. In that town, the poetry and the music and the arts scenes were pretty connected.”

Then as a student at Eugene Lang College, a division of The New School in New York City, O’Toole organized a reading by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, prize-winning author of “Things Fall Apart.”

”I found a hotel that was accessible, and made the arrangements,” O’Toole said. “I did everything, called up the New York Times and said, hey, we’re doing this. It was a huge event. I promoted it the same way I would a punk show, but this time people from the United Nations showed up.”

O’Toole eventually went to work in law enforcement, after learning about investigation skills from his grandfather and uncle, who were both federal agents.

O’Toole currently plies his trade at Haverhill Pavilion, where his title is risk manager and his job is to investigate complaints, and to ensure compliance with regulations.

”I like to keep the poetry and art stuff separate,” O’Toole said.

His writing was strongly influenced by Stanley Diamond, an anthropology professor at The New School who also wrote poetry, and worked with O’Toole on his creative writing.

”We discussed every day how to write a poem,” O’Toole said. “He considered a poem to be like a totem pole, where you can see some of it in this world, while the part you can’t see is in the spiritual world.”

O’Toole hopes to organize more Poet’s Corner events, as he calls group readings, at The Purple Couch, and he is speaking to the North Andover Historical Association about holding an event in their theater.

”One of my goals as Poet Laureate is to help the local businesses connect with the community and provide space for arts and culture,” O’Toole said. “In the past we have done ‘pop-up poetry’ events at local businesses, bringing poetry to unexpected places such as a veterinarian clinic.”

Anyone interested in hosting such an event may contact O’Toole on Facebook at North Andover Poets Corner, or by emailing

In his role as poet laureate, O’Toole also wants to place a poet in the school system who kids can come and talk to about reading and writing poetry.

O’Toole also taps into North Andover’s literary history by helping to promote the Anne Bradstreet poetry contest, which is named for the woman from North Andover who is considered to be America’s first poet.

The contest is open to anyone who lives, works or goes to school in North Andover, and prizes are awarded to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as adults.

”We are thinking of going national with it,” O’Toole said.

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