Baltimore has long been a little Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed — his poem, “The Raven,” for instance, has provided the name for both our football team and one of our favorite beers.
This weekend, that obsession will be on display for the world to see, as the city hosts the first International Edgar Allan Poe Festival. This tribute to the 19th-century literary giant who popularized horror fiction and some say invented the detective story hopes to attract Poe fans from all over. Among those helping stage the festival are representatives from Poe museums in Richmond, Va., and New York City — a welcome cooperative effort from cities that vie for primacy in their connection to the famed author, who met his future wife and died in Baltimore, grew up in Richmond and spent much of his later years in New York.
Set for Oct. 6-7 across from the Poe House and Museum on Amity Street, the festival will feature a range of Poe-related events, including readings and performances of some of his most famous works, a bus tour of Poe’s Baltimore (including a visit to his grave, where he rests forevermore), even a re-creation of his 1849 funeral.
To help set the mood for this weekend’s festivities, we asked a handful of prominent local Poe fans (plus a welcome visitor from Richmond) to share some of their thoughts on the poet/author/literary critic and inspiration for brooding artists everywhere.
Enrica Jang, executive director, Poe Baltimore/The Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? I had to read Poe in school. Obviously I went to a GREAT school!
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? Poe writes about primal subjects (love, fear, death), and those subjects are enduring. But he also approaches them in unexpected ways — speaking through the point-of-view of a mad man, a murderer, a lost lover — rather than just an observer. I think the work leaves an indelible impression, which inspires new artists.
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I’d like to see festival-goers use the event as an opportunity to make it their own. Costumes, maybe even impromptu readings or performances. This is an opportunity to learn about Poe’s life and works, and also to share in a live space with fellow Poe fanatics.
Jeff Jerome, curator emeritus, the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? My first introduction to Poe was seeing the old Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies from the early ’60s! Here I was, this little child, watching on the big screen Vincent Price scare everyone in the audience including me. I was hooked after seeing these films. In 1977 I met Vincent Price and gave him a tour of the Poe House and the Poe Grave and catacombs. It was thrilling.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? There is no one answer to this question. But I think it has to do with his mythical persona as a "weird dude" and his horror stories. They captivated people when he was alive and after he was dead. Here it is 2018 and he still haunts us. People from around the world can't get enough of him!
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I had a meeting back in March with the director of the Poe House and she was picking my brain about the event and the idea of a funeral or viewing was brought up. I thought it was an excellent idea and it was discussed if Poe Baltimore could use my Poe corpse but as it turned out they created a new one which I think is a good idea. They needed their own Poe corpse. You can't have a big commemoration of his death without a body and a viewing!
Jerome was curator of the Poe House from 1979-2013.
Tony Tsendeas, actor
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? In the fourth or perhaps the fifth grade, we were given a scholastic books order form. Because of its lurid cover, "8 Tales of Terror by Edgar Allan Poe" caught my eye. I ordered it and was soon reading the stories with a dictionary at my side. As a 10-year-old boy and avid horror movie fan, I loved the true spine tingles the stories delivered. I loved the content and the form. The use of words I didn't know but sounded so right. When I looked them up, and some were not easy to find, I saw they were right, they were perfect. Years later we read "The Tell Tale Heart" in ninth grade. I remember thinking that this would be a terrific thing to do as a live performance. In the be careful of what you wish for department: I have since performed the piece about 500 times.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? I think Poe had a particular insight into what we now call the "subconscious." He understood both the fragility and the tenacity of the human being, he understood obsession, loss and fear. He created work that is both art and entertainment, literature and pulp fiction, and he created it out of our very real fear of our own mortality.
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? Poe's works are so theatrical, so dramatic and so musical that they lend themselves quite nicely to being performed and being heard out loud. But anytime scholars, artists and people who love Poe get together to celebrate a very rare and wonderful legacy, it is a good time. It would even put a smile on Mr. Poe's often melancholy countenance.
Tsendeas has been performing Poe’s works for local audiences since the mid-’90s.
John Astin, actor, theater program director and Homewood professor of the arts at the Johns Hopkins University
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mother gave me The Purloined Letter to read. "What’s ‘purloined’ mean?" I asked. My mother, who had the largest active vocabulary of any person I have known, explained, and I read the story. When I finished, I was stunned. My eyes scanned the space around me, an upstairs bedroom in a tiny row house, looking for a location where a purloined letter might be hidden in plain sight. I remember that moment, and the look of the room so clearly that I am certain of my age at that time, for on my 12th birthday we moved away to the sleepy village of Bethesda.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? Poe is unique — nobody at all like him. Poet, storyteller, critic: both sides of his brain fully functioning as he wrote. Read Bernard Shaw’s essay on him — “that finest of fine artists."
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I would love to see a panel of local Poe scholars. Baltimore is blessed in this — Jeff Savoye, JHU’s John Irwin, Richard Macksey, and others. An exciting discussion could take place.
Among Astin’s numerous theater, movie and television credits is the one-man play, “Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight."
Stephen Demczuk, co-founder and proprietor, RavenBeer
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? Definitely as a child watching the Vincent Price movies. Although I saw them all, I think “Premature Burial,” the one without Vincent Price, with Ray Milland and directed by Roger Corman, was the one that was likely my first true encounter with Mr. Poe. I just remember that the presumed corpse laying in a coffin suddenly awakens just to see shovels of dirt thrown into his grave on top of him. That so freaked me out as a kid that I always was aware of Poe’s work.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? I don’t really know, but Poe being psychologically and physically a frail individual who is perceived to be afflicted (whether correct or not) with the demons of alcohol and drugs — but at the same time wrote some of the most amazing, bizarre and intellectual stories ever written — places him at two ends of the spectrum. And being the person that he was, from his works, stories and rumors … myths eventually become reality. And both the myth and reality of Poe can then be portrayed through cartoon characters, popular music, TV and film, sports team and mascot, themed taverns or even the beer that one drinks.
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I would like to see perhaps a local radio station get involved, where it coordinates with the festival programs and broadcasts the plays and recitals from the stage, interviews the actors, the people in the audience, etc. There are a number of talented actors from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia who portray Mr. Poe very well. This festival could grow enormously, especially with the help of local media and the city of Baltimore.
Demczuk is a member of the Poe Baltimore board of directors.
Chris Semtner, curator of Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe Museum
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? I first heard of Poe when I was in fifth grade and our school librarian read us some of Poe’s comedies, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” and “Hop-Frog.” They were genuinely funny stories but also very dark, gruesome, and violent — exactly the kind of things 10-year-olds love because we thought our parents wouldn’t want us reading about it.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? Poe is the James Dean of American Literature. He is that rebel, that perpetual outsider who simply can’t fit in anywhere. To anybody who feels like they are an outsider or that they are misunderstood or unappreciated, Poe seems like someone who’s been there. This might be why he is more relate-able and a lot less remote than some of those dusty old poets who were his contemporaries.
In spite of their slightly antiquated language, Poe’s stories still hold up really well because he wrote about universal subjects — like the fear of the unknown, the anguish of losing a loved one, and the dread that we might not be entirely in control of our thoughts and actions — that still resonate with today’s audiences. His works seem very modern because he explored that ambiguous realm between good and evil, between sanity and insanity, and between life and death.
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I think the most fun event will be the Poe’s funeral tour.
Gabrielle Dean, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts for the Sheridan Libraries at the Johns Hopkins University
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? I do not remember how old I was, maybe 10 or 11? And I do not remember which story it was, maybe "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Masque of the Red Death?” But I do remember feeling very amazed that I had gotten away with reading something so grown-up and scary.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? Poe stays popular in part because the genres he helped create, horror and detective fiction, offer wonderful ingredients for continuous reinvention. Each new generation of readers and writers who love those genres gets to rediscover Poe.
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I'm excited about all the theatrical and musical performances: the National Edgar Allan Poe Theater radio play and the Phenomenal Animals and the Concert Truck!
I do wish there were more events focusing on Poe's poetry, detective fiction, and science writing. He was such a polymath! But I get that it's a festival ... people are probably not going to sit through a dance interpretation of Eureka.
Dean curated the 2016 exhibit, “The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond,” at Mount Vernon's Peabody Library
Susan Stroupe, freelance director/artistic associate, Submersive Productions
What do you remember as your first encounter with E.A. Poe? My first conscious encounter with Poe was through “The Simpsons,” when they used The Raven in a “Treehouse of Horror” episode. I still love that piece, and love thinking about it whenever I read “The Raven.” On my own, I came to Poe as a middle-schooler, through his poetry, namely “The Raven” and “The Bells.” I loved how he created a vivid relationship of image and sound through poetic elements. As we were researching him further for “Mesmeric Revelations,” I realized and loved how much of his poetry draws from Shakespearean verse, which we connected to his mother Eliza Poe, a prominent Shakespearean actress in her time.
Why do you think he has endured as such a popular literary and cultural figure over the years? Poe was one of the sculptors of the American literary voice, and that I think has cemented him in the American pysche. But in a larger literary way, Poe was also one of the first writers to tap into the human curiosity about death and the unseen world in a secular way. He was the originator of the detective trope, which has a legacy that extends into every genre of entertainment. Additionally, Poe was a pretty outrageous character of a person, and certainly helped to create that brooding artist image that resonates with many young artists. Poe questioned many boundaries of "polite" society, both personally and in his work, and I think that has resonated in all generations since.
What one event would you really like to see at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival? I'm excited about the Poe Funeral Re-Enactment. Poe's death continues to be a fascinating mystery that begins long before his actual demise, and funeral re-enactments are always great theatrical rituals. In the future, I would love to see some events that explored the lives and personalities of those in Poe's orbit — his family, his wife, his fiancee(s), his rivals, his literary contemporaries, so that not only do we get to celebrate Poe, but the community that influenced him.
Stroupe was co-director of 2015’s "Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe," an immersive theatrical experience.
If you go
The first International Edgar Allan Poe Festival is set for 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 6 and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 7 across from the Poe House and Museum, 203 N. Amity St. Admission is free, although you’ll need to purchase tickets for such events as the bus tour of Poe’s Baltimore ($39) and the Saturday evening Black Cat Ball, taking place in Baltimore Harbor aboard Raven ($125). Information: poefestinternational.org.