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How City of Asylum is bringing the jazz poetry to you this year

You’ve never seen an International Jazz Poetry Month like this. And that’s because City of Asylum has never done an International Jazz Poetry Month like this.

For the first time in its 16-year history, the month-long festival is going virtual this year, for exactly the reasons you’d expect.

City of Asylum is a North Side nonprofit that houses writers who’ve been exiled from their countries for controversial writing. The annual festival brings artists from around the world to Pittsburgh, and it’s doing that this year, too, just without the travel.

“We wanted to keep that international spirit alive,” Abby Lembersky, City of Asylum’s director of programming, told us by phone.

“We have musicians from Poland, Estonia, Slovenia, and Hungary this year. They all picked a poet in their own language that they wanted to collaborate with, they picked a venue that was interesting to them, and they worked with videographers to create these really beautiful concerts — not just, you know, Zooms from their living room.”

Those concert videos will be premiered at this year’s virtual festival. There will also be live-streamed concerts with local bands and more than a few virtual collaborations. Find the lineup of free events here.

The online-only format presented some new challenges for organizers, but Abby said time spent putting on other virtual events this year is paying off.

“We’ve learned a lot in the past four months about how to produce virtual programs and how to produce them well,” Abby added. “We’re just taking that and applying it to this festival, which is at the core of our mission.”

The annual month-long event started with a one-night concert in 2005. City of Asylum’s first exiled writer-in-residence, Chinese poet and author Huang Xiang, was looking to connect with Pittsburgh audiences but spoke only Mandarin. City of Asylum co-founders realized that by pairing his poetry with the music of American saxophonist Oliver Lake, that language barrier became less relevant.

“It made it easier for the community to connect and easier to understand what he was doing and what he was saying … his spirit,” Abby said.

The event has grown from there, and this year’s virtual format means it’s everywhere and anywhere.

“This year, the reach of the festival is actually sort of bigger than ever,” Abby added.

The Incline is a proud media partner for this event.