GREENFIELD — The 2017 Riley Festival honored the man behind the celebration this year, putting an emphasis on poetry and performance during the four-day extravaganza conducted in memory of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley.

Promoting all arts

“Riley Festival. Poetry for everyone. Greenfield at its best.”

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Nancy Leslie wrote a new haiku for each night of the Riley Festival.

The president of the Hancock County Arts and Cultural Council prepared poems for open mic night at the council’s home, Twenty North Gallery. Thursday through Saturday, the gallery hosted the open mic nights, inviting passers-by in to read works by well-known poets — Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein — or something penned themselves.

The council wants to be inclusive of all arts, not just the works hanging on the walls at its home at Twenty North Gallery, Leslie said. So when festival organizers asked if they’d be willing to open the gallery for festival-goers to read poetry, council officials couldn’t say no, she said.

Leaving the gallery’s doors open all weekend long gave residents a chance to see the gallery, to learn about the council and to express their poetic sides.

Life in the living alley

Friday night, the North Street Living Alley lived up to the vision city leaders and downtown business owners have long held for the space.

The Flying Toasters, an Indianapolis party band, played hits including “Uptown Funk” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” to dozens of people who packed the alley between North and Main streets in downtown Greenfield.

It was picturesque of the scene painted for the alley several years ago when city officials first started brainstorming.

They wanted to create a downtown gathering space, someplace away from the hustle and bustle of U.S. 40 and State Road 9 traffic, for the community to come together for events and festival.

For this year’s Riley Festival, organizers wanted to add another venue for nightly entertainment, and the living alley served as the perfect backdrop.

Tucked away from the flurry of shoppers and foodies sampling festival favorites, residents and visitors spent the fall evening dancing and singing along to the party tunes.

Poetry slam

As Geno Smith recited a poem before a crowd of about 30 people upstairs at Griggsby’s Station, a slight shake of his hands, clutching his printed work, was the only thing betraying his nerves.

The 23-year-old Indianapolis man joined two other competitors in the inaugural Riley Festival Poetry Slam, an attempt by festival organizers to honor James Whitcomb Riley’s legacy and his impact on Indiana’s literary culture, said master of ceremonies Jason Ammerman.

The slam, hosted at the downtown bar and restaurant named after a Riley poem, was Smith’s first poetry competition, he said. Three judges, selected from the crowd by Ammerman, judged the poets based on their performance and the content of the work. The judges were Markus Dennis, a Riley Festival board member, Angie Riegsecker of Charlottesville and Kristin Fewell, wife of Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell.

Between rounds, Greenfield Board of Works member Kelly McClarnon read a selection of Riley’s poems from a well-worn anthology of his works. The breaks between rounds served as a reminder of why the event was taking place, Ammerman said.

The poets, Reed Hartman, 47, of Beech Grove; Adam Henze, 34, of Bloomington; and Smith, each read three of their poems as they paced the wooden floor of the downtown gastropub. Smith read from a sheaf of printed pages, while Hartman used his phone; Henze had his verses memorized.

That focus seemed to have an effect on the judges and the crowd, as the man could make eye contact with audience members as he recited his poetry. Henze took home the first-prize award of $50, placing four percentage points ahead of Jones. The second- and third-place finishers each received books of Riley poems.