Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Poets House: Touring the Spanking New Home for Poets and Poetry Lovers
By Doug Holder
Over the years I have attended Poets House showcases in their previous home in the SOHO section of NYC. Recently, Lee Briccetti, the director of Poets House contacted me when she heard I was doing a reading at the KGB Bar in the East Village. She wanted me to give me a private tour of their sprawling new facility in the Battery Park section of New York.
Poets House is well-situated in Battery Park City. In a New York Times article (Sept. 2009) it reports that Poets House has had a number of readings in the Park over the years, and some the ferries that navigate the nearby Hudson River are adorned with poetry from poets who participated in those readings. The Times reports: "...just a few yards south of the lily pond in Rockefeller Park, poems are engraved on the stones: Seamus Heaney's "Death of a Naturalist" and Mark Strand's "Continuous Life." The area was also the home to Herman Melville, Eugene O'Neill, and other acclaimed writers. So Poets House seems to be the perfect appointment.
Briccetti was called out of town on family matters, so Mike Romanos, the head of Children's Poetry at Poets House, was my guide for the afternoon. I also had a chance to speak with the librarian Maggie Balistreri. Accompanying me was Dr. Philip Segal of Queensborough Community College, and another distinguished guest: my Mom. Romanos reminded us that Poets House was founded in 1985 by poets Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Kray. Poets House has a great deal with their new space. The venue at 10 River Terrace comes with a lease of sixty five years, and it's rent free. They raised money from private and public sources in order to construct the interior. They share their first floor with the rest of the building at the ground level, and the second floor houses the poetry library and the other facilities that Poets House offers. Romanos told me that they have doubled their space.
There are many nooks and crannies to read, research or daydream. From the staircase, (which is wired for sound) you might trigger a spurt of verse from Robert Frost or a poet of his stature. And you might wake up from your daydream to see a photographic portrait of a favorite contemporary poet staring at you with probing eyes, like Robert Pinsky, or Robert Creeley (without the eye patch). These portraits are compliments of the photographer Lynn Saville.
Romanos, who has worked at Poets House for six years, told me that their first home was in the spartan digs of a home economics classroom in a public school in the city.
Poets House is beautifully appointed with mementos of the former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz, paintings by Philiph Guston ( a friend of Kunitz's), paintings by poet Basil King, a collection of postcards with people's favorite lines of poetry, and other points of interest.
Poets House has striking wood floors, glass walls, and a floating Calder mobile in the entryway. There is a fresh, transparent and welcoming sensibility to the whole environment. I had a chance to view their extensive chapbook collection, easily accessible to the public and housing up to 10,000 titles. One of the first titles I saw was by my old pal Connie Fox, Hugh Fox's drag counterpart, with his/her poetry collection "Blood Cocoon"
There is also a "New Book" section in the front part of the second floor. Books that were in the Poet's House Annual Showcase are on the shelf, and of course I checked to see if my collection " The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel" was there... and sure enough there it was. Also on the stand was Boston's Salamander Magazine, a few titles from Gloria Mindock's Cervena Barva Press of Somerville, Mass. to mention a few.
In the main collection there are 50,000 titles--quite a difference from the 1,500 titles they had in their early days.
Poets House has an ongoing schedule of workshops, events, readings, and classes throughout the year. They hold an annual poetry walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, where comedian Bill Murray reads some verse every year. Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" seems to be a favorite poem for this event.
During our time at Poets House I noticed the patrons ranged from mere babes, to folks in their dotage. There were tours of the facility through out the day. I saw one group of elated school kids from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn as they departed the building...bubling over no doubt about what they saw, read and heard.
Romanos showed me an old and very large Webster's International Dictionary that was owned by the late Stanley Kunitz. Romanos said school kids are amazed when they see this book. Unlike other generations books more and more play a secondary role to computers, etc.. A book this size, to them, is a relic of an ancient civilization!
After I presented Poets House with some new Ibbetson Street titles such as Zvi Sesling's " King of the Jungle," Kevin Gallagher's " Gringo Guadalupe," "Ibbetson Street 26," and "The Endicott Review" (the undergraduate lit. mag of Endicott College where I teach)I gave myself time to look through the impressive Poets House collection of poetry books. I ran across many poets I have met, corresponded with, interviewed and read. I felt like I was home--like I belonged there. Billy Murray, a great supporter of the House said "Poets need a refuge--they need a hideout, a clubhouse." And I think this is what the current director Lee Bricetti, Stanley Kunitz,(who died at 100 in 2006), and Elizabeth Kray envisioned. Poets House has been beautifully realized.