Friday, July 29, 2011
Boston as a Literary City
By Kathleen Spivack
Boston is a historically literary city. The beauty of Boston for writers today is that it is manageable, friendly, diverse, and non-hierarchical. I am sure the reverse is equally true, of course.
Whether you are a young aspiring student or an established writer it is easy to meet and speak, read your work and share ideas. Boston is non-intimidating and, despite its variety of poets, very democratic actually. There are numerous presses and as well as many writing centers that encourage our work. Our long winters help: we huddle together around the metaphoric campfires and warm our hands on writing.
In 1959 I came to Boston on a fellowship to study with poet Robert Lowell, both in his famous workshop and in private tutorial. He introduced me to other poets. They included Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Basil Bunting, Jonathan Griffin, and others. Later, writers Frank Bidart, Andrew Wylie, Robert Pinsky, Jonathan Galassi, Lloyd Schwartz, Fanny Howe, Gail Mazur and James Atlas; to name only a few, gravitated to Lowell as well. Lowell championed his writers, and the experience of working with him changed lives.
The Grolier Poetry Bookshop has always been a historic center for poetry, and survives today under its new owner, Ifeanyi Menkiti. Founded by Gordon Cairney, it was a home for the young T.S Eliot, E.E. Cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Richard Wilbur, and later for Margaret Atwood, Robert Creeley, Gerard Malanga, James Alan McPherson and many others. Its roster of patrons mirrors aspects of our literary heritage. It is lined with photographs.
The young Louisa Solano who had worked at the Grolier took over the store when Gordon died. She brought it into the 21st century. One of the legendary dedicated great booksellers in America, Louisa’s knowledge, taste, passion, width of book buying, and her reading series reflected the whole span of American poetry. She also sponsored prizes for young poets.
Seamus Heaney was in Boston during that time and often at the Grolier. He inspired us with his poetry and also with his open generous nature. The Woodberry Poetry Room, at Lamont Library, Harvard University grew under the directorship of Straits Haviarias. The Woodberry Poetry Room opened to all members of the writing community and had a vast collection of recordings, books and little magazines. The Voices and Visions series was one of their projects. Christina Thompson, Don Share, Christina Davis and others continued with the Woodberry Poetry Room to make its archival material available. The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in conjunction with the New England Poetry Club, sponsors readings on its patrician grounds. The Boston Public Library hosts several festivals for writing.
And on the grassroots level, the Bagel Bards as well as many other community writing groups welcome local writers, editors, and publishers to weekly networking sessions. There are similar groups in other parts of Boston. Our city is small and multicultural and there are many opportunities for writers of diversity to come together. First Night, a city wide New Year’s celebration, began in Boston in 1976 under Clara Wainwright and Zaren Earles. It opened its doors to literary readings from writers from every community.Later Patricia Smith was instrumental in bringing the Poetry Slam here, which helped youth of all backgrounds to hone skills in writing and performance. Poets in the Schools started in the 70’s as well, and linked writers working in schools with each other, and with the diversity of Boston’s school population. Sam Cornish, Boston’s current Poet Laureate, a writer and scholar teacher and former bookstore owner, has been tireless in his efforts to encourage poetry. We’ve seen many Boston area literary festivals blossom.
Under its recent ownership of the Grolier, the warm and wonderful Ifeanyi and Carol Menkiti have brought a specifically multicultural approach to the store and it is once again a lively magnet for the poetic community, with its own ambiance. Theirs is a labor of love indeed and we love them for keeping this historic bookstore alive. We also cite the presses of Steve Glines, Doug Holder, J. Kates, and others. The work of Harris Gardner and Jack Powers. Sajed Kamal at the Fenway. There are many links between the writing circles in Boston. We are lucky to have the resources, the dedicated bookstore owners and teachers and administrators, the open heartedness of our poetic institutions, the diversity of community, and the manageable size of greater Boston’s literary landscape to support our writing life. Generosity is the word that best describes Boston’s literary scene.
*******Kathleen Spivack is the author of A History of Yearning, Winner of the Sows Ear International Poetry Prize 2010, first runner up in the New England Book Festival, and winner of the London Book Festival; Moments of Past Happiness (Earthwinds/Grolier Editions 2007); The Beds We Lie In (Scarecrow 1986), nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; The Honeymoon (Graywolf 1986); Swimmer in the Spreading Dawn (Applewood 1981); The Jane Poems (Doubleday 1973); Flying Inland (Doubleday 1971); Robert Lowell, A Personal Memoir; (forthcoming 2011) and a novel, Unspeakable Things. She is a recipient of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award 2010, the 2010 Erica Mumford Award, and the 2010 Paumanok Award. Published in numerous magazines and anthologies, some of her work has been translated into French. Other publications include The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Massachusetts Review, Virginia Quarterly, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Agni, New Letters, and others. Her work is featured in numerous anthologies. She has also won several International Solas Prizes for “Best Essays.”
Kathleen Spivack has been a visiting professor of American Literature/Creative Writing (one semester annually) in France since 1990. She has held posts at the University of Paris VII-VIII, the University of Francoise Rabelais, Tours, the University of Versailles, and at the Ecole Superieure (Polytechnique). She was a Fulbright Senior Artist/Professor in Creative Writing in France (1993-95). Her poetry has been featured at festivals in France and in the U.S. She reads and performs in theatres, and she also works with composers. Her song cycles and longer pieces have been performed worldwide.