In the ecology of poetry publishing the great biodiversity is found amongst the indie publishers," said Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House, a public literary center and poetry library containing more than 45,000 volumes, located in SoHo in Manhattan. Poets House was founded in 1985 by the late former poet laureate Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray. Fifteen years ago, Briccetti had the idea to gather all the year's poetry books and show them off together. Every year since, during the month of April, Poets House has put on its annual showcase, a display of as many of the previous year's poetry books as they can possibly gather; this year's showcase features 2,162 titles, the vast majority of which come from indie presses.
We all know that poetry is rarely on the big houses' front list, but for many indies, it's their bread and butter. Briccetti feels the showcase has served an important function for the independent publishing world since its inception; she sees it as a kind of mirror for the poetry and publishing communities: "It has helped articulate the world of indie presses in poetry and publishing. It articulates to the field what the nature of the field is." Dan Halpern, poet, instigator of many poetry-related projects (such as the National Poetry Series), and editor of Ecco Press, now an imprint of HarperCollins but for many years an independent house, agrees: "Indie presses don't have the kind of distribution and financial muscle to display books in the chains or even the independent bookstores. Poets House has always been very sensitive to the needs of indie presses."
As the showcase was developing over the years, Briccetti noticed the tremendous proportion of poetry books that were coming from the indies: "We were literally shocked—only 10 or 12 percent of these books were coming from the commercial houses." As Kurt Brown, a poet and Poets House board member, noted, the showcase "allows the public to come in and see that poetry is alive and well and thriving, from small, 24-page chapbooks, to full 400-page collected poems; from the smallest press run by one person to the largest publishing houses here in New York."
The Poets House library and reading room is an airy loft space on the second floor of 72 Spring Street (also the home of Poets & Writers magazine). This is, in fact, the last year the showcase will be held at this location, as Poets House is making a long-anticipated move to Battery Park City. But for now, behind a couple of couches are a few isles with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Bookcases also ring the room.
The titles are organized by publishing house. "When do poetry books get faced out like this?"asks Briccetti. Among other things, the Poets House showcase—and the online directory that catalogues more than 20,000 volumes and counting—is an opportunity for free advertising.
According to Michael Romanos, the showcase coordinator, planning the showcase is "an all-year process. We are always looking for chapbooks, looking for new small presses, and updating our info on presses that go out of business. We try to get everything that's poetry or poetry related. A lot of this information is not even catalogued yet, so we have to do a lot of original cataloguing." The result of all that work is what Brown said "will soon be the greatest library of poetry in the country, if it isn't already." And that means a heaven for indie press books, a place where people can find them, read them, keep tabs on their publishers, and ensure they'll be available for a long time to come.