This year's National Poetry Month will be highlighted by a national campaign to get more poets on postage stamps, the return of the People's Poetry Gathering to downtown Manhattan and a new grassroots poetry and arts festival organized by the Unbearables, New York City's legendary gang of beer-hall poet-mystics and creative discontents.
"It's clear that poetry, now more than ever in the recent past, is a vital part of American culture," said Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, a cofounding institution of NPM. Launched in 1994 as an effort to celebrate poetry and market poetry titles, NPM has established itself as both a popular and an effective (independent and chain stores routinely report sales spikes of as much as 35%) month-long national literary promotion.
Matt Rohrer, publicity and events director for the Academy, points to two important efforts this month. The Academy is working with the U.S. Postal Service to allow the public to nominate poets to be honored in a new series of stamps. Web visitors can vote for their favorite poet (Langston Hughes leads the voting so far, followed by Sylvia Plath), and at the end of April the tally will be presented to the U.S. Postal Service for consideration.
In addition, the Academy, in association with the New York Times, will hold a tribute to 96-year-old U.S. poet laureate Stanley Kunitz on April 11 at Town Hall in New York City. The tribute will feature an impressive list of distinguished poets (among them Lucille Clifton, Galway Kinnell and Yusef Komunyakaa) reading along with Kunitz from his Collected Poems.
And for more NPM news and a much more comprehensive list of NPM events held around the country, visit the Academy's Web site at www.poets.org.
NPM in New York
In downtown Manhattan, Poets House, the SoHo-based poetry resource center founded by Kunitz, will celebrate its 15th anniversary along with the Poetry Showcase, an annual exhibit of every book of poetry published in the U.S. in the past year. And this year Poets House (www.poetshouse.org) will once again cosponsor the Peoples Poetry Gathering, a grassroots festival of spoken word and performance works, Friday, March 30, to Sunday, April 1, with City Lore, a nonprofit organization that fosters cultural events in the city. Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House, and Steve Zeitlin, director of City Lore, will co-direct the PPG (www.peoplespoetry.org).
"NPM has raised the visibility of poetry," said Briccetti, "to a kind of national saturation point. There's so much going on that people can 'bump' into poetry anywhere." First held in 1999, the PPG drew more than 6,000 visitors to a variety of locations in Manhattan to celebrate the oral traditions of poetry. This year the PPG will be held at Cooper Union, St. Mark's Church on East 10th Street, the Public Theater, the Ear Inn on Spring Street, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Alphabet City and other venues. The event offers a smorgasbord of spoken verse and performance that includes "occupational" poets (fishermen, prisoners, farmers and undertakers), Sicilian debate poetry, Irish scat singing, "endangered" languages poetry, late-night erotic poetry and much more. There will be readings by Kunitz, rocker Patti Smith, poet John Ashbery, hip-hop poet Tracie Morris, author Robert Bly and many others. "The PPG tries to bring together oral poetry traditions with the literary, written tradition to show how they impact each other," said Briccetti.
The Poetry Showcase, which began in 1993 with 823 books, will also feature a month of events, panels and readings held around the exhibition of more than 1,300 volumes of poetry published in 2000 by more than 500 publishers. The event also features the annual publication of PH's Directory of American Poetry, available online and in print, a comprehensive bibliographic record with capsule reviews of every book. Briccetti points to some poetry figures: 75% of all poetry is published by indie publishers; 15% is done by university presses; less than 10% comes from commercial presses; and since 1999 there has been a 200% increase in poetry published in nonbook multimedia (CD, audio, videotape) formats. For more information, call Poets House (212) 431-7920 or, for the PPG, call (212) 529-1955.
The newest (and potentially most outrageous) event is the Unbearables Arts Festival (www.unbearablesartsfestival.org), held on the Lower East Side of New York and at venues in Harlem and New Jersey. The Unbearables are a loosely organized group of poets, writers and visual artists—self-designated artistic daredevils and creative outcasts—as dedicated to creating literature as they are to lampooning it. Shalom Neuman, writer and Unbearables spokesperson, told PW that UAF will feature more than 100 writers reading at eight performance venues over an "intense" six-week period. For more information, call (212) 388-0276.
And don't forget cyberspace. The United Nations Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry is an international series of readings (including from atop Mt. Everest and from the international space station) set to be held around the world beginning March 29. Readings can be accessed live at www.dialoguepoetry.org. And the SUNY Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center (www.epc.buffalo.edu) will host an e-poetry festival April 19—21, focusing on networked and programmable media and hypertext documents and including cyber-poets and writers from around the world.
Missing from this year's events is the American Poetry and Literacy Project, the whimsical but effective organization founded by the late Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky and Andrew Carroll, the APLP's executive director, to make poetry more widely accessible. The group (i.e., Carroll) usually cooks up an unusual, attention-grabbing event to distribute thousands of volumes of poetry for free during April. But Carroll reminded PW, "We give out poetry books all year round," and he said that the APLP is hard at work negotiating a blockbuster poetry giveaway slated for the winter Olympics in 2002.
April has become the month of choice to publish poetry. Here's a quick look at some of the forthcoming poetry titles from publishers large and small. Generally maligned for the dearth of poetry on their lists, big commercial publishers nevertheless have some prominent titles just out or to be released during NPM.
HarperCollins is releasing The Seven Ages, a collection of confessional and analytic poems by Louise Glück, winner of Yale University's $50,000 Bollingen prize, and her ninth volume of poetry. Harper is also releasing Treatise on Poetry, Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz's book-length narrative poem focused on the nature of poetry and the poet in war and peace, originally completed in 1956.
Over at Putnam, Marian Woods Books is issuing The Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady, a work that investigates racism, the black family and the issues of color and caste that can destroy it. There is also The 100 Best Poems of All Time, edited by Leslie Pockell, Warner Books' version of poetry's greatest hits, which accommodates Homer, Lewis Carroll, Rainer Maria Rilke, Allen Ginsberg and many other poetic sensibilities in one volume.
Houghton Mifflin is offering Thomas Lux's Street of Clocks, lyrical monologues set in rural America, as well as The Paintings of Our Lives, poems on love and marriage by Grace Schulman, poetry editor of the Nation.
Knopf has an extensive offering of poetry titles, among them James Merrill: Collected Poems by the late and distinguished poet, novelist and essayist, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser; Americana and Other Poems by John Updike, focusing on America's cities and on the eminent novelist/poet's childhood and daily life; Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems (May), an anthology edited by J.D. McClatchy; and Skirts and Slacks, a new collection from the San Francisco—based poet and critic W.S. Di Piero, in which he meditates on both the death of his parents and the contemporary world around him.
FSG, no stranger to poetry, is publishing a new collection by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Electric Light, which addresses the classical world and the rural world of Heaney's childhood. The house will also release Paul Muldoon: Poems 1968—1998, a comprehensive collection of the work of a poet who has been called "the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War."
W.W. Norton is releasing Blackbird Singing: The Poems and Lyrics of Paul McCartney, featuring the lyrics to many great songs, as well as verse inspired by the former Beatle's late wife—a volume that just might break all records for poetry sales. Norton is also publishing Arts of the Possible, a collection of essays by Adrienne Rich, award-winning poet and author of 16 volumes of poetry.
From the university presses, look for The Selected Poems of Victor Hugo: A Bilingual Edition, translated by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, with an introduction by Harold Bloom (Univ. of Chicago). And coming from the UC's contemporary Phoenix Poets series is They Can't Take That Away from Me, lyrical and colloquial poems on desire and loss by Gail Mazur, and Bat Ode by Jeredith Merrin, witty, accessible verse that looks at the hectic pace of contemporary life.
The University of Iowa Press is publishing Motion: American Sports Poems, edited by Noah Blaustein, spotlighting poems on baseball, football, basketball and other sports by celebrated poets. Columbia University Press is releasing The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, edited by Susan Aizenberg and Erin Belieu, featuring poets such as Ai, Jane Kenyon, Carolyn Forché and many others. Stanford University Press is releasing The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt, the first comprehensive collection of works from across the range of the acclaimed California poet's career, and later this year Stones of the Sur, poetry by Jeffers and photographs by Morley Baer.
A few titles from the independent presses are Overlook's Errors in the Script by Greg Williamson, obsessive musings on life and language; Circus Days & Nights by Robert Lax, poems that express his lifelong fascination with the circus world; and Bloodlines by Fred D'Aguiar, a novel-in-verse that examines love, race and justice in a narrative that moves from the U.S. Civil War to the present. Twin Cities—based Graywolf Press is publishing Interrogations at Noon by Dana Gioia, poems on love and marriage written in styles that range from rhymed couplets to free verse, and Among Women, a collection of love poems by Jason Shindler.
Anansi, a small Toronto-based publishing house (www. anansi.ca) specializing in "edgy" fiction and poetry, has just released a handsome series of slim volumes, among them Ballast by Karen Houle, poems focused on the natural world; The Tapeworm Foundry by Darren Wershler-Henry, a head-spinning stream of experimental verse; and A Pair of Scissors by Sharon Thesen, "incantatory" poems that examine the minutiae of daily life.
And from Dufour Editions, a distributor of a number of U.K. poetry presses, look for The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry, edited by Edna Longley; Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, edited by W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis (Bloodaxe); and Parents: An Anthology of Poems by Women Writers, edited by Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood (Enitharmon).