"When it gets to be, oh, February, people start to say, 'What are you guys doing during poetry month? I don't know, what are you doing?' "

Jennifer Bosveld is not talking about the buzz in New York City, or San Francisco, or Cambridge. She's talking about the literary community in central Ohio, where she runs Pudding House Press, a publisher of poetry chapbooks founded in 1979, largely out of her own home in Johnstown. "Every single night of the week, all year long, there's a poetry event in central Ohio. During April, we're fighting for audiences because there are sometimes two or three or four a night. The exciting thing to me is that during the month of April, we've gotten the public's attention."

April, of course, is National Poetry Month, and the enthusiasm Bosveld describes is just one example of the way the program, now an established rite of spring observed with readings and educational events in bookstores, libraries, schools and literary organizations across the country, has taken hold to an extent that might have surprised initial skeptics. Since its inauguration in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month has reorganized the way that commercial publishers and the larger independents publish poetry, drawn unprecedented media attention to the art, and has, by some lights, boosted poetry sales.

Yet this year's festivities come on the heels of what has been a difficult year for many in the poetry world. The economic downturn has had repercussions for some publishers, and last fall's financial calamity came directly to Poetry Month's door: the Academy's board of directors forced the resignation of director Bill Wadsworth and laid off half of the Academy's staff, citing a budget shortfall that had accumulated over the last few years of Wadsworth's tenure. It was Wadsworth who ushered in National Poetry Month, as part of the public outreach initiative that defined his 12 years as director. What will his departure, and the new economic austerity, mean for Poetry Month and the publishers and booksellers who have come to depend on it?

Wadsworth Exits

Many in the literary and publishing communities were surprised to hear last September that the energetic Wadsworth, a favorite with poets, staff, board members and philanthropists, was stepping down. But they weren't the only ones caught by surprise--according to a former staff member, who declined to be named, the news that Wadsworth had been asked to leave came as a shock to the staff and the Academy's chancellors (the group of poets who serve as advisers). "We had long, awful, tearful meetings between the board and staff. They wanted an explanation. They were upset that it [Wadsworth's dismissal) hadn't been discussed with them," the staffer recalls. Wadsworth was, by all accounts, close with much of the staff and many of his colleagues. One former intern recalls that "his charisma attracted many poetry lovers--and donors; people thought, the Academy's not so stuffy if Bill's in charge."

Jonathan Galassi, then chairman of the board, pointed to a serious budget deficit as the reason for Wadsworth's ouster. But another former staff member who worked closely with Wadsworth after his resignation suggests that, when economic times were better, the board had encouraged Wadsworth to spend money. The Academy had greatly expanded its staff in recent years, from five people in 1989 to 18 people last November. They had also just rented a newly renovated SoHo office space that included an auditorium for readings. In addition to National Poetry Month, Wadsworth launched the Academy's Web site (poets.org) and the Poetry Book Club. This latter, which was expected to be a source of income for the organization, never drew enough members to be profitable.

Four months after the upheaval, the Academy has taken some steps toward stabilization, even as it continues to feel the repercussions of Wadsworth's ouster and the economic slump.

In early February, the Academy named Tree Swenson executive director. Swenson, who assumes her post on April 1, has been director of programs for the Massachusetts Cultural Council (a state arts agency) since 1997, and before that was the co-founder and executive director and publisher of independent poetry stalwart Copper Canyon Press.

At the same time, however, fund-raising has taken a hit, in part because the board has had so much else to focus on. "There was a financial crisis to be dealt with," explains development director Mallory King, "and there was an institutional transition." The economy has also hurt fundraising. A year earlier, says King , "when people were feeling much more positive in the economic climate, it was plausible to go after someone for money [donations]." Likewise, King acknowledges there's been a decline in membership, particularly renewals.

There are other factors that affected membership, particularly the post-September 11 (and anthrax-related) postal delays. "Our membership is a direct-mail program. We had mailings that were delayed, issues with getting our mail--things that were very common last fall with all direct-mail programs."

One program that's emerged unscathed, however, is National Poetry Month itself. The focus of this year's events is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Harlem Renaissance poet, essayist and novelist Langston Hughes, a theme, King notes, that has caught the ear of sponsors. "From the corporate sector we've done phenomenally well with National Poetry Month this year. I think the topic is one that has a really broad-based appeal." The Academy will also be launching a reading series in its new space, with sponsoring publishers like Harcourt, FSG and Knopf each presenting a night of readings.

As for the Poetry Book Club, as well as the direction of the Academy's other programs, King notes that it's "really up to the new director, what new direction she may want to go in."

For her part, the new director strikes a conciliatory note. "The Academy is much larger than the director or any individual person," Swenson affirms. "I imagine that we'll be having a conversation that will involve a lot of people." And though the financial crisis will be her top priority, Swenson hopes to continue Wadsworth's emphasis on public outreach. "As much as National Poetry Month has grown, I don't think it has come anywhere near its limit in terms of what this kind of celebration can be about."

Publishing and Retail

"Our sales took a definite downturn last year, and I believe it is very much attributable to the economy," reports Coffee House Press publisher Allan Kornblum. "We got virtually no reorders all last year. I think that was definitely a result booksellers being cautious with their inventory."

New Directions was "hit by greater returns across the board than usual," notes Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief of New Directions. "We normally sort of hover at 22%-23%, and we went up to 27%, which is painful for a company our size." Eppler also observes, however, that "poetry sales have been pretty steady."

At Grolier Book Shop, the 75-year-old Cambridge institution that sells only poetry, owner Louisa Solano noted a decrease in foot traffic and sales, especially in one key part of her stock: "I carry coursebooks for the writing courses and the poetry courses, and they dropped by two-thirds. There was a major decrease. Everybody switched over to politics, Middle Eastern history, and stuff like that."

At Small Press Distribution, a nonprofit small press distributor whose list is 60% poetry (from a host of small and tiny publishers like Burning Deck and Granary Books) there was also a recent slump. "In the fall, sales slowed down a bit," reports Laura Moriarty, SPD marketing and acquisitions director. "For several weeks after September 11, orders just completely slowed down. and they didn't recoup." But there's also been some good news: "Since January we've seen a definite pickup, and are at or above last year's levels."

Other positive notes: Copper Canyon's managing editor Michael Wiegers remains upbeat. "We've been on a pretty good growth trajectory over, say, the past five years, and compared with the previous year, sales are pretty consistent. Copper Canyon has been on a bit of a roll. Last year we had done a book of Vietnamese translations, Spring Essence, which just sold and continued to sell. But I don't think that we've grown quite as much as we had expected." And at Graywolf Press, the mood is downright sunny. "We've actually seen movement in our poetry sales," observes director and publisher Fiona McCrae, who cautioned, however, against drawing too many conclusions. "I think that poetry is still a small percentage of the pie, so a lot can happen in the rest of the pie that still does not affect that little sliver."

"Poetry is a little outside the marketplace, " points out Lee Briccetti, director of Poets House, the 45,000-volume New York-based poetry library that sponsors an annual Poetry Showcase featuring all the poetry books published each year. "Only 10% of the books are published by commercial presses." And, as Epler points out, serious poetry, unlike some other categories, is protected by a loyal core audience. "With fiction, you need to get display room and faceout display. But people seek poetry out."

NPM and Poetry Sales

The same factors that can help insulate poetry sales from extreme fluctuations in the economy also can make it difficult to measure the effects of National Poetry Month as a sales event. Hatched in 1995 during a sales meeting at FSG, Poetry Month had as its express goal the selling of more poetry. Publishers and booksellers quickly jumped on board, and it's now well-established that houses concentrate their poetry books in April, when stores have special displays and many organizations are looking to coordinate readings. And while it is clear that there's a general sense of enthusiasm about Poetry Month, no one can say for certain that it raises sales.

"National Poetry Month is a wonderful idea," observes Kornblum neutrally, "and it does have some salutary effect on sales, but I think that effect is going to be felt over a period of years."

Wiegers suspects that the month "undoubtedly" boosts some book sales. "In higher profile books, if you do it right, it can be very helpful."

"We always say every month is poetry month at SPD, so we don't see a huge increase in sales," Moriarty notes, though SPD's sales and Web manager Brent Cunningham adds that there is some increased bookseller interest. "Starting in mid-January or early February, the book buyers I talk to start to ask specifically about poetry--something they rarely do the rest of the year. They have an awareness of poetry month and of the potential for poetry titles to sell through."

At FSG, says sales director Spenser Lee, "We have the general sense that it's working. We just haven't done an analysis year by year. But there's a heightened awareness of poetry books and bookstores do display more poetry in April."

Ironically, for a program with such distinctly mercenary beginnings, National Poetry Month's strongest impact is local--school programs, educational campaigns, "places like libraries," says Wiegers, "where the small publishers and individual poets can really flex their muscles in readings and discussion groups and the many nontraditional ways of getting the word out."

By all accounts, National Poetry Month has been part of a nationwide revival of interest in poetry over the last decade or so, for which the poetry slam movement is also given much credit, as well as the ballooning number of MFA writing programs. Briccetti argues that "things like NPM, things like PSA's 'poetry in motion [poetry placards in public transit settings],' the slam movement from the Nuyorican café, all of these things have created a kind of cultural readiness for poetry."

"Only 10%-13% of poetry books published are published by commercial presses," Briccetti points out. "While the top of the pyramid undergoes mergers and homogenizes, the bottom of the pyramid, which is vast, in poetry, continues to diversify. So of the 1200 books [in the Poets House Showcase this year], 90% are from small and independent presses."

At the Poets House headquarters in SoHo where they're preparing to mount the Showcase, handsome boxed sets of chapbooks and pamphlets mingle with glossy affairs from the big publishing houses. Among the stacks is a tiny, hand-made, three- inch-square chapbook bound with a rubber band, filled with mimeographed sketches, lists and wistful aphorisms. It's called Sketchbook Notes, by Marisol Limon Martinez, and it's published by the New York-based Ugly Duckling Presse, a nonprofit "collective of writers, visual artists and theater artists."

It's all part of the same homegrown enthusiasm for poetry and poets that Bosveld, whose elegant Pudding House chapbooks will be on display at Poets House, has been witnessing from her heartland vantage point. "When I was in college, poetry was just sooo special. Thank god it's not special anymore. Not in a way that puts the poet up in an ivory tower," she says. "Here at the Pudding House Innovation Center, we run writers' workshops, and people come from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana and West Virginia. People just come out of the woodwork. And this isn't Columbus, Ohio. This is Johnstown, Ohio. Population 3,500."