A Short History of Poets & Writers

From “Saintly Little Service Organization” to Largest Nonprofit Organization for Writers

In 1970, the energetic director of New York City’s famed 92nd Street YM-YWHA Poetry Center, Galen Williams, leveraged seed money from the New York State Council on the Arts to launch a new organization for writers that would provide them with fees for giving readings and teaching workshops. Begun in an apartment on the fringe of the city's theater district, Poets & Writers has grown into the largest nonprofit organization in the country for writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

In its first decade, in addition to supporting writers and literary events, Poets & Writers became a national clearinghouse of information. By 1973, it had compiled much of its knowledge into A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, a photocopied and stapled publication that listed contact information for writers. Subsequent supplements and updates to the Directory began to include literary news, advice to writers, and information on grants and awards. Gradually, this evolved into a thirty-two-page newsletter, Coda, which in turn became the foundation for Poets & Writers Magazine, launched in 1987.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Poets & Writers cultivated new sources of revenue, enabling the organization to expand its programs and publications. Award-winning editorial and design changes elevated Poets & Writers Magazine to new subscription and advertising levels. The organization’s Readings & Workshops program was offered in new regions across the country, connecting writers and audiences in California, Chicago, and Detroit, in addition to New York State, where the program began. And the Writers Exchange program, which would introduce emerging writers to the New York literary community, was initiated.

In 1990, Poets & Writers opened a satellite office in Berkeley to administer its Readings & Workshops program in California and provide technical assistance to the state’s literary presenters. The office, now located in Los Angeles, continues to play a vital role in knitting together literary communities throughout the state.

Launched in 1996, pw.org has become a virtual resource center for thousands of writers, with up-to-date information on grants and awards, literary magazines, presses, jobs, and literary events; an active message forum on topics of interest to writers, online-only content from Poets & Writers Magazine, and more.

In 2006, Poets & Writers successfully completed its first capital campaign, raising $3 million and establishing an endowment to bring the Readings & Workshops program to six new cities: Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Seattle, Tucson, and Washington, D.C. In 2007, we introduced the Jackson Poetry Prize, which each year awards $50,000 to a distinguished early to midcareer poet.

And in 2010, to mark the organization's 40th Anniversary, we launched a $1 million campaign to honor Poets & Writers founder Galen Williams and fund important initiatives for the future. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we created the Galen Williams Endowment, established the Galen Williams Fellowship Program, and raised funds to invest in our website and other digital assets. The 40th Anniversary Fund also supported the development of Poets & Writers Live, a series of live events launched in 2013.

In 1990, E. L. Doctorow described Poets & Writers as “a saintly little service organization for writers across the country. It tells them where the jobs are, the reading gigs, the grants, the awards competitions, and it brings them news of each other. Not its least valuable service is the one that comes of all the others—the suggestion of community implicit in this lowliest and most dire of professions.”

Today, no longer little but we hope still “saintly,” Poets & Writers is more committed than ever to providing encouragement, advice, community, and financial support to writers across the country.