POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization that puts money directly into the hands of writers who give readings and lead workshops in museums, prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, and senior centers. Your subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine supports the all-important work of cultivating literary activity in urban and rural communities throughout the United States.
How I Started Poets & Writers
This year Poets & Writers, Inc., celebrates its fortieth anniversary. We asked our founder, Galen Williams, to tell the story of how the organization was born.
"What shall we do with the poetry project?" I asked. It was March of 1970 and I was in a conference with John Hightower, director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). I'd been running the project for three years under the auspices of the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y (now the Unterberg Poetry Center), where I had worked for a decade. With a budget of five thousand dollars, the program gave cash directly to poets in New York State for readings and workshops. But then, eight months pregnant with my second child, I decided to leave the poetry center. They didn't want to continue the program without me, so I suggested to John that we transfer it to another literary organization. He looked at me and said, "Why don't you start an organization and continue to run it yourself?" Dumbfounded, I stammered, "But I'm expecting another child." John said, "Now you will have three children. It will be your third child." Completely floored, I said, "What name?" He looked out of his twenty-fifth-floor window for a minute. "Poets & Writers," he declared.
What made the founding of Poets & Writers possible was assistance from NYSCA in the form of a thirty-thousand-dollar grant, legal help to incorporate as a nonprofit, and accounting help to figure out how best to keep track of spending and allocate money. In the early years I actually made Monopoly-like cards in different denominations and colors to keep track of the cash. I had three different envelopes: one for what we had allocated, one for what we had already paid the poets, and one for what we had left to spend. Primitive, but it worked: We never overspent.
The heart of all we do now, forty years later, is still getting cash to writers. Each year we pay over two hundred thousand dollars to writers giving readings and workshops in New York State and California, as well as in eight cities outside these states. And with the Jackson Poetry Prize, we award fifty thousand dollars annually to an exceptional poet who deserves wider recognition. About two years after I founded Poets & Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts asked us to compile a directory of American poets. For years I had been collecting writers' contact information in my personal Rolodex at the poetry center, after realizing that nobody knew how to contact poets (e.g., mail for T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost was addressed in care of the Y!). So we sent out solicitations, asked writers for suggestions, established panels to screen applicants, and published the first Directory of American Poets, which included a little over a thousand listed poets, in 1973. Now pw.org lists over eight thousand poets and writers in our online directory.
Seven years after NYSCA gave us the funding to start, I was advised to begin raising money from private sources. It was rough going for a while, but we were saved by a thirty-thousand-dollar matching grant from the NEA—a challenge that was met with the aid of writers such as E. L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, and Erica Jong, who helped us sell out a benefit held at the Kitchen, an avant-garde performing arts space. Three years later, we celebrated our tenth anniversary at Roseland Ballroom with William Styron, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, and others helping us draw over a thousand people. Board member Joanna Rose ordered a giant cake frosted with the names of every ticket buyer in alphabetic order. The New York Times published a story about it; we were finally recognized.
Meanwhile, in order to update our directory, in 1973 we had also started Coda, a publication that included news and anecdotes for the literary community. The precursor of this magazine, it was free to anyone who had bought the directory. In 1976, we decided to charge for it separately. Our hearts were pounding as we sent out the first subscription forms. I bet my assistant that we wouldn't attract more than five hundred subscribers. At stake was a set of the Brandenburg Concerti. She won.
If you call us and are transferred to an extension, Bach is still what you hear all these years later.