Lynn Sherr reads "she lived" by Lucille Clifton

In celebration of National Poetry Month, every day we're posting a new poem from the spoken-word album Poetic License, a three-CD set that features one hundred performers of stage and screen reading one hundred poems selected by the actors themselves. From Shakespeare and Dickinson to Lucille Clifton and Allen Ginsberg, the lineup spans contemporary American poetry and classics of the Western canon.

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) debuted to critical acclaim with her poetry collection Good Times (Random House, 1969) and went on to publish numerous books of verse, memoir, and children's literature, her most recent being the poetry collection Voices (BOA Editions, 2008). Clifton, whose honors include the National Book Award and the Ruth Lilly Prize, passed away in February.

Lynn Sherr is a broadcast journalist who has worked as a correspondent for 20/20, ABC News, and PBS. She is the author of the memoir Out of the Box (Rodale, 2006).

"she lived" from Poetic License produced by Glen Roven. Copyright © 2010 by GPR Records. Used with permission of GPR Records

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No Ordinary Woman: Lucille Clifton

by
Hilary Holladay
3.4.10

On February 13, 2010, American poet Lucille Clifton passed away. This interview with her was published in an April 1999 special issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, on which she graced the cover.

Born in Depew, New York, in 1936 and reared in Buffalo, Lucille Clifton published her first book of verse, Good Times, in 1969. She went on to publish Good News About the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), Generations (1976), Two-Headed Woman (1980), Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (1987), Next (1987), Ten Oxherding Pictures (1989), Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991), The Book of Light (1993), which contains "brothers," a transcendent sequence written from Lucifer's perspective, and The Terrible Stories (1996), which reflects on Clifton's survival of breast cancer. She has also published numerous books for children. Her most popular poems include the gracefully meditative "the thirty eighth year," the amusingly affirmative "homage to my hips," and the scathingly witty "wishes for sons." The special brand of instruction in her magical lyrics depends on keen social awareness and a disciplined intuition-both hers and ours. Her poems about race relations, womanhood, and self-affirmation often seem like parables that only our hearts fully grasp. She has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and is the recipient of many other honors, including a 1999 Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award. Currently at work on a collection of new and selected poems, she is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland. This spring she has a visiting position at Duke University as the Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing. Her home is in Columbia, Maryland, where this interview took place on a brilliant Saturday afternoon.

Your name, Lucille, and the names of your family members often show up in your poetry as well as in your memoir, Generations. And in the poem, "I am accused of tending to the past," in Quilting, you describe the past as "a monstrous unnamed baby" that the narrator has taken to her breast and named "History" with a capital H. So I was wondering, why are names and the process of naming so important to you?
Well, I was alive during the sixties when African Americans changing their names caued a great stir. And naming is as close as we can outwardly come to identifying ourselves, my menesss. Now, for me, because Lucille means light, I can get a lot of metaphor and baggage and all that sort of thing from that. And so I suppose I think that being able to name is somehow being able to place, to identify.

When did you start working with your own name, Lucille, as a poetic device?
When I understood, when I thought about what it meant.

And when was that?
I was very young. I started writing when I was about ten. [I was] perhaps a little older than that when [my name] began to take on metaphoric meaning for me.

What happened to you at ten that caused you to sit down and start writing?
Well, I loved words always, and my mother used to write poetry, so I saw it as something to do. I think everyone has in his or her self the urge to express, and people do it with what they love, I suppose. Cooks do it with food; there are people who do it with hair, with clothing, fabric. I loved words, always-the sound of words, the feeling of words in my mouth—and so I did it that way.

I was recently approached about writing an entry on you for a reference book on contemporary Southern writers.
Isn't that interesting? I'm in an anthology also of Catholic writers. [Laughter.] I said to the [editor], "But I'm not Catholic." And she said, "Doesn't matter." I don't think of myself as Southern, though people think of my home as Maryland although my home is Buffalo, New York.

That's what I wanted to ask you about. You write about racial identity, gender identity, and family identity, but I'm wondering about geographical identity. How does that fit into who you see yourself as being?
I don't think that I particularly feel a geographical identity. It may well be somewhat related to something I read about Robert Penn Warren sometime back. The article said that when he graduated from college, he bought an old car and he traveled across the country. And he wanted to see the landscape; he wanted to look at this country. And I was understanding then that that's why, maybe, I know something about the people in this country, but I'm not a landscape person. I don't identify that much with landscape.

Why do you think that is?
Because it was not available to me. There's no way a person of my age, who looks like me, could have gotten a car and gone across this country safely. It's not possible. We're talking about the fifties and sixties.

Critics often talk about your affirming spirit and the celebratory qualities in your verse, and I certainly see those, too. But there's also a lot of anger and sorrow and uncertainty in your writing, and it seems like the hopeful essence really has to struggle against those forces.
It does! [Laughter.] That's because I'm human. I'm doing a "new and selected" now, and a couple of friends have seen some of the poems, and they say this is going to be a dark book.

Is it?
Well, I don't think it's dark. I think it's just...you know, I have a poem about dialysis, for instance. I was on dialysis. And it ends...something about "i am alive and furious," and then it ends with a question, "blessed be even this?" [Some critics] would expect of me, "blessed be even this." Well, I'm not sure about that. You know, dialysis is not fun. Kidney failure is not fun.

 

 

 

 

It seems like, maybe more than in most poetry, people can see what they want to see in your verse. If they want affirmation, it's there.
There is affirmation there. And that makes people uncomfortable. And I understand that. I say sometimes at readings something I heard an old preacher say a long time ago. "I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." Of course, I would be nuts if I didn't see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn't sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful, because that's the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel.

You're very accessible in your readings, and you kind of give yourself over to the audience. But it also strikes me that each of your readings is a very artfully arranged process, that it's even an artful exercise in consciousness-raising that you're leading your audience through.
I like to connect with people. I like people. Now, I am, on the other hand-nobody ever believes that-I'm shy. I am shy. But I think that one can teach without preaching, you know what I mean? And I know that there are some things that it would be helpful if people understood, and I want to say the truth. I want to tell the truth, you know? I believe that if we face up to our responsibility and the possibility of evil in us, we then will understand that we have to be vigilant about the good. But if we all think that it all happens to somebody else, somewhere else, over there, then we don't have to take responsibility for what we do.

Is this interest in the possibility of evil what leads you, in part, to write about Lucifer so much?
I've said that I know there's Lucifer in Lucille, because I know me: I can be so petty, it's amazing! And there is therefore a possibility of Lucille in Lucifer. Lucifer was doing what he was supposed to do, too, you know? It's too easy to see Lucifer as all bad. Suppose he were merely being human. That's why the Bible people—it's too easy to think of them all as mythological, saintly folk. It is much more interesting to me that these were humans—caught up in a divine plan, but human. That seems to me the miracle.

If Lucifer were sitting here, what would you want to ask him?
"Do you regret? What are your regrets?"

What do you think he'd want to ask you?
[Laughter.] "Why are you doing this?" But as I said to somebody whose class I talked to, "If Milton can do it, so can I!" Why not?

I'm reminded of an earlier interview where the interviewer asked you, "What do you try to avoid as a poet?" and you said you try to avoid being clever. Can you elaborate on that? Why would that be a problem?
Cleverness gets in the way of creativity. Cleverness is often the easy way, the expected, in your work, and I try very hard not to take the easy way out. I think about Rilke's [advice], "Hold to the difficult." And I try very hard not to do the easy, expected, smart thing. Poetry for me is not an intellectual exercise. To understand my poetry, I don't think approaching it simply intellectually will help. It has to be a balance, I think, between intellect and intuition. For me, there is a kind of intuitive feeling for the language, for what wishes to be said-you know what I mean? I never had classes in this, I never took courses in this business, so I had to learn, I had to feel my way into the language. And you can have a visceral response to these things coming together, if you have enough authenticity behind them, enough power.

You use a lot of questions in your poetry, especially at the ends of your poems. How conscious are you of that?
I was not particularly conscious of using a lot of them. But I do think that poetry is about questions.

What do you say that?
Well, because I don't write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.

Do you consider Yeats—
I like Yeats.

Do you like him or do you love him?
I probably just like him a whole lot. [Laughter.]

Whom do you love?
I love—well, do we have to have writers?

Yes. Then we can move on to others.
Who do I love? I don't know. Adrienne [Rich]! We lived in the same town for a while. She's a fabulous person. We each had a child who had cancer at the same time at one point in our lives. We used to talk about that and commiserate quite a lot. I think we exchanged a poem at the time, something about "our children are bald," because they were both having chemotherapy.

Are there other poets who come to mind as a passion for you?
I admire Derek Walcott. I admire cummings—though that's not why I don't capitalize, okay? I admire Whitman. I admire Yeats. I admire Gwen Brooks.

What about Plath and Sexton?
I begin to respect Plath more now. When I was younger, I wasn't as into her. Sexton I do [admire], and I knew her a little bit. She was a friend of Maxine Kumin's, whom I've known for a long time. As I get older, for some reason, I admire Plath more. Sharon [Olds] I like very much. I think Sonia Sanchez is an underrated poet. Oh, there're so many! Joy Harjo. [And] there's a poet in Arizona, Richard Shelton, a remarkable poet. He has a wonderful line: "We will be known as the ones who murdered the earth."

Do you read a lot of newspapers?
I do. On Sunday, we get the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Did you grow up reading newspapers?
Yes. My parents were great newspaper readers, my father particularly. And my father couldn't write. My mother could write. Couldn't spell! As her daughter can't exactly, either. But they both had great interest in what was going on in the world. There were people who were curious about things, learners as well, I think.

Which magazines do you read?
Well, I try to read as many as I can. Let's see, what do I read? I don't subscribe to them, but I read the New Yorker; I try to read Lingua Franca, I read all kinds of things like that. I also read People, I read Jet, I read Essence, I read Ebony. Mode is for big women. [Laughter.] I like to tell my students, "I'm very eclectic—deal with it!" I am eclectic. I love Bach. I also love the Four Tops. And now I'm into jazz. I like opera very much. I don't know if I love it or not; I like it very much.

What else do you love?
I like to laugh. I can tell you better what I can't stand. I can't stand injustice. I can't stand seeing people being unfair to each other. I can't stand cruelty, indifference. I don't like that a lot. Oysters! [Laughter.]

Are you allergic?
No, I just don't like them. I don't like condiments. I never eat condiments. I've never had mustard, but I know I hate it. I've never had ketchup; I know I hate that, too. One of the things about living alone, without my kids around, I don't have to buy ketchup.

If you were going to have a dinner party for three people from history, famous people, who would you want to have?
David of Israel [and] Crazy Horse of the Lakota Nation.

You can have one more person.
It has to be a woman. Hmmm. Mary, the mother of Christ.

And what would you want to ask them?
Well, they all are people with contradictions in their lives. They all were people who were faced with something larger than themselves and tried to meet it with grace, I think. And I would ask them how that felt, what were they feelingmaybe a little bit about what they were thinking, but what were they feeling? With Mary, is that really what happened? With David, who did you really love? Because he didn't know how to love women, I don't think. He wanted them, he lusted after them, but I don't think he loved them. Crazy Horse—his life was a series of strangenesses, even for him, and he was a mystical guy. I'm always interested in people who are a bit mystical, and those three I think all were. I'd like to know: How was it for you? How was it for you?

In Langston Hughes's essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he writes, in response to a young poet who said he wanted to be a poet, not a "Negro poet," "[T]his is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible." It seems to me that you acknowledged and climbed that mountain a long time ago, that your blackness is very much part of who you are in your poetry.
Exactly, exactly. And what the young man was probably talking about was not what he was, but what people saw him as. And I'm seen as that quite often. There's the poets and there's the subgenre [of black poets] and Lucille is in there. Because people see it that way, that does not make it so. I'm not either American or black. I am an American poet, and that's what American poetry is: me, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, David Mura—you know what I mean? That is American poetry. I aspire to be the poet that Marianne Moore was, that Langston was, that Richard Wilbur is. I aspire to be as much a poet as Auden—whom I like, by the way, and Lowell, whom I like. I aspire to be all of that. I am not an American poet who happens to be black. I did not happen to be black. My mother was black, and my father was black. And so there I was: I was gonna be black! It didn't just zap me. And that's okay, that is all right, that is not a subgenre of anything. I am an American poet; this what American poetry is.


Hilary Holladay is director of the Fellowship Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville. She is the author of Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton and co-editor of What's Your Road, Man? Critical Essays on Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Her current project is a biography of Beat Movement icon Herbert Huncke.

Dodge Poetry Festival Launches YouTube Channel

4.23.09

Despite the cancellation of its 2010 poetry festival, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation recently launched a channel on YouTube featuring twenty-nine videos of poets reading at past festivals. The biennial event, which is held in Waterloo Village, New Jersey, has hosted blockbuster poets such as Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Maxine Kumin, and Paul Muldoon. In an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, contributing editor Kevin Nance reports that, although nineteen thousand people attended the most recent event, in 2008, the foundation was forced to cancel next year's festival due to economic setbacks.

In an open letter that explains the situation to festival supporters, Dodge Foundation president David Grant in January described an archive of over 2,500 hours of high-quality audio and video recordings that the foundation would try to make available to a wide audience. The foundation's new YouTube channel is the first step toward realizing that goal. "The Festival experience itself cannot be duplicated, but we take heart that it can and will be shared by students, teachers, poets, and poetry lovers the world over," Grant wrote.

The channel currently features videos of poets such as Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Joy Harjo, and Anne Waldman. Below is a 2006 reading by Linda Gregg, who recently won the Jackson Poetry Prize, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc.

 

Conferences, Festivals Taking a Hit

by
Kevin Nance
5.1.09

Although the current recession is hammering all sectors of the literary economy, including publishers of books and magazines, booksellers, and service organizations—not to mention writers themselves—one of the community's smallest but most important components is proving particularly vulnerable. Many writers conferences, workshops, and festivals are under severe stress this year, with several having postponed or canceled their 2009 events due to lower-than-expected registration, shrinking stock portfolios, dwindling support from private donors and foundations, and other financial problems.

The list of affected events is lengthy and includes both established and relatively new names, as well as those sponsored by nonprofit and privately operated organizations. The thirty-six-year-old Santa Barbara Writers Conference has announced a "hiatus" in 2009, for example, as has the Lambda Literary Foundation's two-year-old writers retreat in Los Angeles.

"When you're talking about businesses that depend on discretionary income, those are the first to be hit hard in a bad economy," says Marcia Meier, executive director of the conference in Santa Barbara, which usually takes place over a week in June. "Writers are notoriously broke—we don't make a lot of money—and we just aren't sure it's wise to spend whatever we do have at the moment. People are hunkered down. We're hopeful, with the new president, but in the meantime people are thinking, ‘Wow, I'm holding on to my pennies right now.'"

Charles Flowers, Lambda's executive director, has decided to wait until his organization's fledgling retreat can offer writers as much as it possibly can before it resumes. "At least half of the students at the first two retreats received some form of scholarship money, and we just weren't sure we could raise those funds this year. We decided to defer the retreat for a year and come back in 2010, when hopefully there's a better economy."

In the meantime, even some of the best-known literary events are on the brink or beyond. In February the International Poetry Forum, which sponsored poetry readings and performances in Pittsburgh as well as in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., announced that it would shut down after its stock portfolio dropped by 25 percent. And a month earlier, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which has seen its own net assets drop by one-third, announced the cancellation of its biennial poetry festival in Waterloo Village, New Jersey. Over the years, the festival has hosted some of the biggest names in poetry; nineteen thousand people attended its most recent edition, in 2008. (In early March, the New Jersey township of Montclair offered to host the festival; to the Newark Star-Ledger, Dodge Foundation president David Grant expressed "cautious optimism" that the festival will be back "in some form in 2010.")

Other events that have been recently canceled or postponed include the Lake Tahoe Writers Conference at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nevada; the Heartland Writers Guild's annual conference in Kennett, Missouri; a novels-in-progress workshop sponsored by Green River Writers in Louisville, Kentucky; the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Writers Workshop in Gainesville, Florida; WordHarvest's Tony Hillerman Writers Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Catskill Poetry Workshop in Oneonta, New York; and Canada's Halifax International Writers Festival.

While many of these struggling conferences and festivals were supposed to have been held later this spring and summer, signs of the economic slowdown in large-scale literary events were evident as early as last year. The Kenyon Review canceled its biennial literary-studies trip to Italy because of a decrease in sign-ups; the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers' Conference at Chicago State University was postponed due to "funding concerns" (the conference was rescheduled for last month); and the Florida First Coast Writers' Festival was canceled because of "funding issues."

But not everyone is having problems. Some of the nation's most prestigious writers conferences are doing just fine, thanks in part to their reputations, star-studded faculty, guest literary agents, and substantial support from their hosting academic institutions. "So far, so good," says Michael Collier, director of the venerable Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont. Applications for the next event, which is being held in August, are holding steady. And although the college has experienced some budget trimming in recent months, partly because of an endowment buffeted by the market, Collier says the downturn hasn't affected the core of the program. "Middlebury is committed to keeping its level of funding for the conference at what it has been," he says.

At the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, student applications for fiction-writing spots at this summer's event (July 14 to July 26) are running even with 2008 levels, while applications in poetry have doubled and playwriting applications have tripled. "I'm sure the economy has had some effect, but we haven't seen it yet," conference director Wyatt Prunty says. "The key to our success has been the quality of our faculty, which continues to be very strong."

Sewanee also benefits from its status as a beneficiary of the Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund, which was established by the estate of Tennessee Williams. Proceeds from the fund, which is regularly replenished by income from productions of Williams's plays, defray about 30 percent of the cost of the event. It helps, too, that the conference uses university facilities, which include relatively inexpensive housing for students and faculty. Prunty also cites an increased interest from visitors to Sewaneewriters.org, which has become a key marketing tool. "That's opened up things for us," he says. "We used to get letters through the mail; now our Web site gets a hundred thousand hits and fifty thousand visitors a year, so we get a lot of e-mails."

Increasingly, smaller conferences and festivals are using the Internet to stay alive. "I want to really look at how we can serve writers in the twenty-first century by continuing some of our workshops online," says Meier of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. "Writing, self-marketing, self-publishing workshops—all these things could continue on the Web, for a fee, and students could stay in contact with their faculty leaders after the conference is over. That's also a great way to keep them connected to us."

And if writers conferences and their organizers are feeling a bit daunted at the moment, many are also defiant. "I'm not giving up," says Karen Newcomb, executive director of the Lake Tahoe event. "We know people want these things. They want to be exposed to writers who know what they're talking about, instructors who know how to teach, agents who can help them get their manuscripts published. So we will definitely try it again. Not sure when, but we will try it again."

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Balancing the Books

by
Kevin Nance
1.1.09

As the crisis on Wall Street trickles down to Main Street, businesses of all kinds are responding to the gloomy economic climate with a variety of belt-tightening measures. Independent literary publishers are among the smaller, more vulnerable operations that are reacting to real and projected downturns in orders, sales, and, in the case of nonprofit houses, philanthropic giving.

Some publishers are in flat-out retrenchment mode. Atlas & Co., the nonfiction publisher founded by James Atlas six years ago, recently postponed its spring 2009 list (which included a biography of George Eliot by Brenda Maddox) due to money problems, while a cash crunch at the San Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage led to staff layoffs; casualties included editors Khristina Wenzinger and Dave Adams, and marketing director Melanie Mitchell. Several other publishers have reported less drastic measures, but almost all express rising anxiety about the economic outlook and its potential effect on their ability to acquire, print, and market new books.

"Like everybody else, we're struggling because of the bad economy," says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books in Brooklyn, New York, whose fall list included The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx, the second novel in Arthur Nersesian's Five Books of Moses series. "We're very worried about the future. Book sales are down, not just for us but across the board. And we're bracing ourselves for the economy to get worse. Anybody who tells you they're not worried is lying."

Temple goes on to say that he doesn't know exactly how badly sales are lagging compared with last year, but his "educated guess" is that this year will see a 20 percent drop. So far, he notes, no titles have been canceled and no staff members have been laid off, but two editors who recently left the company voluntarily will probably not be replaced, and the remaining staff's hours are being cut. Temple also anticipates that less money will be available for promotion of new titles.

At Graywolf Press, in Minneapolis, marketing director Rolph Blythe takes a more measured but still sober tone. "We did experience, as did a lot of publishers, some last-minute changes in the fall orders," he admits, "but I'd say we're in a good position in that we've had a couple of recent successes that make us feel confident going into 2009." Blythe, no doubt, is referring to the October announcements that Refresh, Refresh author Benjamin Percy had won a fifty-thousand-dollar Whiting Award and Salvatore Scibona was a finalist for a National Book Award for his debut novel The End. "But in terms of our budgeting," he goes on, "we're definitely playing it safe. We're watching every dollar in terms of marketing and advances."

In addition to the slowdown in sales, nonprofit publishers are facing potential decreases in the donations that often make up the majority of their revenue. "It's a double whammy," says Nora A. Jones, executive director and publisher of BOA Editions, in Rochester, New York, who depends on gifts from individuals and foundations, government grants, and fund-raising activities for about 60 percent of the press's budget. "That 60 percent is in grave jeopardy as we move forward, because individual donors are much less generous in an economy where they're uncertain of their own finances. Government grants are being cut back because the government is up to its eyeballs in debt. And it's that much more challenging to get people to a fund-raising event, because they're cutting corners. Where you once could ask $125 a plate for a dinner, now people will hesitate and not come at all. So you do it for $90 a plate and end up not making very much, after expenses. It's a huge challenge," Jones concludes.

Most unnerving of all, perhaps, is that the full effect of last autumn's economic downturn may not be felt until early this year, when unsold books from the fall lists are returned. Although books are traditionally a popular gift item during the holiday season, many presses anticipated that families would be spending less as household budgets tightened. ("Never in all of the years I've been in business have I seen a worse outlook for the economy," Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio wrote in an e-mail to employees in late October. "And never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in. Nothing even close.")

Despite the doom and gloom, small independent publishers do enjoy certain advantages in an economic downturn compared with their larger commercial and corporate counterparts. For one thing, independent publishers tend to be thriftier than the big New York houses, which are known for their relatively high overhead and their penchant for awarding huge advances for manuscripts that fail to become best-sellers. "Smaller publishers are in a better position, period, in good or bad times," says Joseph Bednarik, marketing and sales director of Copper Canyon Press, a poetry publisher based in Port Townsend, Washington, whose spring list includes titles by James Galvin, Jim Harrison, Gregory Orr, and Alberto Ríos. "We live on such small margins already—we know how to use the second side of a piece of paper. We're not Wall Street; we're not leveraged in those ways, and we don't play those games."

On the other hand, Bednarik concedes, operating on relatively small margins leaves little room for error; a shoestring budget can quickly turn into a noose: "We can get hammered pretty hard by returns, for example. I've seen a number of small presses go under, and it's usually because of some cash-flow issue. Our world is kind of littered with those bodies."

Still, publishers like Copper Canyon may benefit from another intangible: quality. "We need that, especially now, in hard times," Bednarik says. "People who look to poetry for strength and solace will continue to do so in these times."

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

In addition to the slowdown in sales, nonprofit publishers are facing potential decreases in the donations that often make up the majority of their revenue.

House Approves $50 Million in Stimulus Funds for NEA

1.30.09

The House of Representatives approved on Wednesday fifty million dollars in supplemental grants funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as part of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill put forward by president Barack Obama. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill, which would allow the funds to be distributed by the NEA as grants to artists and arts organizations, has yet to gain Senate approval.

The legislation has been criticized by Republican lawmakers, none of whom voted to approve the bill, as lacking detail, which some fear might lead to extraneous expenditures. “We don't know what they're going to spend it on,” said Neil Bradley, a spokesperson for House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, the St. Petersburg Times reported on the PolitiFact Web site. “There is no direction to the NEA on how to spend it.”

The NEA issued a press release on Thursday stating that the organization has in place procedures to distribute funds efficiently and quickly to artists, which make up 1.4 percent of the work force, and nonprofit arts organizations, which support 5.7 million jobs.

“Arts organizations have been hit enormously hard by the current recession,” said former NEA chairman Dana Gioia in a press release. “They've seen their support drop from corporations, foundations, and municipalities. This infusion of funds will help sustain them, their staffs, and the artists they employ.”

“Artists need jobs just like everyone else,” said Kristin Brost, spokesperson for the chairman of the house appropriations committee, Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, the St. Petersburg Times reported. “Fifty million out of $825 billion doesn't seem like an extreme amount to support our artists.”

The Senate will begin debate on the bill on Monday.

In other NEA news, President Obama has appointed Patrice Powell acting chairwoman of the organization. She will succeed Dana Gioia, who announced his intention to step down last September. Powell, who has served the NEA since 1991, most recently as deputy chairwoman for states, regions and, local arts agencies, will remain in the post until the president appoints a permanent chairperson.

NEA Appoints Grants Director as Literature Department Expands

7.26.07

Jon Peede, the former counselor to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), was recently appointed director of grants programs, a newly created position in the organization’s literature department. While continuing to direct the NEA's Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, a national initiative to encourage U.S. military personnel and their families to share their experiences through writing, Peede will also oversee the grants process for individual fellowships as well as awards to literary presses, publications, and organizations.

"One cannot overestimate the importance of discerning and supporting artistic excellence, especially during the formative years for writers and organizations," Peede says. "I am honored to work with Chairman [Dana] Gioia and our talented literature staff to build upon this rich legacy." Prior to his tenure at the NEA, Peede served as publisher of Parrish House Books, an editor at Mercer University Press, founding editor of Millsaps Magazine, and director of the Georgia Poetry Circuit.

The new position is part of an overall expansion of the NEA's literature department. David Kipen, the director of literature since 2005, also recently assumed a new role: director of national reading initiatives. While Peede will guide funding to artists, Kipen will manage nationwide programs, including the Big Read, which has become the NEA's largest literary initiative. Four new staff members have been added to the Big Read, and two to the Poetry Out Loud program, a national poetry recitation contest for high school students.

 

NEA Chairman Set to Return to a Life of Writing

9.12.08

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the past six years, has announced that he will step down from his post in January to return to writing, the New York Times reported. The poet and politician was appointed chairman in 2003 by president George W. Bush. The next U.S. president will determine Gioia's successor.

Gioia joined the NEA at a time when the organization was, in his words, "a wounded institution," suffering budget cuts and the elimination of staff in the wake of disagreements over the funding of fringe artists. While Gioia has been criticized for not advocating enough for artists whose nontraditional work stoked controversy, he has helped cultivate programs such as Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation Homecoming, which sends writers to work with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on telling their stories. He also oversaw the development of The Big Read and Reading at Risk, the NEA's study on literacy.

"I think the difficulty any chairman has in the NEA is to listen to and assimilate the needs of vastly different constituencies—politicians, artists, organizers, teachers, students, average citizens, urban communities, and rural communities," Gioia told the Times an interview at his office, adding that he hopes his successor will find the entryway to the post a little less rocky than he did. "We now have bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress, so I think that the real challenge will be to see how quickly and how capably we can grow the services of the NEA."

Gioia plans to live in Washington, D.C., where he will spend part of his time directing an arts program for the Aspen Institute, a leadership development organization, and travel to California regularly to focus on writing.

NEA Crosses Borders With Literary Exchanges

11.8.06

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced in September the creation of International Literary Exchanges, a program intended to “expand cultural exchanges between the United States and other countries.” The initiative includes funding for the publication of dual-language anthologies and their distribution in the United States and countries such as Greece, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and Spain. Funding is also available for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers whose work has been translated to participate in readings and lecture tours.

The new program is part of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Cultural Initiative, which hopes to “emphasize the importance of the arts as a platform for international engagement and dialogue” through partnerships with public and private institutions. The NEA currently provides individual fellowships for translation as well as grants to nonprofit presses to publish works translated into English. Since 1981, it has awarded fellowships resulting in the translation of more than two hundred foreign works from forty-six languages and sixty countries.

For more information about International Literary Exchanges, visit the NEA's Web site.


NEA Launches Initiative to Celebrate Historic Poetry Sites

9.27.07

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) unveiled yesterday a pilot initiative to celebrate national historic sites related to poetry. As part of the NEA’s Big Read, the new program will give Extraordinary Action grants to encourage communities to commemorate American poets in the regions in which they lived. As its first gift, the NEA will present Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, with $15,000 to fund a multi-generational reading program focused on the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In addition to the grant, the NEA will provide the Wayside Inn with reader's and teacher's guides and promotional materials, which will also be distributed to the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, Maine.

The Wayside Inn will commence its celebration of Longfellow on the poet’s 201st birthday, February 27, 2008. Events, including a lecture series, community reading groups, and the building of an online Longfellow library, will continue through Patriot’s Day on April 19, 2008. Patriot’s Day celebrates Paul Revere’s historic ride, of which Longfellow wrote in the poem “The Landlord’s Tale,” from his collection Tales of a Wayside Inn.

The NEA plans to announce further grants to poetry sites later this fall, and expects a competitive grant program to follow the pilot phase.

 

NEA Responds to "Reading at Risk"

by
Kevin Canfield
3.1.06

In response to its 2004 report "Reading at Risk," which found that significantly fewer people read serious literature now than in years past, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently launched an ambitious program designed to reverse the trend. The Big Read, a joint project of the NEA and the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization Arts Midwest, follows the template of the One Book program, developed in 1998 by the Washington Center for the Book in Seattle, in which teens and adults in one city are encouraged to read a specific book.

As part of the pilot phase of the Big Read, which began in February, arts organizations, literary centers, and libraries in ten U.S. cities have each chosen a single book from four selected by the NEA and Arts Midwest: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. The local organizations, working with the NEA and Arts Midwest, have received grants ranging from fifteen thousand dollars to forty thousand dollars to carry out project-related activities, which include promotional campaigns on television and radio, and public literary events featuring local celebrities.

The ten cities participating in the pilot phase of the program were selected from a total of forty-five that applied. They are Little Rock, Arkansas (represented by the Arkansas Center for the Book); Enterprise, Oregon (Fishtrap, Inc.); Miami, Florida (Florida Center for the Literary Arts/Florida Center for the Book); Fresno, California (Fresno County Library); Huntsville, Alabama (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library); Buffalo (Just Buffalo Literary Center); Minneapolis (The Loft Literary Center); Boise, Idaho (Log Cabin Literary Center, Inc.); Brookings and Sioux Falls, South Dakota (South Dakota Center for the Book); and Topeka, Kansas (Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library).

"These ten cities and towns have been really brave in signing on for our maiden voyage," says David Kipen, the former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic who was named the NEA's literature director last August. "Mistakes are going to be made; we're going to learn things. So I think it's really gutsy of them." Kipen says the NEA plans to evaluate the program's success after the pilot phase of the Big Read is complete, in May. The goal is to expand the program to a hundred cities by 2007. The list of books from which the cities can choose is also likely to grow.

The NEA's "Reading at Risk" report, released in July 2004, revealed that the number of readers of literature—novels, short stories, poetry, and plays—was "in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature." From 1982 to 2002, the study found, the number of literary readers in the United States dropped by ten percentage points, and the decline in the percentage of Americans who read literature appears to be quickening. "This report documents a national crisis," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said at the time. "The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy."

Despite this decline, dozens of cities across the country, as well as others in the U.K., Australia, and Canada, have adopted One Book programs in the last six years. The initiatives have been successful in some places, but, for a variety of reasons, less so in others. Kipen says Chicago and Seattle are two cities that embraced their One Book programs, but that the idea did not catch on as well in Los Angeles. "What happens in too many cases," he says, "is that you have cities concerned with picking up the trash on time undertaking an ambitious reading initiative, and unfortunately it doesn't command the full attention of local officials. How could it? And, alas, it fails to live up to its organizers' hopes."

How, then, does the NEA plan to ensure that the Big Read reaches potential readers? The key component, according to Kipen, is the NEA's partnerships with local arts organizations. "It's all very well to ignore a [program] when it's only coming at you from one direction. But when it's got its tentacles around you—not just from the city fathers but from some combination of the local library, the local arts center, the schools, the chamber of commerce, the newspapers, the public radio station, the public TV station, the commercial TV stations, and heaven knows who else—it's an octopus that becomes much harder to avoid," he says. "Partnerships don't take a huge outlay of money, either, just a bunch of citizens as scared as we are of turning into a nation without readers. When that's the alternative, you'd be surprised how willing folks are to put in a little overtime, whether in my office or around the country."

Though the NEA won't know precisely what impact the Big Read might have until the next U.S. Census, in 2010, Kipen plans to travel to as many of the participating cities as possible to gather anecdotal results. "I want to see firsthand what works, what doesn't," he says. "I want to see the expression on somebody's face as he's realizing that good books aren't medicine—they're food."

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.

The Grim Reader

by
Kevin Nance
3.1.08

For the past few months, literary writers, editors, and critics have been using some strong adjectives while discussing To Read or Not to Read, a report released last November by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). “Scary,” “sad,” and “downright depressing” have been common responses—and for good reason. Reading in America is in serious decline, according to the NEA, especially among the young. Fewer than one-third of thirteen-year-olds read for pleasure every day—a 14 percent decline from two decades ago—while the percentage of seventeen-year-old non-readers doubled over the same period. Americans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four watch television about two hours a day, the study reveals, but read for only seven minutes.

These and other findings in the report—which confirmed and expanded upon those previously published in Reading at Risk, the 2004 NEA survey indicating that Americans were reading fewer books of fiction, poetry, and plays—have obvious implications for writers, both in terms of the audience and market for their work and, more generally, for literature’s lasting impact on American culture.

Whereas Reading at Risk focused mainly on literary reading trends, culling information from a survey of more than seventeen thousand people aged eighteen and older about their consumption of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, To Read or Not to Read gathers statistics from more than forty national studies on the overall reading habits of children, teenagers, and adults, and includes all varieties of reading, including books, magazines, newspapers, and online reading.

Both studies, however, come to the same grim diagnosis: There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans.

“The odd thing is that there’s no lack of writers,” says Donna Seaman, associate editor of Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association. “I see hundreds of books every week—beautifully crafted, deeply felt works of fiction and poetry—and yet people are reading less. Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read; the disconnection is startling. That’s a real puzzle and a real challenge for creative writers in particular. I think we’re in danger of becoming a lost art, a lost world, if we’re not awakening the love of reading in young people.”

Novelist Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife (MacAdam/Cage, 2003), agrees: “When you hear things like this, your stomach kind of falls and you think, ‘We’re headed for perdition.’”

“It makes me very concerned that serious reading is becoming such a specialized endeavor that it’s completely separate from the culture,” says Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine, whose book of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, was published by Copper Canyon Press last year. But Wiman realizes that no matter how overwhelming the problem may seem, quiet resignation is not an appropriate response. “I don’t think it’s always been that way,” he continues, “and I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that it has to be that way. I’ve heard people say, ‘You can’t resist the current, you can’t resist the times.’ But you do have to resist the currents of the times when they’re negative. These declines in reading are real, and something has to be done.”

But what? Teachers shoulder much of the burden of improving reading skills among students, but the new NEA report suggests that parents can play an important role by reading to their children and modeling the habit. Other strategies might arise as we begin to understand another reason why young people are reading less—one that is more complicated than the notion that they’re simply watching too much TV or spending too much time surfing the Internet. According to Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and past president of the International Reading Association, many young people don’t read because, they say, it’s lonely.

“What kids like about [instant messaging] and text messaging is that it’s playful and interactive and connects them to their friends,” Shanahan says. “The Harry Potter books were popular not mainly because of this wonderful story and the language, I don’t think, but because it was this huge phenomenon that allowed young people to participate in it. What was exciting was reading what your friends were reading and talking to them about it. People of all ages are hungry for that kind of community.”

The NEA seems to agree, pointing to the Big Read, its national program in which communities around the country are reading American novels such as Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Similarly, a year after Reading at Risk was released the Poetry Foundation partnered with the NEA to organize Poetry Out Loud, a program in which students memorize and recite poems as a way to forge connections to poetry. And book clubs, from the Oprah Winfrey juggernaut to small neighborhood gatherings, continue to gain momentum.

But some say another fundamental factor in the decline of reading must also be addressed: contemporary writers themselves, who have a critical role to play if current trends are to be reversed. “I do think for a long time writers turned completely away from the audience,” Wiman says. “You can’t simply go back to the past, of course, but I do think writers have to be aware of an audience.” Niffenegger points specifically to modernism as a wedge between writers and readers. “There was a shift away from narrative, where writers gave you less and less and made you work harder and harder. People got the idea that everything was going to be like Finnegans Wake, and everybody just said, ‘Okay, we’re going to the movies.’”

Still, not everyone foretells the apocalypse. Tree Swenson, the executive director of the Academy of American Poets, insists that all signs point to an increased interest in poetry in America, particularly online. “The Internet is a well-matched medium for poetry, in part because the unit of consumption isn’t the book of poetry—it’s a single poem, short and compact,” she says. “The Web and e-mail have also facilitated people sending poems to one another. Yes, the larger trends are disheartening, but if I can come back to poetry, I can find my thread of optimism.”

To Read or Not to Read has the potential to inspire positive change. “On the surface, the study would seem to be bad news for aspiring writers, because you have the impression that the audience base is depleting,” says Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and analysis. “On the other hand, there’s a tremendous opportunity for meaningful interactions that can arise from the data. Booksellers, publishers, teachers, librarians, businesses all have a common interest in increasing reading because it exalts their mission. But it also presents an opportunity for writers. By writing well, you’re filling not only a market need; you’re raising the whole level of cultural discourse in this country, because right now the bar is relatively low. Writers could be taken more seriously than ever if people heed the results of the report.”

To read the full report, visit the NEA’s Web site at www.nea.gov.

Kevin Nance
is the critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

In “The Grim Reader” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 10), Kevin Nance discusses a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts documenting the decline of reading in America. The article contains a quote from Donna Seaman, associate editor of Booklist, who shrewdly observes that while interest in reading is diminishing, interest in writing seems to be on the rise. According to Seaman, “Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read.” How can this apparent contradiction be explained? If the traditional view of the writer is one who loves literature, has been inspired by literature to take up the craft of writing, then why do we have a burgeoning population of writers that seems to have little interest in reading?

Later in “The Grim Reader,” Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, argues that while reading, overall, may be declining in popularity, interest in reading poetry is surviving, even growing. In the words of Swenson, “Yes, the larger trends are disheartening, but [regarding] poetry, I can find my thread of optimism.” Do you agree that poetry may be one genre for which the audience is expanding? If so, how would you explain this surge?

Dan Barden, author of “Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes” (page 83), takes up the much-argued question of whether or not creative writing can really be taught. His response? There is “no way to teach creative writing,” at least not through the current methodology of writing workshops. Do you agree with Barden that workshops “don’t work,” and that there is “something rotten at the core of most of them”? In your view, what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of writing workshops, and what examples can you offer in terms of good and bad experiences in the workshop environment?

If one considers both Barden’s essay and Nance’s piece together—the “Rant” against workshops and the report on declining reading—is there some connection to be made, some conclusion to be drawn, about how we educate young writers? How do the strategies and practices of the writing-workshop approach impact not only the students’ writing but also their reading? Should we, and could we, change the way we teach writing in order to foster more interest in reading?

In the “Q & A” with Quang Bao (page 19), Jean Hartig describes Bao’s contributions to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop as well as his commitment to Asian American literature. In the “Writers Retreat” section (page 64), Kathryn Trueblood reports on “western” festivals and retreats that are particularly supportive to western-based writers. Additionally, Kevin Larimer mentions in “Small Press Points” (page 16) that A Midsummer’s Night Press is devoting two books in coming months for anthologizing, specifically, gay and lesbian writing. What are the potential advantages for writers in belonging to, or connecting with, groups such as these?—groups dedicated to supporting writers of particular backgrounds or interests? Are there, conversely, any potential disadvantages? What has been your experience in connecting with like-writers in various writing communities?

In “The Rilke Trail” (page 21), Paul Graham writes of his admiration for Rainer Maria Rilke and chronicles his journey to a place where Rilke once lived and worked. Imagine planning a pilgrimage to see the birthplace or writing locale of one of your favorite authors. Which writer would you choose? Where would you go? And what would you hope to see and experience once there?

In “DailyLit Sends E-mail Worth Reading” (page 15), Kevin Canfield reports on the new Web site DailyLit, created by Susan Danziger and Albert Wenger, which offers readers “free delivery of over four hundred books” from the public domain as well as newer works for a small fee—all through serialized e-mail installments. The article also mentions other Web-based and digitally-based publication mechanisms. As the distribution and publication of contemporary writing changes, how do you think the writing itself may change? Will writers alter and adjust their work to fit a particular distribution? Will they write one way or one thing for traditional print publishing, but another way, another thing, for digital release?

Mark Doty writes in “Bride in Beige: A Poet’s Approach to Memoir” (page 33) that a poet’s memoir is essentially “after truth” but does not depend on an exact reporting of facts and details. Do you think that when writers are crafting a memoir, they are obligated to be as accurate as possible in their work? In your own nonfiction writing, have you ever chosen to alter or blur a few facts? If so, what was your reason for doing so?

In “Spring Essence” (page 47), new works from several established writers are featured. Some of these works are grounded in imagery from the natural world: “This” by Jorie Graham, “Small Bodies” by Mary Oliver, and “The Bather” by Charles Simic. What do these three poems share in terms of imagery and theme? And how do they differ in their use, their extrapolation, of the natural world?

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff is interviewed by Joe Woodward in “The Gun on the Table” (page 38). Woodward describes Wolff as writing with “the exacting precision of a bombmaker” and of “detonating his characters’ lives in the time it takes to read a paragraph.” Consider those comments while reading the excerpt from “That Room” (page 41), one of Wolff’s new stories. What aspects of “That Room” echo with the threat of “detonation” Woodward describes?

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The Poetic Appraisal

by
Sarah Davis
7.1.06

A little less than two weeks into this year's National Poetry Month, the Poetry Foundation released Poetry in America, a report that analyzes American attitudes toward poetry. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation, the study is based on 1,023 interviews conducted over a four-month period beginning in June 2005—a random sample of American adults who read newspapers, magazines, and books for pleasure, and who read primarily in English. The most dramatic finding, according to a press release sent by the Poetry Foundation, was that "the vast majority (90 percent) of American readers highly value poetry." As news of this finding spread among writers and on blogs, the phrasing was sometimes shortened to "90 percent of Americans" rather than "American readers"—and suddenly, poetry seemed as popular as baseball and apple pie.

"Taken as a whole, the results of the study confirm the need to reinvigorate poetry as an art form and to expand its presence in American culture," says Poetry Foundation president John Barr. The Poetry Foundation, formerly the Modern Poetry Association, which received a $175 million bequest in 2002, appears to be in a position to do just that.

Poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), puts the foundation's report in perspective: "[This] is not a study of the total U.S. population," he says. "It's easy to misrepresent the numbers.. Essentially, only 12 percent of the U.S. population reads poetry." That number comes from the NEA's 2004 report Reading at Risk, a study based on twenty years of data collection, which showed that only about 47 percent of Americans read any sort of literary work at all.

The two studies differ in several ways. For Reading at Risk, the NEA polled more than seventeen thousand people from the general adult population about their consumption of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. The pool surveyed by the Poetry Foundation was made up solely of adults who read for pleasure. In addition, respondents in the foundation's study were given a definition of poetry, whereas those polled by the NEA were not. The Poetry Foundation's respondents were told a poem "uses rhythm and language in verses to create images in the mind of the reader"; that it might rhyme or it might not; and that greeting card poems, song lyrics, and Bible verses don't count. Depending on their responses, those interviewed were then classified into two groups: "users" and "nonusers" of poetry. Users were then further classified as "current" or "former."

According to the results of Poetry in America, more than half of current and former poetry users remember the title of a poem. Users are more active and social than nonusers, and they read more contemporary poetry than classics. Sixty-four percent of all respondents felt that, in general, people should read more poetry. The findings also indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

Along with launching a revamped Web site in January, the foundation has been working with the NEA to organize Poetry Out Loud, a program in which high school students take part in poetry recitation competitions. Tens of thousands of students have participated in the program to date—a sign of what Gioia calls "an enormous populist revival" of poetry through the spoken word.

Many poets aren't all that surprised by the Poetry Foundation's news that there is a relative enthusiasm for poetry on the page. "Maybe the more interesting question is, What are they reading, and what are they valuing it for?" says poet Daisy Fried, a 2006 Guggenheim fellow. In fact, the survey did ask respondents about specific works. Both current and former poetry users were asked to name their favorite poems, and while there are some classics at the top of the list—Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is number one, and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," number four—number two is Mary Stevenson's "Footprints," an inspirational work, and number eleven, Rudyard Kipling's "If." Also in the mix are titles such as "Humpty Dumpty" and "The Grinch That Stole Christmas [sic]."

The wide range of works mentioned by respondents in Poetry in America has sparked some debate in the literary community about real or perceived divisions between serious poetry and casual or lightweight verse. "I suspect the casual reader isn't necessarily interested in the things in poetry that poets are interested in," says Fried. In fact, some poets even take comfort in that divide. "This is one of the things that make this little unspoken-word poetry world so compelling to those of us who are stuck inside it: It is truly arcane.. It's a secret-magic-invisible world," says Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the publisher of Fence magazine and Fence Books.

Others endorse the populist approach promoted by the Poetry Foundation, whose mission is to place the best poetry before the largest possible audience. "I think the depth of engagement with poetry is launched from a very broad swath of the [public's] being interested in it, and that means having a huge layer of people interested in somewhat lightweight verse," says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. In other words, the larger the number of poetry users—even if those users consider Dr. Seuss a poetic master—the greater the number of people who might one day wander into the poetry section at Barnes & Noble, pick up a book by Emily Dickinson or Frank O'Hara or Wallace Stevens, and be mesmerized by what they read.

And that, most everyone can agree, would be something to celebrate.

Sarah Davis is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn.

The findings indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

The Law of Diminishing Readership

by
Joseph Bednarik
5.1.06

As marketing director of Copper Canyon Press, the thirty-four-year-old independent publisher of poetry in Port Townsend, Washington, I am required to read a lot. While most of the titles on my reading list are poetry collections, I recently read two nonfiction texts that got me thinking about the "economics" of creative writing.

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (Paul Dry Books, 2003), by Mexican poet and business consultant Gabriel Zaid, and Reading at Risk, the sobering report published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2004, articulate the challenges faced by the swelling legions of creative writers longing to find a readership. Consider the following statements extrapolated from Zaid's book and the NEA report:

1. Production of creative writing far exceeds consumer demand.

2. Accredited MFA programs in creative writing continue to proliferate, while the practice of literary reading is in steady decline.

3. Many publishers require underwriting to produce and distribute literary titles because sales do not support production costs.

4. Publishers can, with relative ease, attract a thousand manuscript submissions—plus reading fees—by sponsoring book contests.

What's wrong with this picture? If you're running an MFA program, a book contest, or a writer's workshop, or selling other goods and services that support the writer's life—absolutely nothing. If you want your book published and read by an audience other than friends and family—everything.

In a statistical mood, I once estimated how many "good poems" were being produced by recent graduates of MFA programs. Keeping all estimates conservative, I figured there had to be at least 450 poets graduating nationwide each year. If each MFA graduate wrote just one good poem a year for ten years, at the end of a decade we would have 24,750 good poems—not to mention 4,500 degree-bearing poets, each of whom was required to write a book-length manuscript in order to graduate. New poems, poets, and manuscripts are added to the inventory every year.

Admittedly, 24,750 and 4,500 are probably low numbers. After all, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs claims four hundred member colleges and universities, and most of them graduate at least one or two poets each year. The nonprofit poetry library Poets House, during its annual showcase last April, displayed over 2,100 poetry books that had been published in the previous year alone. But I use these estimates in an attempt to add perspective to the expectations not only of poets but also of writers of literary prose.

The creative writers in this country—those who have earned an MFA and those who haven't—produce untold millions of poems, stories, novels, and essays. But for whom are they writing? Where is the readership to support this prodigious output? Certainly, bookstores and libraries prove that there are still readers out there. Yet Reading at Risk sounds the alarm that the practice of literary reading in America is in serious decline.

How can it be that MFA programs in creative writing flourish in a country where literary reading does not? I recall the writer who told me, without irony, that he doesn't read because he doesn't want to be influenced. And the eight-year-old who, after I suggested we read some poems together, replied, "I like writing poems better than reading them."

MFA programs have clearly demonstrated that they can attract writers to teach and students to pay tuition. Many agree that the education is fabulous, with support and attention lavished on the individual's creative process, and, with hard work, the completion of a degree-worthy manuscript come graduation. Life is good until the new graduate wants to see that manuscript become a published book, and the reality of a tiny readership becomes real-world frustration. And where does she turn? Often, she enters a book contest.

Along with MFA programs, book contests that charge entry fees are on the rise. And it makes sense: The publication of debut poetry books is viable if the risk is offset by monies provided by hundreds of writers willing to pay for someone to read and consider their book for publication. If a more active, supportive readership existed, however, there would be far fewer contests. Publishers would be more financially motivated to publish and promote the work without them. Administering contests is not what most publishers long to be doing.

In the fifteen years I've worked in literary publishing, over ten thousand manuscripts—checks attached—were submitted to contests sponsored by the publishers I worked for. From those manuscripts, fifteen emerged as published books—good books all, with each receiving review attention from local and national media, and several going on to earn accolades. In each instance, the net sales ranged from four hundred to twenty-five hundred copies. Calculating production costs, distribution fees, and so on, selling twenty-five hundred copies of a fifteen-dollar paperback might allow the publisher to break even; selling five thousand copies would yield a modest profit, but that sales mark is seldom reached.

One solution is simple enough: If you write, read. A lot. If you want a book published and sold in the marketplace, then buy and read and recommend enough books to nourish the system you want to enter. Advocate on behalf of literature. And, most quixotic of all, every MFA program should require all potential graduates to convert at least one eight-year-old into a passionate reader.

Otherwise, we're faced with a bloated "writership" vying for the attention of an anemic readership. Of course, the readers left could start charging for their time. Envision the classified: "Reading group ready to devour your novel. $250. Rants and raves extra."

Joseph Bednarik is the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press.

The creative writers in this country—those who have earned an MFA and those who haven't—produce untold millions of poems, stories, novels, and essays. But for whom are they writing?

The NEA Launches the Big Read in Egypt

4.21.08

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today the launch of the Big Read Egypt/U.S., the second international component of the organization's community-based literary program. As part of the U.S. State Department's Global Cultural Initiative for international diplomacy, the NEA will fund Big Read events in both Egypt and the United States that are designed to bring communities together to read and discuss a specific work of literature from a country other than their own. The Big Read Egypt/U.S. follows the NEA's inaugural program with Russia, which began last October.

In the United States, four organizations will receive grants of ten to twenty thousand dollars to coordinate events focusing on the novel The Thief and the Dogs (Doubleday, 1989) by Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. Between September 2008 and June 2009, Columbia University in New York City, Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College in Miami, Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Alabama, and the South Dakota Humanities Council/South Dakota Center for the Book in Brookings will each present their communities with a literary program involving book discussions, lectures, readings, and multimedia presentations.

Meanwhile, three institutions in Egypt—the American University in Cairo, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Egyptian Association for Educational Resources—will each organize programming centered around the novels Fahrenheit 451 (Ballantine, 1963) by Ray Bradbury, To Kill a Mockingbird (Lipincott, 1960) by Harper Lee, or The Grapes of Wrath (Viking, 1939) by John Steinbeck. The NEA is also planning cross-cultural activities, which may include virtual exchanges and the involvement of Egyptian authors and cultural figures in U.S. events.

"Cultural exchange needs to play a more important role in international relations," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, in a press release today. "And there is no better way to understand another nation than to read one of its great books."

The NEA's Big Read Reaches Readers Around the World

11.14.07

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced yesterday that it plans to expand the Big Read to military bases abroad. Beginning next year, military installations in Germany, Guam, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom will receive readers guides, teachers guides, radio broadcasts, and other materials that can be used to organize community-wide reading programs focusing on a single book. Domestic bases, twenty-six of which have participated in the Big Read since its inception in 2006, will continue to take part in the program through partnerships with local grantees. The United States Department of Defense has previously collaborated with the NEA to offer literary programs, including Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation Homecoming, to members of the military.

The Big Read’s expansion to military bases abroad follows the recent creation of a joint program that encourages American and international readers to discuss books of cultural significance to countries other than their own. The Big Read Russia was initiated last month, with communities in the Ivanovo and Saratov regions of Russia reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (Lipincott, 1960); from January to June 2008, communities in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania will read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). The Big Read Egypt is slated to begin next year.

By 2009, nearly four hundred communities in the U.S. and abroad will have hosted a Big Read.

 

 

The NEA's Big Read Reaches Readers Around the World

11.14.07

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced yesterday that it plans to expand the Big Read to military bases abroad. Beginning next year, military installations in Germany, Guam, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom will receive readers guides, teachers guides, radio broadcasts, and other materials that can be used to organize community-wide reading programs focusing on a single book. Domestic bases, twenty-six of which have participated in the Big Read since its inception in 2006, will continue to take part in the program through partnerships with local grantees. The United States Department of Defense has previously collaborated with the NEA to offer literary programs, including Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation Homecoming, to members of the military.

The Big Read’s expansion to military bases abroad follows the recent creation of a joint program that encourages American and international readers to discuss books of cultural significance to countries other than their own. The Big Read Russia was initiated last month, with communities in the Ivanovo and Saratov regions of Russia reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (Lipincott, 1960); from January to June 2008, communities in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania will read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). The Big Read Egypt is slated to begin next year.

By 2009, nearly four hundred communities in the U.S. and abroad will have hosted a Big Read.

 

 

The Poetic Appraisal

by
Sarah Davis
7.1.06

A little less than two weeks into this year's National Poetry Month, the Poetry Foundation released Poetry in America, a report that analyzes American attitudes toward poetry. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation, the study is based on 1,023 interviews conducted over a four-month period beginning in June 2005—a random sample of American adults who read newspapers, magazines, and books for pleasure, and who read primarily in English. The most dramatic finding, according to a press release sent by the Poetry Foundation, was that "the vast majority (90 percent) of American readers highly value poetry." As news of this finding spread among writers and on blogs, the phrasing was sometimes shortened to "90 percent of Americans" rather than "American readers"—and suddenly, poetry seemed as popular as baseball and apple pie.

"Taken as a whole, the results of the study confirm the need to reinvigorate poetry as an art form and to expand its presence in American culture," says Poetry Foundation president John Barr. The Poetry Foundation, formerly the Modern Poetry Association, which received a $175 million bequest in 2002, appears to be in a position to do just that.

Poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), puts the foundation's report in perspective: "[This] is not a study of the total U.S. population," he says. "It's easy to misrepresent the numbers.. Essentially, only 12 percent of the U.S. population reads poetry." That number comes from the NEA's 2004 report Reading at Risk, a study based on twenty years of data collection, which showed that only about 47 percent of Americans read any sort of literary work at all.

The two studies differ in several ways. For Reading at Risk, the NEA polled more than seventeen thousand people from the general adult population about their consumption of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. The pool surveyed by the Poetry Foundation was made up solely of adults who read for pleasure. In addition, respondents in the foundation's study were given a definition of poetry, whereas those polled by the NEA were not. The Poetry Foundation's respondents were told a poem "uses rhythm and language in verses to create images in the mind of the reader"; that it might rhyme or it might not; and that greeting card poems, song lyrics, and Bible verses don't count. Depending on their responses, those interviewed were then classified into two groups: "users" and "nonusers" of poetry. Users were then further classified as "current" or "former."

According to the results of Poetry in America, more than half of current and former poetry users remember the title of a poem. Users are more active and social than nonusers, and they read more contemporary poetry than classics. Sixty-four percent of all respondents felt that, in general, people should read more poetry. The findings also indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

Along with launching a revamped Web site in January, the foundation has been working with the NEA to organize Poetry Out Loud, a program in which high school students take part in poetry recitation competitions. Tens of thousands of students have participated in the program to date—a sign of what Gioia calls "an enormous populist revival" of poetry through the spoken word.

Many poets aren't all that surprised by the Poetry Foundation's news that there is a relative enthusiasm for poetry on the page. "Maybe the more interesting question is, What are they reading, and what are they valuing it for?" says poet Daisy Fried, a 2006 Guggenheim fellow. In fact, the survey did ask respondents about specific works. Both current and former poetry users were asked to name their favorite poems, and while there are some classics at the top of the list—Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is number one, and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," number four—number two is Mary Stevenson's "Footprints," an inspirational work, and number eleven, Rudyard Kipling's "If." Also in the mix are titles such as "Humpty Dumpty" and "The Grinch That Stole Christmas [sic]."

The wide range of works mentioned by respondents in Poetry in America has sparked some debate in the literary community about real or perceived divisions between serious poetry and casual or lightweight verse. "I suspect the casual reader isn't necessarily interested in the things in poetry that poets are interested in," says Fried. In fact, some poets even take comfort in that divide. "This is one of the things that make this little unspoken-word poetry world so compelling to those of us who are stuck inside it: It is truly arcane.. It's a secret-magic-invisible world," says Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the publisher of Fence magazine and Fence Books.

Others endorse the populist approach promoted by the Poetry Foundation, whose mission is to place the best poetry before the largest possible audience. "I think the depth of engagement with poetry is launched from a very broad swath of the [public's] being interested in it, and that means having a huge layer of people interested in somewhat lightweight verse," says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. In other words, the larger the number of poetry users—even if those users consider Dr. Seuss a poetic master—the greater the number of people who might one day wander into the poetry section at Barnes & Noble, pick up a book by Emily Dickinson or Frank O'Hara or Wallace Stevens, and be mesmerized by what they read.

And that, most everyone can agree, would be something to celebrate.

Sarah Davis is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn.

The findings indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

Unemployment Rate Among Writers Hit 6.6 Percent in 2008

3.5.09

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a new study yesterday that shows the unemployment rate among the nation's working artists, including writers, hit 6 percent in the final quarter of 2008. Artists in a Year of Recession: Impact on Jobs, which examines employment patterns in the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, reveals that a total of 129,000 artists were unemployed at the end of last year, an increase of 50,000 (63 percent) from a year earlier. The unemployment rate for writers and authors alone is slightly higher than artists in general: 6.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. The group with the highest unemployment rates are performing artists, at 8.4 percent.

The study compares unemployment rates among artists to U.S. workers as a whole and finds that artists have lost jobs at a faster rate: Between the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, the unemployment rate for artists rose 2.4 percentage points, while the rate for workers as a whole rose one point.

The study also predicts that the job market for artists is unlikely to improve until long after the U.S. economy starts to recover.

"We conducted the research to quantify what we hear in the field and read in the news every day, that art workers—alongside all workers—are suffering," said the NEA's director of research and analysis Sunil Iyengar in a press release. "Unfortunately, the data reveal that artist unemployment is increasing at more rapid rates than for the total workforce, and could have more of an affect over time."

The full study can be found on the NEA Web site.

 

NEA Chairman: "The Dumbing Down of Our Culture Is Not Inevitable"

1.12.09

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today that reading in the United States is making a resurgence. According to its report Reading on the Rise, adult reading of literature has gone up by 7 percent, the first increase since 1982, when the NEA began researching the subject using a series of surveys given every five years.

"There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading," said NEA chairman Dana Gioia, the New York Times reported. "In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable."

The rates of reading increased most sharply since the last survey in 2002 among Hispanic Americans and African Americans. The age group that saw the most significant positive change in the past five years was that of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four, reversing the steep decline reported in 2002.

The 2008 survey, which asks about reading of poetry, fiction, and plays, as well as book-length works, done during the past twelve months, featured new questions about online reading. Fifteen percent of those surveyed said they have read literature online, but the majority of that group also reported reading full books, both in print and online.

As for what is being read, fiction (both short stories and novels) fed the increase in reading rates. The readership for poetry, on the other hand, continues a steady decline, especially among women. 

For some, the results of the survey, which polled about eighteen thousand adults, are of questionable significance. "It’s just a blip," Elizabeth Birr Moje, a specialist in literature, language, and culture at the University of Michigan, told the Times. "If you look at trend data, you will always see increases and decreases in people’s literate practices."

Highlights from Reading on the Rise are available on the NEA Web site and the full report is available for download from the NEA's research archives.

 

Stimulus Bill Includes $50 Million for the NEA

2.13.09

After a week of uncertainty, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today that members of the House and Senate conference committee have negotiated to keep the fifty million dollars that the House of Representatives had designated for the NEA in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The funding, which the House approved on January 28 as part of the stimulus package put forward by president Barack Obama, was cut from the Senate's version of the bill last Friday.

Arts groups and individuals organized e-mail campaigns urging readers to contact their senators and ask them to reconsider senator Tom Coburn's amendment to cut the arts funding. Now that the  conference committee has finished its negotiations, the bill proceeds to both the House and the Senate for final votes before being sent to the president.

"On behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, I am pleased that the agency has garnered the confidence of members of Congress to participate in addressing this national economic crisis," said NEA acting chairman Patrice Walker Powell in a statement. "The arts and culture industry is a viable sector of the economy. Its employees pay taxes and mortgages as members of the American workforce and are being profoundly impacted by the economic downturn." 

Senate Votes to Cut Arts From Economic Stimulus Bill

2.9.09

The United States Senate voted on Friday to cut funding for the arts from the economic recovery bill. The amendment to the bill, offered by Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, passed by a wide margin, seventy-three votes to twenty-four, and included support from senators Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, among others. The House of Representatives had approved fifty million dollars in supplemental grants funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as part of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill put forward by president Barack Obama.

The new amendment, which was passed "to ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects," states that "none of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.”

The nonprofit Americans for the Arts has organized an e-mail campaign urging readers to contact their senators and ask that the amendment be removed from the bill before the Senate votes on it early this week. For more information, visit the Web site.

 

University of New Mexico Press Staff Shaken Over Layoffs

4.1.09

The University of New Mexico Press, reportedly facing an operating deficit as a result of the current recession, recently announced layoffs and the possibility of outsourcing distribution, according to a strongly worded press release circulated yesterday.

The first cuts came when marketing and sales manager Glenda Madden, who has served at the press for seven years, and junior acquisitions editor Lisa Pacheco, were both advised that their jobs would be eliminated on Monday. The publicity department was also notified that it will have to slash one of its two positions, and press authorities have stated that outsourcing of warehouse and customer service jobs may be on the horizon.

According to the press release, publicist Amanda Sutton was advised by business manager Richard Schuetz and press director Luther Wilson that she would have to choose whether it would be herself or her assistant, Katherine MacGilvray, who would be let go from the publicity department. "I have a difficult time determining the fate of a fellow colleague, to whom I owe much loyalty and respect," Sutton said in the press release. "Sacrificing up a colleague is not part of my job description."

"Both members of the publicity team are extremely well connected in the media world and have been landing key coverage about UNM Press books in spite of budget cutbacks," said advertising and exhibits manager Christina Frain. "The books, their authors, and our client publishers will only see negative results if these layoffs go through."

The jobs of nine employees, as well as three student positions—in customer service, shipping and receiving, order fulfillment, and warehousing—are also in jeopardy as the press considers outsourcing distribution. The move would also affect over thirty client publishers who use the press to oversee order fulfillment.

"In addition to laying off at least nine dedicated employees, outsourcing is a slap in the face to the community, state, and region that UNM Press has served so well for eighty years," said Madden, who saw the negative effects of distribution outsourcing at another university press.

In an e-mail to staff regarding the "new organizational arrangement," Schuetz wrote, "I know this will not be easy for a lot of reasons and will involve a number of changes but I think we can make it work. We don’t have any other choice."

According to Frain, staff members have expressed frustration with the lack of input they have been invited to provide regarding sustainable solutions for the press's budgetary situation.

"The layoffs and the possibility of outsourcing came out of the blue," said Frain, who also acts as fundraising coordinator. "Even though the UNM Press staff is one of the most experienced in the book publishing business, they were never consulted by the provost [Wynn Goering] or Mr. Wilson regarding the development of long term solutions for the viability and success of the press. We were only asked how to cut expenses."

Dodge Poetry Festival Gets New Digs

9.25.03

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry event in North America, is changing venues. The event, previously held at Waterloo Village near Stanhope, New Jersey, is moving to Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

The tenth biennial festival will be cosponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. As always, it will feature a plethora of readings and panel discussions on how poetry illuminates our culture and our daily lives.

Dodge Poetry Festival director Jim Haba says the Duke Farms estate will provide for a harmonious blend of serene atmosphere and poetic pleasure. Its size (120 acres) won't hurt either: 25,000 people are expected to attend next year's event, which will run for four days, beginning September 30, 2004.

For more information, call (973) 540-8443 ext. 5, e-mail festival@grdodge.org, or visit the Web site at www.grdodge.org/poetry.

 

 

Dodge Suspends Biennial Poetry Festival

1.16.09

Faced with budget cuts, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation announced on Thursday that it will suspend its biennial poetry festival. The festival, founded in 1986, last took place in September at Waterloo Village in New Jersey.

The foundation has been hit hard by the rising costs of putting on the four-day event, which takes place on a large, pastoral swath of land housing a number of tented sound stages. With production costs doubling over the last three festivals, and nearly 20 percent of the festival funds going to hire poets to give readings and lectures at the event, the foundation will look for ways to "reinvent" the festival, attended in 2008 by nineteen thousand people, on "a more affordable scale or in a more affordable venue."

According to an e-mail from Dodge Foundation president David Grant, although the New Jersey-based organization, which supports programs in the arts, education, and the environment, has been trimming its grant budget annually since 2002, the funds for poetry have never before been reduced. The current cuts will affect not only the festival, but also other poetry programming, which includes workshops for New Jersey teachers of poetry, poet visits to the state's schools, mini-festivals, and a high school poetry contest.

Grant said in his message that the foundation would make audio and video from the past eleven festivals available on YouTube. Over twenty-five hundred hours of recordings are housed in the festival archives.

"The festival experience itself cannot be duplicated, but we take heart that it can and will be shared by students, teachers, poets, and poetry lovers the world over," Grant said. "It is a remarkable legacy—not yet ended."

Pass-Along Poems

by
Staff
4.22.09

Spread the word about debut poets and their work with this Pass-Along Poems chapbook. We’ve compiled poems from each of the twelve poets featured in our fourth annual roundup, “First and Foremost,” in the January/February 2009 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Use these instructions to print, assemble, and bind several of your own handcrafted, saddle-stitched editions. Remember to use a heavy stationery for the interior pages and a card stock for the covers. For an extra touch, forgo the stapler and use needle and thread instead. Add your recommendations for first-time poets on the back pages, and while you’re at it, paste in your own polished, unpublished work or that of others you admire.

Pass Along Poems

Download a PDF of the chapbook here.

DIY: How to Make a Saddle-Stitched Chapbook

A companion to our special section on independent presses.

Figure A

Image: 

1. Format and design your short poetry or prose manuscript using word processing software such as Microsoft Word, or a desktop publishing program such as QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign, or by cutting and pasting your text onto the pages (use scrapbook paste; regular glue will cause buckling). Create eye-catching covers using found images, rubber stamps, or—for a minimalist, vintage look—a serif display font on a letterpress. Regardless of which method you use to lay out your book, the pages must be formatted in four-page signatures, a special configuration that ensures the bound pages will end up arranged in numerical order (fig. A). You may want to create a mock-up version using standard paper to ensure your pages are formatted properly.

2. For your final book, use an 8 1/2 x 11–inch stock of medium thickness for the body (a thicker page will cause bowing). Print all the front sides first, then print on the back, making sure to feed the paper in the correct orientation (fig. A). The covers can be printed on the same paper or printed separately on a heavier color stock.

Figure B

Image: 

3. Cut each page in half horizontally (fig. B).

Figure C

Image: 

4. Fold each page in half vertically, creasing with a ruler or straightedge (fig. C).

Figure D

Image: 

5. Stack the pages so that page numbers appear in order, then staple along the middle (fig. D).

 *Makes a 4 1/4 x 5 1/2-inch book with thirty-two pages

Poetry Challenge

4.30.09

Need a dose of inspiration for your writing routine this April? Take our Poetry Challenge and try out a new writing prompt or poetry-related assignment every day during National Poetry Month.

April 30
Transcribe a poem—one of your own from this month’s challenge or a poem that’s spoken to you sometime this month—onto a postcard. By the end of the day, slip that card into the mail to be delivered to a friend.

April 29
Pause today and allow yourself at least fifteen uninterrupted minutes to write freely, using the first word or phrase that comes to mind to guide the entire exercise. If you come to a stopping point in the writing before time is up, revisit the initial word or words as you would a refrain.

April 28
Choose a clichéd phrase ("fit as a fiddle," "think out of the box," "running on empty," etc.) and turn it around. Use the new meaning created by this reversal to fuel a poetic meditation.

April 27
Write a poem to or about a person close to you using any of the senses except sight.

April 26
Choose a word or phrase you find yourself saying often (e.g. like, totally, hate, really, kind of) and write a poem using it as much as possible, turning it over and over, repositioning it, extending it, playing with its uses and the parts of speech into which it can be shaped.

April 25
Write a letter to a landscape or scene you pass through today. For example, “Dear Williamsburg Bridge,…”

April 24
Open a book that you're reading to any page. On this page are the materials you have at your disposal to make a poem. Circle words and phrases that strike you, as well as words with which you're not familiar or are overly familiar. Use the words on this page to make a new literary object. Repeat words as you see fit, but do not add any other material.

April 23
Choose a poem that you are in the process of revising. Create a map of that poem, paying attention to the gradation of its landscape, its realities and abstractions, its landmarks, the spacial relationships among its features. Use the map to guide a revision of the initial work.

April 22
Make a list of the names of your family members and friends. Use all of them to create a poem. Try writing a tiny letter to each name, using free association to link each name with another word, or describing each briefly as if it were a character or object.

April 21
Print out a poem—yours or another writer’s—double spaced. Above each word write another word that is similar in spelling or meaning, until you have the makings of new lines above each existing line. Revise these into a finished poem.

April 20
Take a look at the selection of Keith Waldrop’s collages and consider what Robert Seydel, the editor of Several Gravities (Siglio Press, 2009) writes of the work: "In collage, opacity is the norm, defining a solid architecture through a series of abutments. Certainly Waldrop employs this formal structure on occasion, but he more typically enunciates his picture through transparency. Ghostings, hauntings, veilings, falling and ascending figures, drift are central themes for Waldrop, all concerning the in-between, in part the unbeheld." Now write a poem.

April 19
Choose a poem that you’ve written and rewrite it in its reverse, making the last line the first, etc. Revise this version, creating a new poem.

April 18
Write a sonnet. For examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s Web site.

April 17
Choose an everyday object (e.g. subway car, elevator, paper napkin, coffee, highway, grass) and investigate the anatomy of that object, real or imagined. What are the specific names for its parts, its origins, its functions, who it touches, how it moves or is moved? Use these terms to fuel the writing of a poem.

April 16
Flip through the dictionary randomly and choose ten words. Write a poem with each word in every other line.

April 15
Choose a favorite line from one of your poems and write a new poem using that line as the first one.

April 14
Find a map—of the Earth, the United States, or your home state or city—or visit Google Maps, pick a town at random, and write a poem about daybreak in that specific location, inventing any pertinent details.

April 13
Take any printed page—from your favorite magazine or book, today’s newspaper, an instruction manual, junk mail—and create an erasure poem. For a discussion of erasure poems and plenty of examples, read Small Press Points or visit the Wave Books Web site.

April 12
For one week, collect words and phrases you encounter throughout the day, from signs, advertisements, menus, overheard conversations, radio programs, television, etc. At the end of the week, write a found poem, using these snippets.

April 11
Go to a used clothing store and choose a piece of clothing that you are drawn to or repelled by. Wear the item and a channel a poem from it.

April 10
Write a poem using the N+7 form, conceived of by the French poets of the Oulipo movement. Choose a text, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s "One Art," and replace each noun in that text with the noun occurring seven entries below it in your dictionary. Next, try the exercise with one of your own poems. For more on the poets of the Oulipo, read "Oulipian Feats: Postcard From New York City."

April 9
Snip apart a draft of one of your poems, line by line or in chunks. Rearrange the elements and rerecord the original work.

April 8
“Translate” a poem into English from a language with which you have limited familiarity. Be attentive to the texture of the language and allow your immediate impulses about what the words mean inform your interpretation. Be sure not to look at an English translation until you have finished writing your imagined translation.

April 7
Select five objects from the room around you. Isolate those objects in a landscape and write a poem that investigates, insists upon, dissects, or contextualizes those objects. If the poem takes you away from those initial objects, and you find yourself stuck or lost in the landscape you’re creating, return to one of the objects.

April 6
Collect images from newspapers and magazines either by clipping them or making a list of the colors, things, people, objects, and their qualities that you notice as you look through them. If you’ve clipped images, create a collage with the clippings as an illustration of a poem not yet written, and then write that poem. If you’ve collected images as text, use the snippets to create a poem.

April 5
Transcribe a snippet of dialog overheard today and use that cue as the opening thought of a poem, like an epigraph.

April 4
Choose a line from those collected below, or a line from the book you’re reading, and embed that line in a work of your own, starting with or returning over and over to it.

“Oh, but it’s dirty!”
Elizabeth Bishop, “Filling Station”

“Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,”
John Ashbery, “At North Farm”

“When I die, I want your hands on my eyes,”
Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet 89”

“Green, how I want you green.”
Federico García Lorca, “Romance Sonambulo”

“Such poisonous families / I startle,”
Cathy Park Hong, “Elegy”

“My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent,”
Frank O’Hara, “In Memory of My Feelings”

April 3
Transcribe the text of a sign that you encounter. Write maintaining the tone—imperative, advisory, declarative, etc.—of the sign.

April 2
Write to and through a work of visual art, such as the piece we’ve selected, Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth. (You can view the painting on Wikipedia's Web site.) Visit a museum or gallery to experience works firsthand or check out a Web site such as the Museum of Modern Art’s at moma.org, which allows you to peruse the museum’s collection.

April 1
Listen to an audio version of T. S. Eliot reading one of his poems. (On Salon’s Web site you can hear him read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.") Internalize the music and rhythm of the poem, and freewrite for a page, interpreting those elements in your own language. Read what you’ve written, circle three to five phrases that you like, and use them to start a poem.

Academy Prepares for National Poetry Month

3.30.09

The Academy of American Poets launches on Wednesday the fourteenth annual National Poetry Month, a thirty-day celebration of poetry in American culture. Throughout April, the organization will sponsor events in New York City and initiate poetry-sharing programs nationwide.

The month kicks off with the Poetry and the Creative Mind gala at Lincoln Center in New York City, featuring readings by writers such as Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, and Zadie Smith, as well as by performing artists such as Joan Baez, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Wynton Marsalis.

Through April 15, the Academy is inviting readers to transcribe a line of poetry in an environment that "invites that line's undoing" and submit photographs of the ephemeral poetry to the organization for possible inclusion on the Academy Web site. Submissions to the Free Verse Project are also entered in a contest to win a copy of Poem in Your Pocket, an anthology published by the Academy, and a piece of jewelry engraved with a selection from a poem.

On April 30, the Academy celebrates Poem in Your Pocket day, when readers are encouraged to carry poems to share with others throughout the day. A selection of print-ready portable poems is available on the Academy Web site. In celebration of the day, a reading from the Poem in Your Pocket anthology featuring Matthea Harvey, Ann Lauterbach, and Meghan O'Rourke, among others, will be held at the Strand Bookstore in New York City.

Readings and programs happening nationwide during April are listed on the Academy Web site, which features a state-by-state map of events. Also available on the Web site are ideas for how to celebrate the month in your community and a list of newly released books of poetry. Visitors to the site can also sign up for the Poem-A-Day service, which will send each day via e-mail a new poem from a collection published this spring.

Academy of American Poets Goes Mobile

3.13.08

The Academy of American Poets on Monday launched a mobile version of its online poetry archive at www.poets.org/mobile. Users can now access the archive, which contains more than twenty-five hundred poems as well as hundreds of biographies and essays, using an iPhone and most other mobile devices. The new service is free.

"I have always believed that poetry has a necessary place in daily life," says Academy executive director Tree Swenson. "As the first arts organization to offer mobile content, the Academy of American Poets affirms its imperative to connect people to poetry by creating free and simple access for everyone." Poems can be browsed by author, title, occasion, and form as well as searched by keyword. Users may preview the mobile archive here.

The new component of the Academy's Web site was unveiled three weeks before the beginning of the organization's signature program, National Poetry Month. On Wednesday, the Academy announced the establishment of a national Poem in Your Pocket Day, April 17, during which Americans are encouraged to carry poems with them and celebrate "the power of the poem to both transport a reader and be transported by one." Also in April, the Academy will hold its sixth annual benefit, Poetry and the Creative Mind, featuring Candace Bushnell, Katie Couric, Jonathan Demme, Dianne Reeves, Meryl Streep, and others. The event will take place on April 1 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

 

Academy of American Poets Elects Three New Chancellors

2.1.06

The Academy of American Poets recently announced the election of Rita Dove, Gerald Stern, and Kay Ryan to its board of chancellors. They will join current chancellors Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Susan Howe, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Pinsky, Susan Stewart, Gary Snyder, James Tate, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and C.K. Williams.

Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah (W.W. Norton, 1986) and served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. Her most recent book is American Smooth (W.W. Norton, 2004). Stern won the National Book Award in 1998 for This Time: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 1998) and is a recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award. His most recent book is Everything Is Burning (W.W. Norton, 2005). Ryan is a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her most recent book is The Niagra River (Grove Press, 2005).

The Academy’s board of chancellors was established in 1946. Former chancellors have included W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and James Merrill, among others.

Pause the Podcast and Dial-a-Poem

1.14.09

As poets and publishers have taken advantage of technological advances to present poetry in a variety of new media, from podcasts to video poetry produced for the small screen, one writers organization is looking back to the telephone to spread the word. Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia recently launched 6-POEM, which offers callers a reading of a poem by a celebrated writer from the PennSound archives. The phone number is 215-746-POEM (7636).

Today's callers can hear a recording, from April 10, 2000, of Robert Creeley, once a Kelly Writers House fellow, reading his poem "Thinking." A poem by a student reader affiliated with the Writers House is also featured. The recordings will be updated frequently, according to the organization's Web site.

The dial-a-poem concept dates back to 1969, when poet and performance artist John Giorno and his organization Giorno Poetry Systems set up a call-in recorded poetry project with ten phone lines in New York City. "Using an existing communications system," Giorno wrote in an introduction to a collection of featured dial-a-poem recordings, now available online, "we established a new poet-audience relationship."

According to Al Filreis, one of the Kelly Writers House founders and the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn, comments on 6-POEM have been positive. "The responses I've received so far typically say, 'Geez, this is so retro it's cool,'" Filreis wrote on his blog, "and 'Everything seems to be converging on the phone,' and 'Telephony rocks.'"

For those looking for a higher-tech poetry experience, the Kelly Writers House also posts podcasts of readings and PennSound houses its extensive archives online. 

 

The Tale of the 10 Cruelest Months

by
Daniel Nester
3.1.05

After winning the Tanning Prize—now called the Wallace Stevens Award—from the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, James Tate gave a public reading in New York City. After reading a few poems, Tate stopped abruptly and said, “Well, we’ve survived [National] Poetry Month. It was a very close call for some of us. Thank God.”

Nine years after Tate got belly laughs from his audience, the Academy is preparing to celebrate the 10th annual National Poetry Month in April. NPM is still going strong, and still eliciting strong reactions from the poetry community. It is seen, depending on one’s perspective, as either a marketing bonanza or a wonderful excuse to bring poems into the public sphere.

“It’s done what it set out to do, which is to seriously raise the profile of poetry,” says Tree Swenson, the Academy’s executive director. “National Poetry Month is one of the components that has raised the water level of poetry.”

The Academy is planning its typical water-level-raising events for this year’s celebration. Book designer Chip Kidd designed a promotional poster, 175,000 copies of which will be given to libraries, schools, and bookstores nationwide. Scores of publishers, labeled NPM sponsors, will schedule special events and new poetry titles for April. And a third installment of the celebrity-studded “Poetry and the Creative Mind” fund-raiser, to be held April 5 at Lincoln Center’s 1,100-seat Alice Tully Hall, will feature actress Meryl Streep, architect Maya Lin, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and network anchorman Dan Rather, all reading their favorite poems.

This year’s celebration will also include two new programs. The first is “Ten Years/Ten Cities,” which will feature well-known poets reading at venues across the country, from Maxine Kumin in Seattle to Jorie Graham in Washington, D.C., all sponsored by the Academy or cosponsored with local poetry organizations. The second is an effort to start poetry reading groups. The Academy will resuscitate its Poetry Book Club—launched in July 1998 but defunct since October 2002—this time with a retail partner. The Academy’s Web site (poets.org) will offer book recommendations for reading groups, as well as free Readers Guides of notable poetry books each month. A guide for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass will be the first.

Charles Flowers, the associate director of the Academy, says the reading group initiative is part of an effort to uphold the larger principle of the organization’s dedication to poetry book publishing. It’s also in response to the NEA Reading at Risk survey, issued in June 2004, which reports the percentage of adults reading literature has decreased 10 percent in the past 20 years (from 56.9 percent to 46.7 percent). “It’s hard to measure how much is read or written during National Poetry Month,” Flowers says. With the reading groups and the book club, the Academy will “try to quantify who’s reading and buying poetry on a regular basis.”

Paul Yamazaki, a buyer for City Lights Books, says in the first years of NPM, poetry sales at the store increased by nearly 18 percent. “It’s a very strong stimulus for independent booksellers and publishers of poetry,” he says. Independent literary presses—Yamazaki cites Copper Canyon, Coffee House, Graywolf, Kelsey Street, O Books, and Sarabande, among others—“have found many new readers who look for their colophons on the shelves of City Lights Books.”

Laura Moriarty, the deputy director of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California, points to the “small bump” in March sales as bookstores plan for April readings. NPM, she says, is a “fine opportunity” to reach outside the admittedly small circles of regular poetry buyers.

NPM, though, has its share of critics. In his keynote address at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards ceremony, past Academy chancellor Richard Howard said that NPM is “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine.” In his essay “Against National Poetry Month As Such,” which he read on National Public Radio, poet Charles Bernstein complains that NPM “tend[s] to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry” and suggests an alternative title of National Mainstream Poetry Month.

“We take it all in stride,” says Flowers of the criticism. “The fact that people are talking about it is a good thing.”

The consensus seems to be that the annual poetry celebrations aren’t hurting anyone and may even turn a reader or two to a book of poems, which is generally regarded as a step in the right direction. “I’m certain that anything that brings poetry to a wider audience is a good thing,” Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon says. “At the end of the day, poetry needs to be seen as an ordinary part of our lives rather than something extraordinary.”

Paul Yamazaki, a buyer for City Lights Books, says in the first years of NPM, poetry sales at the store increased by nearly 18 percent.