Poets House and PSA Branch Out

Daniel Nester
From the May/June 2005 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Aided by a $260,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Poets House and the Poetry Society of America (PSA), two nonprofit literary organizations based in New York City, recently partnered to establish Branching Out: Poetry in the Twentieth Century. The new initiative will bring distinguished poets to public libraries in Fresno, Houston, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Kansas City, Missouri, over the next two years, to give informal talks on contemporary and classic poets.

Launched during April’s National Poetry Month, Branching Out continues this month with Eavan Boland, visiting Fresno on May 17 to talk about W.B. Yeats, followed by Eamon Grennan discussing Emily Dickinson in Kansas City on May 21. On June 1, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky will talk about Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams in New Orleans. Other participating poets include Paul Muldoon, Susan Stewart, Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Salter, and Adam Zagajewski.

Branching Out is an extension of Poets House’s Poetry in the Branches, a program that began in 1994 and offers resources, training, and consulting to librarians in order to integrate poetry into New York public libraries. PSA’s contribution to Branching Out has been to expand a program of its own: Poetry in Motion, which was launched in 1992 and places posters featuring poems in the spaces usually reserved for advertisements in subway cars and buses in over a dozen cities across the country. For Branching Out, PSA will install posters with poems by both the participating poet and the subject, along with information about the event, in the participating cities.

PSA also designed a Web site for Branching Out, while both organizations have contributed content. Visitors can find schedule information as well as biographical material about the poets involved. The result, says Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House, is a “much more integrated poetry experience” for the host cities.

“Much of our programming has a natural kinship,” says PSA executive director Alice Quinn of the partnership. “We just separately felt that both organizations are interested in education but don’t specialize in that, and so the avenues we had—libraries, buses—could be combined.”

So far the partnership has worked well for both organizations. “They seem to be working pretty seamlessly together,” says poet Vijay Seshadri, who kicked off the program on April 4 with a talk on Elizabeth Bishop in Fresno. “I don’t sense two organizations here, but one, probably because of the competence and unfussiness of everyone involved.” Like all of the presentations, Seshadri’s talk on Bishop was tailored for a general audience and focused on the poet’s “visionary quality,” using her biography and ambitions as starting points.

Edward Hirsh, who talked about Federico García Lorca in Houston on April 13 and will travel to Fresno for another presentation on the Spanish poet this summer, says the nonacademic format is an important element of the program. “My talk will have to be accurate in a scholarly way, but it is not for scholars. There’s a passionate immediacy that only a poet can bring,” he says.

Founded in 1985, Poets House is a literary center and poetry archive that sponsors various events in New York City. PSA is a 95-year-old membership organization that sponsors a series of national awards. For more information about Branching Out, visit the Web site at www.poetrybranchingout.org.

Daniel Nester is the author of God Save My Queen and God Save My Queen II, both published by Soft Skull Press. He also edits Unpleasant Event Schedule.