Poets House announced yesterday that it will suspend operations, effective immediately, due to financial issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit, which runs a public poetry library in New York City, hopes to reopen in late 2021 once “the pandemic is under control and Poets House has reconfigured its operations.”
Executive director Lee Briccetti, who has led the organization for more than thirty years, also announced she will retire next year. Briccetti and managing director Jane Preston will stay on to manage this transition period, but the rest of the staff has been laid off. The organization stated it will use its remaining reserves to pay staff severance and vacation pay.
“We feel this is the right decision—and the only decision—we can make at this time,” says Robert Kissane, the chair of the Poets House board. “This isn’t a normal problem—this is brought on because of COVID and the constraints of a pandemic.” Poets House, which relies primarily on the support of philanthropic donors, has struggled financially during the pandemic. Kissane notes that not only have in-person fund-raising events been out of the question—the organization was unable to host its annual fund-raising walk across the Brooklyn Bridge—but Poets House, like many arts nonprofits, faces a tough fund-raising atmosphere, with many donors redirecting funding to medical centers, food banks, and organizations focused on social and racial justice. Kissane adds that Poets House has many stalwart donors and supporters—and the board launched an emergency campaign to its own members—but that it has not been enough to keep the nonprofit afloat at this time.
Poets House has collected more than seventy thousand poetry books and related items in its library and runs several programs—workshops, readings, public art installations, exhibits, and the like—that deepen and expand cultural engagement with poetry. The library has been closed since March in adherence with New York City public health guidelines, but in the months since then, Poets House staff had pivoted to a diverse slate of online programs such as craft talks, weekly ten-minute poetry readings, and master classes, while also launching a public poetry installation in Rockefeller Park.
Going forward, Kissane says, the board will prioritize protecting the library’s collection, planning for Briccetti’s successor, and reimagining what Poets House will look like in the future. “We will use this time to reflect on the extraordinary history of Poets House and reevaluate the organization’s future trajectory, especially in light of the new times in which we now live,” said Briccetti in the organization’s press release. “There is nothing quite like it in the literary realm, and we must do all we can to ensure that it remains alive and vibrant.”
Established in 1985 by the poet Stanley Kunitz and the arts administrator Elizabeth Kray, Poets House is a place loved by many, and news of its staff layoff and temporary suspension was met with sadness across the literary world. “This breaks my heart,” wrote Michael Wiegers, the executive editor of Copper Canyon Press, on Twitter yesterday. “I remember walking in to a then-new PH, when they’d opened in SOHO with the support of S Kunitz. Lee & Jane welcomed me with such grace & enthusiasm—as they had all the young poets working there that day. They’ve built something beautiful.”
Many poets describe visiting or volunteering at the library, and the value of a physical space entirely dedicated to poetry. The library, with its big windows overlooking the Hudson River, was almost always filled with people reading poetry, browsing the stacks, and writing quietly. “my favorite place in the city to do my work,” wrote poet Angel Nafis on Twitter yesterday. “the biggest windows (facing the river!!!). the best and fullest silence. and those stacks. stacks and stacks of poems. all free. god of impermanence, help my heart hold it all.”
Kissane says poets can rest assured that Poets House is not physically going anywhere—the organization has a lease with Battery Park City until 2069 and pays only one dollar a year in rent. “We’re trying to be prudent because we know how important Poets House is to the community,” he says. “We’re fully committed to sustaining that. So this is a temporary thing. We will reopen, and we’re going to be working over the next several months to get us in the strongest possible position when we do.”