Q&A: Briccetti’s Big Move Downtown

Timothy Schaffert

By the time Poets House, the country’s largest library devoted to poetry, moves from SoHo—the New York City neighborhood where it has been located for the past sixteen years—to the planned community of Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, its ever-expanding archive of poetry books and literary journals will likely exceed fifty thousand volumes. (And that's not counting its extensive collection of multimedia materials.) The relocation, scheduled to take place this summer, follows a successful $6.5 million fund-raising campaign led by the nonprofit literary organization's board and staff, including executive director Lee Briccetti.

Some of that money will be used to design and build the new space—two floors in excess of ten thousand square feet—and fund the organization's annual schedule of more than fifty public programs, including readings, seminars, and workshops. One thing the money will not be used for is rent: In October 2004, Battery Park City Authority, the state public corporation that oversees the ninety-two-acre neighborhood and seeks to ensure the diversity of its community, granted Poets House a free lease through the year 2069—a savings of about $60 million.

Poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray founded Poets House in 1985 with the mission of nurturing poets and creating a space that would offer greater access to poetry, as well as build visibility for the genre. Kunitz, who published more than ten books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize, and who twice served as the poet laureate of the United States, died last year just a few months short of his 101st birthday. According to Briccetti, Kunitz, an avid gardener, was moved when he heard that the new site for Poets House would include a garden. "Stanley was very excited and felt that he had lived to see the permanent home. He kept threatening to live to be 102 so he could see the final product."

A little over half a year before its scheduled grand opening, Briccetti spoke about the expansion and relocation of Poets House.

How does the rent-free space affect the goals you've set for the organization?
It's great because we’re going to be putting all of that money—I don’t even want to say how much we were paying [in SoHo] but it was a lot, a lot—into the library and into the programs.

How did this move come to be?
We were working together for almost five years, telling everyone our story and seeing if we could find a solution. We met with the head of the New York State Council on the Arts—we had already been considered one of their important groups—and he said, "I’m going to help you." He started calling people for us. We made the right connection down at Battery Park City—not that we didn't work for it; it was a long courtship—and they asked to see a business plan. We really hustled and put together a plan that they said was the best business plan they'd ever seen. We hired a consultant; we did this all very quickly.

What has Stanley Kunitz left behind with Poets House?
Stanley said at one of his last meetings with me that he felt that the community building he left stands with his oeuvre. He really lived a life as a builder of others and a builder of community. He said on more than one occasion that when he did not find the community he needed, he felt compelled to make it.

Timothy Schaffert is the author of three novels. His latest, Devils in the Sugar Shop, is forthcoming from Unbridled Books in June. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where he is the director of the Downtown Omaha Lit Fest.