February 17, 2018

Poets House National InstituteAimsToBoost Poetry in Public Libraries

By Marcella Veneziale

Focus is on tactics to raise patron–and staff–awareness

Poets House has grown exponentially since its 1985 founding by poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray as a place for anyone to read or write poetry. Starting in a classroom in New York City’s High School for the Humanities and moving to a SoHo loft that eventually became unaffordable, the nonprofit organization reopened—virtually rent free—in a spacious new Battery Park City location in September 2009. [The opening ceremony capped a fund drive that attracted nearly $10 million.] Now it holds a 50,000-volume poetry collection and hosts nearly 200 programs annually. 

Those programs include the Poets House National Institute for public librarians, established in 2002. The two-day workshop, a highlight of the organization’s Poetry in the Branches program, grew from a series of American Library Association workshops developed by Poets House Executive Director Lee Briccetti in the 1990s. It has since become one of Poets House’s most important efforts for boosting poetry’s readership through public libraries nationwide.

Learning the Poets House model
On November 6, 2009, 31 librarians gathered at Poets House for that year’s institute. They came from the five boroughs, upstate New York, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Little Rock, New Orleans, and Jacksonville, FL, and together represented more than six million library users. [The next institute will be held in October 2010; information will be posted no later than June and can be found by going to www.poetshouse.org and clicking on "Libraries" and "Our PITB National Institute."]

Marsha Howard, the Poetry in the Branches coordinator and a former NYPL librarian, stepped up to the podium in the Programming Hall to introduce the program. “Poetry is most successful when your patrons hear it, see it, hear about it, bump into it, in as many ways as possible,” she said. “It will be unavoidable if you do a good job.”

The Poets House model guides librarians in collection development, creating book displays, and leading programs such as slams and writing workshops. “Once people start coming, they find something that is nourishing them,” said Howard, who noted that poetry circulation tripled at libraries that followed the Poets House model. “They will come back, and you will be rewarded by that.”

Howard also encouraged the librarians to raise not only their patrons’ awareness of poetry but the staff’s as well. She suggested starting meetings with a poem, for instance. The more staff members embraced poetry, the more successful the librarians’ efforts would be.

What works for your community
a strong poetry collection is critical. To do that, advised Howard, librarians must become familiar with the small presses. They must also judge which poetry books their communities would embrace. To help them, Howard presented an exercise called “Filling the Stacks, Moving the Books.” She scattered several volumes of poetry on the five tables around the room. The librarians spent 15 minutes reading poems from each volume and then decided on one they would buy for their library.

Margaret Gibson of the Queens Library, NY, chose Marie Howe’s Kingdom of Ordinary Time. “The poems are very short,” she explained, “and I was thinking if you had an open mike or slam, the way these poems are written, it’d be easy to put music behind it and perform it. Also, it relates to New York.”

“Marie Howe is a New York poet,” Howard said. “Maybe you’ll get a chance to invite her to your library.”

“I would choose Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak,” said a Milwaukee librarian. “It’s a story about miners here in the United States and in China. Being from Milwaukee, an older manufacturing town, I think this would work well in our public library. It also has prose and photos, so it’d be a good introductory piece to get people excited about poetry.”

Slamming at the library

Howard then called on poet Dave Johnson, who has led parts of the institute since it began. He gave the librarians pointers on leading a slam. “One of the great things about having this in a library, as opposed to a café or a bar, is you have access to all these books,” he said.

Although slams are casual, Johnson suggested rules to keep the event moving. He wanted the librarians to limit participants’ time at the mike so that more people could participate. He also recommended that they invite a local poet to be a host or featured reader. Then it was time to test what participants had learned in a “dead poets” slam.

Gibson, the Queens librarian, took the mike and read Robert Phillips’s “Instrument of Choice.” Her Caribbean accent boomed around the room. “She was a girl/ no one ever chose/ for teams or clubs,/ dances or dates.” Two others read next in shy monotones. Finally, Micah Zevin of the Queens Library read R. Zamora Linmark’s “Evolution of a Sigh.” 

“Remember salmonella on wheels?” he began.

The librarians laughed, and his voice grew more excited as he read.

Gibson and Zevin faced off in the last round. Gibson first read Langston Hughes’s “Park Bench”: “I live on a park bench./ You, Park Avenue./ Hell of a distance/ Between us two.” Zevin then recited Lori Anderson-Moseman’s “Nightlight”: “You wore a miner’s headlamp./ I wore a welder’s helmet./ We were in a processional,/ The middle way.”

“OK, judges, to work,” said Johnson. “You ready? Yes, we do have a winner. And it’s Langston Hughes! Give it up for Margaret!”

Librarians as revolutionaries
After the slam, as the librarians ate dinner upstairs in the library, Johnson stepped up to a podium. “I’m very glad to see librarians from all over the country,” he said. “Meaning this program, which started out as a small initiative, just like Poets House, has now become a national project.” 

Johnson went on to praise the work done by librarians, calling them revolutionaries. He said the language of people in power has “no root, no song, and no meaning in our lives. … I firmly believe if there’s ever going to be any serious challenge to the hungry capitalist machine, … this change will begin in a library.”

Johnson finished with a story from his childhood. When he was ten years old, he attended a book fair at his school. The school librarian was responsible for the cash register, but Johnson and a couple of friends decided to bypass her and steal some books. Johnson’s friends were caught by a teacher. But he went home and read his book cover to cover. It was the subversive story of a boy who steals to pay a fine so that his dog, which had been taken by the dogcatcher, won’t be euthanized. 

The next week, when Johnson’s class had library time, he picked a book off the shelf. “How do you like your new book?” he heard in his ear. He jumped. It was the school librarian. Clearly, she knew he had stolen the book. She asked the question again.

“I really like it,” he said, not able to make eye contact. 

“You know, I thought you might like that one,” she said. Then she took another book off the shelf and gave it to him. “Why don’t you try this one?” she asked and walked away.

The librarians laughed in appreciation at their colleague’s actions. Johnson then concluded, “Your work is essential so that we might all, like you, know some things. Thank you.” 

How to judge a poem

Participants reconvened the next morning to hear Briccetti and Johnson discuss “What Makes a Poem ‘Good’? ” The conversation aimed to make the librarians comfortable with their own judgments about poetry.

Briccetti started by observing, “The best doesn’t really mean the best,” she said. “It’s someone’s best.” She then recommended the Best American Poetry annual as a good overview that has a new editor each year, allowing for fresh perspectives.

“If you can find the time to really work through this, make a list of ten  poems you liked the best,” she said. “Then you can follow those poets.”

The librarians were encouraged to expand their idea of good poetry, taking each poem “for what it is and not what you want it to be,” said Johnson. Briccetti stressed that librarians should start with their own passions and find a poem that excited them. “I know it’s poetry,” she concluded, “when the top of my head blows off.”

When Alfred Encarnacion, from New Jersey, asked how to work with a patron with poetry tastes he disliked, Briccetti could relate. She had taught a slam poet the summer before who initially refused to read anything but slam. 

“My goal was to expand my notion of good,” she said, “and to get him to expand his notion of what a poem could be and what a poem could do.” Briccetti assigned him to write a poem in response to Allen Ginsberg’s “America, ” which helped him grow as a reader and writer.

Erik Bobilin, from the Brooklyn Public Library, described a poetry workshop he was assigned to teach at the last minute in a Bedford-Stuyvesant juvenile detention center. He went into the class cold and read Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” which he had never seen before. Then he asked what they thought it meant. After a long silence, someone spoke up.

“Sex,” a young detainee said gruffly.

“And we kept talking about it,” Bobilin said. “I only knew about her life, and I said, ‘I don’t think she really had sex. She lived this hermetically sealed life.’ Then I said, ‘You all live this solitary life like her!’ And then it resonated.”

“That’s fabulous,” Briccetti said, drawing out the word’s vowels. “Fabulous story.”

Librarian dreams
Howard wanted to leave the librarians with an exercise that would reflect what they had learned over the weekend about bringing poetry to the people, so she asked them to write down one really big dream and one practical thing they could do when they got back to the library.

Queens’s Gibson dreamed of creating a poetry library where poetry lovers could come to sit and read, and her goal was to hold a teen slam poetry contest that will run over four to six weeks. Stacey Van Hoy of Jacksonville planned to launch her own stealth poetry campaign. “I want people to open a DVD and a poem flutters out. I’ll look up the most browsed books and stuff poems in them. They’ll read poetry whether they like it or not.”

Brookyn’s Bobilin wanted to start a workshop for teen guys. “How to pick up girls with poetry,” he explained. “Then for girls, how not to get played. Then get them together at the end.”

Another Queens librarian who had been quiet for much of the institute spoke last.

“My big dream,” she said, “is for all the socially excluded people in my neighborhood to find a place in my community through poetry.”


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