The Nick Virgilio Writers House is where poets read, write, study, teach, and talk about the latest iterations of the 17th-century Japanese verse form called haiku. And that’s just on the second floor.
The first floor of what was once a medical office on Broadway near Ferry Avenue is home to the Camden branch of Mighty Writers, an after-school program focused on literacy, creativity, and, since the pandemic, food distribution.
“There’s a lot going on here,” said poet and Writers House program designer Savannah Cooper-Ramsey, who last year posted a call for haiku submissions on social media that drew contributions from 16 countries. Selections are showcased in the Writers House’s latest anthology, Haiku in Action.
“We wanted people to write about what they were going through,” said Warren C. Longmire. He penned the anthology’s introduction, and his own contemporary verse is anthologized in Best American Poetry 2021. Radiator Press in Philadelphia recently published Open Source, his first book.
Where some might see haiku as an arcane, overly rigorous, or even elitist sort of poetry, writers and fans know it as a plainspoken, egalitarian platform from which three short lines of text can speak volumes.
“The Nick Virgilio Writers House stretches the limits of haiku,” board President Robin Palley said. “And so did Nick. He was radical.”
Virgilio was a voluble, idiosyncratic, only-in-Camden fellow who grew up in Fairview, lost a brother in Vietnam, and worked as an AM radio DJ named Nickaphonic Nick. He took up haiku in the 1960s and carried a notebook to record what he observed while riding the bus or walking around his city. His skillful, heartfelt haiku gained international recognition for its structural innovations and gritty subject matter.
Virgilio wrote thousands of haiku on his Remington typewriter — the Writers House’s publishing arm is called Upright Remington Press — and helped popularize the genre until his death, at 60, in 1989. The Writers House opened in 2018, joining a cluster of arts and culture-related organizations — including a theater, museum, and gallery/studio space — in Camden’s Waterfront South neighborhood.
“Before the pandemic, we were entirely focused on programs in the building, and in the community,” said Palley. “When we moved programs and events onto social media, we suddenly became a connection point for people in England, India, Australia, Poland, ... as well as people throughout the region.”
The online Haiku in Action program that Cooper-Ramsey launched last year continues to attract 50 to 90 submissions weekly. Palley described the 4,000-plus contributions since June 2020 as a “global dialogue.”
Said Philly poet and Writers House program director Sean Lynch, who coedited the anthology with Longmire: “Haiku in Action is about haiku in the moment. This past week the prompt [posted on the website] was ‘endangered species.’ The prompts are something to get you writing, and spark your creativity.”
Meanwhile, open mic nights, readings by esteemed haikuists, how-to-write-haiku lessons, and Monday Night Mindfulness meditation sessions (haiku is, after all, about mindful observation) are continuing virtually, said former board president Henry A. Brann.
And “Ginko Walks,” a practice, originated in Japan, of looking for inspiration for haiku by strolling mindfully through nature — or the city — have resumed in the real world, Palley said.
Videos of these activities are on the Writers House YouTube channel; updates about events and publications can be found on its Instagram page as well as the Facebook page of The Nick Virgilio Haiku Association.
“Right now we’re looking at also providing services through local libraries, schools, sister organizations — and of course, at the Writers House,” Palley said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Palley, Cooper-Ramsey, Brann, Lynch, and fellow Writers House principal/poet Geoffrey Sill gathered in a sunny room where a black-and-white photo portrait of Virgilio loomed large. His typewriter and a circa-1960 record player are among the memorabilia on the premises. Sill, a retired English professor at Rutgers University-Camden, noted that a comprehensive collection of Virgilio’s work has never been published.
But the Robeson Library on the campus has digitized the trove of mostly unpublished material discovered in the basement writing room of Virgilio’s Fairview rowhouse after his death, he said.
Many of those 20,000 pages of work were produced on the Remington, while others were handwritten on scraps of paper.
“The digital archive allows you to trace the origins of any particular poem,” said Sill. “By searching a single word you can find related versions.”
The writers said that while haiku is more difficult than it appears, the form does have a compactness and simplicity that can attract young and otherwise new writers; Haiku in Action, and the resulting anthology, aims in part to to discover and showcase the work of beginners, as well as masters.
“I am so blown away by our anthology,” said Lynch, who, like Cooper-Ramsey and Longmire, is active in Philly’s poetry scene. He and Longmire edited Haiku in Action.
“There’s a huge difference between writing haiku and writing personal poetry,” he said. “With haiku, you’re an observer. You don’t center yourself in it.”
Brann, who contributed two pieces to Haiku in Action, was inspired to establish the anthology series because of poems written to commemorate the opening of the Writers House. “They were just so good,” he said.
“I love how [the organization] really sees itself as a literary resource for the neighborhood, and as a place that teaches haiku,” said Longmire.
Sharing the building with Mighty Writers also has sparked collaboration and creative opportunities, Cooper-Ramsey said.
She spearheaded “Art Unboxed,” in which the Writers House partnered with volunteer chefs who showed Mighty Writers food recipients how to augment the fare with groceries readily available in bodegas and corner stores in Camden.
“There was an intersection of nutrition and haiku,” Cooper-Ramsey said, noting that Virgilio himself was an advocate of healthy eating.
There are plenty of other opportunities for creative work at the Writers House, which is seeking a grant to organize its own cache of Virgilio’s writing and other materials.
“We’re doing all these cool things and there have to be more people out there who want to get involved,” said Cooper-Ramsey.
Said Palley: “We are definitely punching above our level, but we want to build our board. We need a more diverse board, a younger board. We definitely need some new energy.
“We hope to find kindred spirits who want to make a difference in Camden,” she said, “and in the world of poetry.”
The Writers House invites students in grades 7 through 12 to enter the Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Student Haiku and Senryu Competition, which is cosponsored by the Haiku Society of America. Submission guidelines can be found at hsa-haiku.org/hsa-contests.htm#virgilio.
This story was updated on Jan. 5.