San Francisco is famous as a great poetry town. As it should be.
But move over, San Fran: Philadelphia should be as famous for poetry as it is for cheesesteak and Rocky. Philly is a bursting cauldron, a dizzying maelstrom, a chorusing kennel, yea, a mad laser light show of verse.
This area offers renowned journals such as the American Poetry Review and a whole raft of vibrant Web sites for poetry and literature, such as the Fox Chase Review and the Wild River Review. Besides its series of readings by the world-famous, the Free Library also offers Monday Poets, a reading series/open-mike (where all comers can read), on the first Monday of every month from October to April. It's in the Skyline Room of the Central Library, which, says coordinator Amy Thatcher, "has got to have the best view of Center City" in town. For next year, she's looking for good poets from all over the area.
No statistics could possibly be available, but "it seems there are more and more writers moving here," says Ryan Eckes, host of the Chapter & Verse reading series, "and not just students. A lot of poetry readings have been popping up all over town."
Patrick Lucy of the New Philadelphia Poets says: "I've heard many poets describe the emerging scene as an ecosystem, a dynamic environment of many different poetics."
That's key: If you want verse that rhymes, you can find it. If you like free, field, slam, trance, or language poetry, they're all around here someplace. Poet, teacher, and reading-host Leonard Gontarek says: "I can't see how there could be [a poetry scene] more vibrant and essential than Philadelphia's poetry world."
What sets the Philly poetry scene apart? It's so welcoming. Kathy Volk Miller of the Painted Bride says: "I see a lot of new poets who come to this city . . . and they talk about the warm embrace the city gave them."
There is so much poetry, so many kinds, that, let's face it, no single article can do it justice. Let's give an outline instead, a broad-strokes map of the Philadelphia poetry scene.
Groundwork. Pennsy, Philly, and surrounds have many ties to historic poets and poetry. Camden's claim on Walt Whitman (or his on Camden) would be enough, but there are more. Wallace Stevens was from Reading. Marianne Moore studied biology at Bryn Mawr. Ezra Pound and H.D. both (briefly) attended Penn. At this moment, plenty of nationally known poets reside and write and read around here, from two-time U.S. poet laureate (before the office bore that title) Daniel Hoffman to former New Jersey poet laureate Gerald Stern; to Penn's Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman; to Temple's Rachel Blau DuPlessis and so on and so forth. It's OK if you've never heard of these folks. You can still like poetry.
Poetry college. In this college town, nearly every major institution of higher learning hosts open-mikes, celebrity readings, slams, bams, and jams. They want everyone to come, not just professors and students.
Penn is a big place, and Kelly Writers House (3805 Locust Walk) is a warm, beating heart of the written word. Jessica Lowenthal, director, says: "In the last several months, we've hosted poets from China, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as from down the street."
At noon on Tuesday, poet Bob Perelman's class will present a reading of Book I of The Iliad. Start there.
Temple University has been operating its Poets & Writers series for a long time. It is held at the Center City campus (1515 Market St.). Poet Cole Swenson just came through, and fiction writer James Morrow reads on Thursday. "Many of our students stay on in the city," says professor, poet, and coordinator Jena Osman, "and start reading series of their own," including Moles Not Molars and Chapter & Verse.
At Bryn Mawr, poet and teacher Karl Kirchwey has brought many of the country's finest poets to read and teach as part of the school's creative writing program. It offers a reading series open to the public: Cornelius Eady is next up, at 7:30 p.m. April 29.
Swarthmore offers a vibrant poetic culture, with events such as the communal reading of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" scheduled for 4:15 p.m. Thursday at McCabe Library.
As part of its annual spring literary festival, Villanova is hosting renowned Polish poet Adam Zagajewski at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
West Chester University, under the guidance of Michael Peich, has a tremendous Poetry Center, with salons, readings, a press - and, of course, the West Chester Poetry Conference, to which poets come to teach, learn, read, and listen. The conference (this year's starts June 10) may be the best in the country.
And Bucks County Community College in Newtown continues its excellent readings series. Award-winning poet Steven Huff will read there at 7:30 p.m. on May 1.
Small venues. This category includes, but is not limited to, coffeehouses and bookstores.
Moles Not Molars. This group is connected to many others and holds forth monthly at the Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American Street (two blocks north of Girard Avenue between Second and Third Streets). Emily Abendroth, curator, says Moles Not Molars combines readings with other arts to break boundaries and explore new connections; she's excited that "so many filmmakers, sound artists, puppeteers, musicians, and even geologists" have participated. The next one, on May 22, will feature Jennifer Karmin (from Chicago) and Matthew Klane (Albany, N.Y.).
The New Philadelphia Poets give regular readings at Germ Books (2005 Frankford Ave.).
The Fox Chase reading series hosts featured poets at 3 Sisters Corner Cafe (7950 Oxford Ave.) and also a "2d Tuesdays Open Mic Night" at the Blue Ox Bistro (7980 Oxford Ave.) on the second Tuesday of each month.
Chapter & Verse holds readings at Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery (620 S. Ninth St., between South and Bainbridge Streets) every two weeks. Host Ryan Eckes says: "It's a community, or rather just one element of a community." The next Chapter & Verse event will be at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The Painted Bride Quarterly, a respected literary/arts journal partly sponsored by Drexel University, causes a reading event to happen at Bubble House Restaurant (3404 Sansom St.). The next one bubbles up at 8 p.m. May 13.
The Poetic Arts Performance Project uses three venues: the Blue Banana (223 South St.), Robins Bookstore/Moonstone Arts Center (108a-110 S. 13th St.), and the University City Arts League (4226 Spruce St.). At the latter venue, PAPP is putting on a big reading at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Green Line Cafe (45th and Locust Streets), with host Gontarek, a true mainstay of Philly poetry, presents readings at 7 p.m. the third Tuesday of every month. That's this Tuesday! "We have the traditional pairings of readers, new and established," says Gontarek, "but we try to do some different things. For instance, 100 minutes of poetry read by 331/3 poets. That is, 33 poets reading 3 minutes each and one poet [my son Max] reading for one minute."
The wonderful Germantown Poetry Festival, a continuing series of events - including poetry on Web radio station G-Town Radio (http://gtownradio.com/) - coordinated by poet Yolanda Wisher Palacio, hosts Verbal Roots, an open-mike, from 7 to 10 p.m. every two weeks at the LaRose Social Club (5531 Germantown Ave.).
Poetic conspiracies. As our flyover of poetic Philly suggests, there are poetry groups galore, subgroups, supergroups, and subsections of supergroup subsections, that gather to share the poetic art. As a symbol of Philly's poetic conspiracies, let us meditate on the Mad Poets Society.
Mad Poets, a loose but huge organization, coordinates readings all over the area. It was born in 1987; since 1988 its helmswoman has been Eileen D'Angelo, a poet and paralegal living in Glenolden. Mad Poets has coordinated more than 1,000 events involving thousands of poets. (The group has about 100 dues-paying members, but open-mikes and other events are wide open.) The Mad Poets site (http://www.madpoetssociety.com) gives some idea of the dozens of events, involving hundreds of poets, unleashed each year on an unsuspecting public.
Like the Philly poetry scene in general, Mad Poets embraces all age groups, all manner of verse. Why so egalitarian? D'Angelo says that "the common denominator is the love of words; that cuts across all barriers."
Mad Poet and Media resident Missy Grotz calls the group "the most wonderful bunch of insane people you could hope to be friends with. It is mirth and misery, the best and the worst; it's everyday life. It's every human emotion that exists, and a few that we haven't named. No day with the Mad Poets is like any other day."
Mad Poets events (readings, critique groups, open-mikes) are as likely to pop up in Center City as at Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore or Steel City Coffee House in Phoenixville. The group publishes the Mad Poets Review each year, printing both big-time-famous poets such as Billy Collins and your poetically inclined next-door neighbor.
That's Philly poetry: wide open, ready for anything, impatient with labels, compelled to write and listen. There's no money in it, but rather an exchange economy in which poets enlist eyes and minds for their work. Readings are either free or quite inexpensive - the best-kept cheap-date secret in the city. So go. So listen. It's a poetry town.
Philly Poetry: A Week in the Life*
Tuesday, 8 p.m., Bubble House Restaurant (3404 Sansom St.): Inverse Poetry reading.
Wednesday, 6 p.m., Rosenbach Museum & Library (2008-2010 Delancey Place): Nathalie Anderson and Daniel Hoffman read the poetry of Elizabeth McFarland, Hoffman's late wife. (Free with museum admission.)
Thursday, 9 p.m., Dowling's Palace (1310 N. Broad St.): Jus' Words.
Friday, 7:30 p.m., Big Blue Marble Bookstore (551 Carpenter Lane): Poetry Aloud and Alive.
Saturday, 2-4 p.m., 3 Sisters Corner Cafe (7950 Oxford Ave.): The Mad Poets Society Fox Chase Reading Series: Chad Parenteau and Ray Greenblatt.
Sunday, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., Steel City Coffee House (203 Bridge St., Phoenixville): Open-mic.
* All events free unless otherwise indicated.