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Pulsing with verse

Philadelphia's a major poetry producer, making far too much for just a month. Here are seven young workers in words.

Philadelphia is poetry town.

"The city has a heartbeat," says poet Elliot Levy, 17. "You can go to coffeehouse open mics in Philly suburbs and be 20 minutes away from poetry slams in the city. There are poets from every different background here. . . . When you put all this together, you get something beautiful."

Nowhere was that energy and diversity on better display than at the Philadelphia Poetry Festival 2011, hosted by the Mad Poets Society at the Free Library. The idea was to bring together "all of the Philly poetry organizations that we can fit into one auditorium," in the words of Mad Poet Autumn Konopka.

The cavalcade on Saturday night was scheduled to last for five hours.

That's how much poetry, and how many kinds of poetry, goes on around here. Yes, it's April, Poetry Month, but Philadelphia has an April every month.

Poet Nathalie F. Anderson writes by e-mail: "From experimentalists to traditionalists . . . from the university to the jazz club, from black-tie formality to the urgently confessional, this town celebrates it all. And April truly is the cruelest month: so many enticing poetic events that no one person could possibly hear them all."

Poet Miriam Kotzin says, "You can go to a reading any day of the week and hear poetry in a wide range of settings."

Daniel Hoffman (U.S. poet laureate, 1973-74) says, "The poets, both in academic writing programs and these groups of enthusiasts, span a wide range of poetic styles, from formalism to free verse, including those in such movements as Language and confessional poetry."

Nobody better exemplifies the energy and vibrance of the Philly poetry scene than its young poets. When we asked some of the area's prominent poets and teachers, they gave us dozens of names, all talented, deserving voices. Since we couldn't include everybody, below we offer a selection of seven poets between 17 and 30.

They are a diverse group, from the flamboyant performance poetry of Levy to the ironic, worldly verse of Munashe Gwaradzimba (a Zimbabwean studying at Wharton), to the elegant villanelles of Luke Stromberg. If their lines attract you, hear them read their own poetry at  

 Lovella Calica, 30, is founder and director of Warrior Writers, a creative community for veterans articulating their experiences. A 2009 winner of the Leeway Transformation Award, she is currently releasing her second book, Huwag Matakot: Do Not Be Afraid, in three parts. Her poetry often faces the reality of war in the lives of others, as in "For J.":

your voice rips through my ears, I am on fire

you are burning alive

and burning this war deeper in my heart

She also explores relationships, as in "what is left for us Lola?":

will I rearrange my life to be with you

will I follow you to learn our language

to cook with you

to sweat with you

hear your stories

Nick Gettino, 20, grew up in upstate New York and is currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College. He works as an intern for Saturnalia Books in Ardmore and has assisted with poetry workshops at the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia. His poetry presents us with the world in its rich unexpectedness. In "Family Dinner," a housewife speaks:

There's a lesson in my clothes:

the worn-through pattern,

like lattice-work, etched on blue cotton.

I think I'd match the wallpaper

if my body wasn't in relief

against my husband's black suit.

Or these unforgettable denizens of "Zoo":

The tigers in the grass moved like oil

slicking over the ground.

Munashe Mtausi Gwaradzimba, 20, is from Mberengwa, Zimbabwe, and is studying accounting at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes: "I also intend to minor in philosophy and also in creative writing."

Gwaradzimba's poetry is reflective and political, taking in the sweep of an entire country, as in "Ode to the Land, In Zimbabwe":

Even now my home,

my feet

are acquainted with your truth,

and the farmers concur,

blaming instead

the heatless sun,

or the rainless clouds,

for the meagre harvest

And U.S. culture gets a quizzical look in "Ode to Winning":

Are you central to theories like that of evolution?

Either way your journey has been long and distinguished,

accompanying many an Olympian,

twice siding with the Allies, and now even trending on Twitter.

Elliot Levy, 17, of Wynnewood, is a senior at Harriton High School in Lower Merion. Winner of the 2010 Mad Poets Society Open Mic Award, he honed his skills in local coffee-shop readings and plans to go to business school.

He's a performance poet, with Beat flamboyance, rap/hip-hop rhythm, and irrepressible energy, as in "God's Lottery":

You see we are winners from the beginning,

From when your mom and dad first met eyes,

From when the doctor brought you into this world on the roulette table that we're born on,

And from those lucky number sevens that encode your DNA.

As he informs the world in "Halloween":

I'm going to change this world

With or without you . . .

Jaime Gianna Picano, 18, grew up on a ranch outside of Napa, Calif. Initially a novelist, Jaime self-published her first book, The Mood Ring Adventure, while in high school. She attended the Educational Program for Gifted Youth in creative writing at Stanford University for four summers. She's a creative-writing minor at Penn. Her poetry is drawn to the satirical, as in "Ode to Frats" . . .

show me how to live,

like you, and with you, simply

in your society where the moral

code is blurred like vision

and anything

is climbable.

. . . and to social comment, as in "The City of Opportunity":

Here in the City,

there's a highway cutting

right through

the middle,

splitting its gut like a thin


separating east

and west . . .

Luke Stromberg, 29, an Upper Darby resident, received his B.A. and M.A. in English at West Chester University. In 2008, his poem "Black Thunder" was set to music by composer Melissa Dunphy and performed at the Kimmel Center as a part of the Network for New Music's Poetry Project. His poetry is often formal, as in "On the Edge of Night":

God's angels fold their wings and hide their light

From those who listen for their harps to play

But hear only dogs at the edge of night.

Two lines of Spanish poetry bring out his talent for scene-setting:

Streets wait to be wandered,

Conversations to be had, drinks to be served.

A guitarist tunes his instrument.

The gypsy girl passes through a curtain of beads,

her skirt wrapped around her.

Michelle Taransky, 29, was born in Camden. Her first book, Barn Burned, Then, was selected for the 2008 Omnidawn Poetry Prize. A graduate of the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Taransky works at Kelly Writers House. She also teaches writing at Penn and Temple University.

Taransky has a haunting, surprising way with language. Thoughts run together and apart, wringing new possibilities out of the apparently simple, as in "Fall Instructions":

At the end of the world

Is an argument and its stolen

Negotiator putting stones

Into the wild


The effect startles like realizing a new truth, as in "Profit & Loss Statement":

This line is about the theft

It is about time

Safes that stay safe

Resources in rhyme (or not)

Poets. Just a few of the very diverse, very accomplished poets near you: Nathalie Anderson of Swarthmore; Rachel Blau DuPlessis of Temple; Daisy Fried; Leonard Gontarek; Daniel Hoffman; Karl Kirchwey of Bryn Mawr; Miriam Kotzin of Drexel; Ursula Rucker; Elizabeth Scanlon; Ron Silliman; Charles Bernstein, Gregory Djanikian, Lynn Levin, and Bob Perelman of Penn; and everyone's Sonia Sanchez. Never heard of 'em? Let your fingers (or your cursor!) do the walking.

 Journals.  Philly is home to two of the longest-running literary journals around, the American Poetry Review and the Painted Bride Quarterly. Annual collections come out from Philadelphia Poets and the Moonstone Arts Center. And there's also Apiary (a print journal and an online blog and poetry calendar) and Think Journal. 

Reading Series.  There are many, including the East Falls Poetry Potluck (fourth Wednesday of each month, Free Library Falls of Schuylkill Branch, 3501 Midvale Ave.); Green Line Poetry Series (third Tuesdays, Green Line Cafe, 45th and Locust); Jus' Words (Thursdays, Dowling's Palace, 1310 N. Broad St.); Monday Poets (first Monday of the month, October to April, Free Library); Moveable Beats (third Sunday, Slingluff Gallery, 11 W. Girard Ave.); Poet-tree En Motion (May 11 and June 18, the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St.); and the 2d Tuesdays Poetry Open Mic (Hop Angel Brauhaus, 7980 Oxford Ave.).

Readings are held throughout the year at the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center (419 Green Lane, rear), Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College, Drexel University, the Kelly Writers House at Penn, Mad Poets, Moonstone Arts Center, Fox Chase, Moles Not Molar, and Chapter and Verse. And West Chester University hosts its annual Poetry Conference in June - one of the biggest and most eminent in the country.