Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly Loves Poetry: Herding the cats of verse in 2017

The great, slow herding of cats continues.

Next year is year two of Philly Loves Poetry. It began as a poetry festival in April, and it has grown into a five-year plan to connect and publicize all the poetry sites and events in the poetry town named Philadelphia.

Philly Loves Poetry was begun  by Larry Robin and friends at the Moonstone Arts Center, whose poetry programs next year include big-time poets (Stephen Dunn, Jan. 16 at Fergie's Pub), plus regular readings Wednesdays at Fergie's Pub and Saturdays at Toast. The aim of Philly Loves Poetry, as Robin puts it, is to "coordinate things without taking ownership."

It's an enormous task. As poet Lynn Levin says, "Philadelphia is a candy store of poetry events. Sometimes, there are too many to choose from." More than 70 places in town hold poetry events at one time or another, said Robin.

That includes all sorts of poetry, all sorts of groups and sites that may or may not be in touch. Karen Rile, who with daughter Lauren Rile Smith publishes the sharp, cutting-edge Cleaver magazine, writes that "Philadelphia has a wealth of poets working in so many poetic traditions — from formal and lyric poetry to performance poetry, conceptual poetry, and experimental poetry. And in so many places and venues — from kitchens and coffeeshops to afterschool programs to colleges and universities to circus sidewalk trapeze performances, and everywhere in between. We are a city of neighborhoods. I wouldn't say we have a single poetry scene so much as many vibrant poetry neighborhoods."

Just hear Philadelphia poet laureate Yolanda Wisher waxing, well, poetic about this city's poetry thumbprint: "I would say it's a city of crews and crossroads. Poets incognito. Poets ubiquitous. Readings in plain sight. Workshops in coffeeshops. Levitations in libraries. A place of speakeasies and sanctuaries. Poet teachers, poet doctors, poet shop owners, poet social workers, poet preachers. Poetry on every corner and in every 'hood. It's a place that's mythical and visceral and real."

Does such a gallimaufrey, such a stew of stuff, even want to be networked? There is a certain reluctance, especially from the academy, a certain yen for ownership. Poet Leonard Gontarek says a poetry center "can have its effectiveness. Yet I think the fiercely independent Philly spirit resists it, and that is probably wise."

In the spring, Moonstone published a newspaper, Philly Loves Poetry, in a run of 15,000, listing more than 60 of the places and events just in April, Poetry Month. Getting the paper out nearly killed everyone involved, but it was a beautiful thing. It was connected to the Poetry Ink: 100 Poets Reading all-day blowout, as well as to pop-ups and other poetry events throughout April.

But 2017 will bring new steps in new media. 
For the last year, PhillyCAM, the Philadelphia Community Access Media channel (Comcast 66/966HD and Verizon 29/30) hosted a monthly show titled Who Do You Love? coproduced with Moonstone. Each month, readers and poets gathered to discuss and read favorites, including Pablo Neruda, Gil Scott-Heron, T.S. Eliot, Anne Sexton, and John Milton. I helped out on the Sexton show:

WDYL: Anne Sexton from PhillyCAM on Vimeo.

Then Carr will host a series of shows, scheduled for the first Tuesday of every month, exploring topics in Philly poetry: young voices, Asian voices, black voices. Starting July 4, the show will focus on individual poetry orgs —maybe The Fuze? The Green Line Café? The Mad Poets Society? Farley's First Thursdays in New Hope? The Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement? The Red Sofa Poetry Salon? The Philadelphia and/or Montgomery County Poet Laureate programs? Poetry by the Sea

That's only a smidgeon of what's out there. Will the universities and colleges join in? The writers' houses at Penn or Rutgers Camden? The Painted Bride reading series? The Monday Poets at the Free Library?

And Philly also loves its poetry mags and websites. Poet Bernadette McBride praises the Schuylkill Valley Journal for "25-plus years creating a space for not only local, but national and international poets to, as John Keats believed of poetry, 'strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.' " Other standout pubs include Per Contra, the buzzing community of Apiary, Painted Bride Quarterly,and Cleaver, and many others. Surely they could all get together.

He also heads the Making Poems That Last workshops and has coordinated Peace/Works: Poets & Writers for Peace, the going and growing Philadelphia Poetry Festival, and Philly Poetry Day, in which poets scattered all over town did pop-up readings and other artistic disturbances. He is also heading Poetry in Common, an effort to encourage poets to "take a stronger political focus."

I asked Gontarek what, if anything, folks can do to get poetry more before the public. "I think about this constantly," he says. "It's a tough question. I think poetry should be presented for everyone — not just for other poets," a gentle way of saying poetry people should find ways of breaking out. "When it comes to poetry readings," he says, "I think poets should step out of their comfort zone now and then. … It would increase audience and interest locally and nationally." He wishes Philadelphia poets would step up and "participate in national initiatives" — like 100,000 Poets for Change, which drew a "strong but small" contingent to Philly in September.

Gontarek said Philly had been a supportive and diverse poetry town for the last generation, a state that was, by now, probably "permanent." That "supportive quality," he says, "is endearing and universal." Clearly, Philly loves poetry — now it has to be informed of that.