If Philadelphia and environs were a garden of poetry, it'd be … quite a garden.
It'd be huge. This is a big poetry town that, while perhaps not as famed for verse as New York and San Francisco, is lush and fertile, especially during April, Poetry Month. No gardener could tend it all, much less get to it all. Too many events, readings, poets, speakers series (Bryn Mawr, Green Line Cafe, Moonstone Arts Center, Monday Poets at the Free Library, Kelly Writers House), and poetry groups (Moles Not Molars! Mad Poets! Fox Chase!).
To get a sense of its scope, check out our poetry page (http://www.philly.com/poets), where six poets — Lynn Levin, Kelly McQuain, Scott McVay, Tamara Oakman, Laura Spagnoli, and Cleveland Wall — read a poem each.
A good index of a place's poetic vitality is its publishing scene. Philadelphia has nurtured some long-established literary magazines, including the American Poetry Review (planted in 1972), the Painted Bride Quarterly (1973), the Philadelphia Poets Journal (1980), Schuylkill Valley Journal (1990), and the Mad Poets Review (1990). But in the last decade, it's been bloom upon bloom, a fluorescent hanging garden powered by the Web. The Philly lit mag scene shows what you can do if you think fresh.
These venues put poetry in front of your eyes, of course. But they do much more, things undreamed of. They use all the tools of the Web, not just to make the poetry "pop," although it surely does, but also to surround it with other arts, start conversations and collaborations and buzz.
Take the New Purlieu Review (http://newpurlieureview.com). Launched in January 2011 by Elkins Park poet Deborah Fries, it offers single-theme issues and is committed to visual as well as verbal art. Its current issue, subtitled "desire in the second decade of the century," is decked with art photos of flowers (visual metaphor for desire?). As one featured poet, Cleveland Wall, writes in "Epergne": "Wishing is free." Saves space, too.
How do you put something like that together? New Purlieu exists anyplace and noplace. Fries says she "deals with a cybercommunity of writers" from her home office. Her daughter, Leah Drilias, is a fiction writer living in St. Paul, Minn., and she's editing fiction for the coming issue. To get out the word, Fries relies on her publishing contacts across the country, and on e-mail lists such as the incredible lit-Philly (to join lit-philly, write Natalie Anderson at email@example.com). Envelopes? Stamps? No more: Poets send their work to an online submissions management site.
Like New Purlieu, the zine called Press 1 (http://www.leafscape.org/press1/masthead.html) combines both art and poetry. It grew out of a talk among poets at the restaurant Jack's Firehouse, and the first issue came out in summer 2006. It's truly international, publishing folks from all over the world.
Poet and cofounder Valerie Fox, who teaches at Drexel, says she and coeditor Nicole Klein "traditionally put the magazine together by e-mail and telephone." They have to. Their Web design editor, Arlene Ang, lives outside Venice, Italy. To handle submissions, Fox and Klein use an online service. Press 1 offers interviews, reviews, and columns, including one in which writers trade ideas.
Which is a sign. Like many new online poetry mags, Press 1 is trying to create a community. Beyond just sticking words on a page, it's trying to bring folks together and see what happens.
So is ONandOnScreen (http://onandonscreen.net). A project of Philly poet and critic Tom Devaney, ONandOnScreen (born 2010) could never have happened without the Web. Its special marriage is between poetry and video: "Here videos are linked with poems and poems with videos in a shared space, widening the spectrum and essential strangeness of each," Devaney writes on the website. Philly poet Laura Spagnoli writes a poem, "Pack of Lies":
What can I do but wait
for the night I'll cut it, tie it
to the bed post and shimmy down
to meet you, the one true thing
I can say. Spagnoli is paired with the video "Mood Ring" by Jason Livingston, a collage of pop-cult images from the '50s and '60s. Strangely, it works.
Community-building has been a watchword for Philly poetry zines for years. The Painted Bride Quarterly (http://pbq.drexel.edu) has long hosted readings, performance art, and other community events. Now living at Drexel University, it hosts at least two events a month, including salons, slams, and Literary Death Matches, which Kathleen Volk-Miller, coeditor, describes as "part reading/part game show," bringing together "at least four different literary organizations or venues for a ridiculous evening of lit and fun." Volk-Miller says, "I think that the collaborative, democratic philosophy of the group, as well as a simple deep-rooted love of language, is the reason for PBQ's longevity." (Next year is the 40th anniversary blowout for PBQ, a celebration of new writers and the many famous writers gracing its pages and websites, including Sonia Sanchez, Charles Bukowski, and Etheridge Knight.)
Literary zeal builds communities in such wildly diverse sites as the Wild River Review (http://www.wildriverreview.com), Per Contra (http://www.percontra.net), and E-Verse Radio (http://www.everseradio.com).
Wild River Review (2006), the work of literary goddesses Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy, is a worldwide community of poets, essayists, bloggers, and visual artists. Stocke and Nagy say that although the central office is in Princeton, they "meet via phone, Skype, and e-mail throughout the week," relying on "the power of the Web to reach far-flung shores" and a widespread global audience. Women's issues, spirituality, translation, politics — it's called "Wild River Style." If there were ever a Wild River Review poem, it'd be "Maps," by Scott McVay:
What are maps
for what we don't know?
At each juncture
of the human record of
perception of where we are
we see a little of
the near at hand
but want to know
what's over the rise
in the hill or
the far horizon at sea.
Per Contra (born 2005), which bills itself as "An International Journal of the Arts, Literature, and Ideas," tills as wide an artistic field as possible. In its clean, elegant pages, you'll find poetry, fiction, nonfiction, reviews, and interviews. It's a class act. Meantime, E-Verse Radio (born 1999) combines the literate with the wacky. Its guiding wight is the irrepressible Ernest Hilbert, poet and bookstore guy in Philly. E-Verse's team brings readers poetry and criticism, and photography, and music, a real-time Twitter feed, and video … and silly lists ("Top Five Creative Uses of the Network Censor Bleep"; " 'Bury Me in It': Top Five New Uses for Bacon").
You could tour visit of these corners of the Philly poetry garden and be lost in delight for days — without leaving your computer screen. Why not go to philly.com's poetry page (see above), and explore an issue of Apiary (born 2010)? It's all Philly, with blogs, photos, vids, and a calendar of local poetry events. Cofounders Lillian Dunn and Tamara Oakman say they started Apiary "because we wanted to showcase this city's huge diversity of literary communities … including the spoken-word poets, young people, and new writers who might not usually submit work to a literary magazine." Like so many poets and zines, Apiary is trying to grow the garden, cross-pollinate, replace the words literary magazine with the word community — the word us.
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.
For videos of our six Philadelphia-area poets performing their works, go to www.philly.com/poets