This weekend, after years of effort, a devoted community of friends and admirers will open the Nick Virgilio Writers House in Camden, at the corner of Broadway and Jasper Street, with two days of poetry and related activities.
The center is a tribute to Virgilio, the "patron saint of haiku," a bohemian eccentric who wrote about the Waterfront South neighborhood, the Vietnam War, and Philadelphia. The house will host programs encouraging literacy for children, especially through poetry, as well as other writing-related activities.
On Saturday, a "Poets Preview Day," a roster of poets will read, including Mariko Kitakubo of Japan, New York haiku master Al Pizzarelli, and poets from Camden and Philadelphia. There will also be house tours and an open mic.
On Sunday, along with films, house tours, another open mic, and poetry readings, Camden Mayor Frank Moran will cut the ceremonial ribbon.
The Rev. Michael Doyle, longtime pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, where Virgilio was a mainstay ("often whispering haiku in people's ear during Mass," according to Doyle), will bless the house. Sunday's program will also include workshops in haiku and origami, a cherry tree planting, refreshments, and activities for kids.
"I'm so grateful that now we have this house dedicated to him," says Doyle, "about 100 feet from where he went to church every Sunday for the last 12 years of his life."
Doyle is also founder of Heart of Camden, the redevelopment organization that played a big role in the development of the writers' house. For years, the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association and others had been in talks with Rutgers University at Camden about founding a writers' house that would be associated with Virgilio.
In the end, the Virgilio group took its own path, and through Heart of Camden, donors such as Campbell Soup Co. and PNC Bank helped it acquire and renovate the house when it became available. Rutgers is still involved, digitizing Virgilio's archives of poetry and papers.
Virgilio (1928-89), a fixture for years on the byways of his beloved Camden, was a man with next to no visible means of support, yet he made himself into a master.
One of his earliest haikus was also one of his best:
out of the water . . .
out of itself
The poem is inscribed on Virgilio's gravestone in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.
"It's amazing," Doyle says, "that here was a man from Camden, writing on his old standup Remington typewriter beneath a bare bulb, sitting next to the washing machine, and he became one of the finest writers of haiku in English."
Doyle remembers this one, based on a Depression-era memory:
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek,
increases the cold
"It's still breathtaking to think of Nick dying at 60," says poet Kathleen O'Toole. "I think it blew a hole in a lot of hearts. But his spirit and influence were so large. He created a community of people that have made a lot of miracles happen."