One day, as National Poetry Month came slouching toward Philadelphia, Larry Robin and the folks at Moonstone Arts Center had a bunch of bright ideas:
Count all the places in Philadelphia that do poetry. It's a big poetry town, but how big exactly?
Publish a Philly poetry newspaper listing them and all the great stuff happening for Poetry Month in this poetry town.
Throw a big poetry weekend with a huge number of events, so you go from one to another and have a wonderful time.
And the results?
"Seventy-two," Robin says. "That's the venues, workshops, poetry reading series, and writers' collectives we counted in town. Crazy, isn't it? It's kind of amazing."
Philly Loves Poetry has come into existence - a 20-page full-color newspaper in a run of 15,000. It's all over town, at coffee shops, bookstores, campuses. If you see a copy, pick it up and peruse - and promise yourself you'll go see something. It has articles, poems, and lists of about 60 of the venues, and their April offerings, such as . . .
Philly Loves Poetry Festival, April 14-17. Highlights include Women's Day, April 14, an interactive, multigenre performance honoring four female artists/activists. Sonia Sánchez Day is April 15, honoring the first Philadelphia poet laureate. April 16 is a day of workshops with eminent poets. The big climax is April 17, with the annual Poetry Ink: 100 Poets Reading blowout and a parallel student-poets event. There's also a 20th-anniversary reading honoring the Moonstone Arts Center. Both Poetry Ink and the Moonstone reading will generate books of commemoration.
Poet and Drexel history professor Robert Zaller calls Robin an invaluable resource for our city and says of the 100 Poets reading, "everyone is equal there. There's a democracy to it. It keeps an important spirit alive in this city." Eminent poet Elinor Wilner calls it "a unity that doesn't standardize, a unity in diversity."
Robin, longtime proprietor of Moonstone and also the beloved Robin's Bookstore, looks tired even listing all the events: "You wouldn't believe what we've had to do to get all this together."
Robin/Moonstone's efforts are only part of a fulminating, febrile, fertile Poetry Month here.
Philly Poetry Day this Saturday. Poets from all over the place will just materialize, all over town, and read, act out, declaim, and celebrate the art. It's the brainchild of longtime poet, teacher, and organizer Leonard Gontarek. You can do it, too. Or just listen and smile if poetry breaks out near you.
The Philadelphia Poetry Festival, 1-4 p.m. April 24 at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St. Readings, a poetry book fair, wining, dining, meeting, greeting, poeticizing in West Philadelphia. "It's in a neighborhood with great places for eating and drinking," Gontarek says. "People can come, have a good time, and maybe think: 'Maybe it was because I was around so many poets.' "
City of Poetry, 5:30-8:30 p.m., April 27. City poet laureate Yolanda Wisher will host a pop-up evening of random acts of poetry throughout the Art Museum.
LitLife2016, April 30, a festival at Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr.
Whew. Take a breath.
Philadelphia has poetry in abundance - although the idea of trying to unify this herd of poetical cats is forbidding. A tension lies between an art thousands of people share, and diversity and dispersedness. This poetry has plenty of diversity - scads of sonnets, slam poetry, spoken-word, L=A=N=G= U=A=G=E poets, all kinds. It's a town of literary magazines, the wondrous Apiary, the august American Poetry Review, the thunderous Painted Bride Quarterly at Drexel University, the sparkly Wild River Review. And all those colleges and universities, the Writers House at Rutgers-Camden, Kelly Writers House at Penn.
That atmosphere includes plenty of poetry fans with catholic tastes. "The diversity is great," Wilner says, "and I think that most of us cross the lines when something is interesting to us - we don't go out looking for one kind of poetry."
But unity - nah. Philadelphia comprehends a huge number of poetic microclimates, little eco-niches that often don't talk to one another.
"Poetry is the most private business there is," Zaller says. "It starts with an individual soul and conscience, and some poets want to be part of a scene and some don't."
"What we see in Poetry Month," Gontarek says, "can be compared to family reunions and family gatherings for weddings and funerals. What sustains poets for the other 11 months are the families of our own which we start."
Zaller has a sustaining poetic family of his own. For one thing, he is married to poet Lila Bita. He also belongs to a group known as the Overbrook poets, a movable feast of about a dozen poets who meet to read one another their work. "We've been around for 30 years, unusual for such a group," Zaller says. There's tradition there, hard work, a tiny community.
Several respondents say they sometimes see a degree of "ownership" out there - a person or venue who doesn't want to play. (One even calls the university/college response disappointing.)
"We all share a love of poetry, and most of us would say the more diversity, the better," says Eileen D'Angelo, longtime guiding light of the crazy-everywhere, 29-year-old Mad Poets group, and who is now coordinating the Philadelphia Poetry Festival with Gontarek. "Some folks don't respond, maybe wanting to stay out of the mainstream."
"You sometimes can get a sense," Gontarek says, "of competing for a small audience, holding on to your own territory."
D'Angelo hastens to add that, all in all, Philadelphia "is the most cooperative and encouraging poetry town you'd ever want to be in."
Robin says, "We have this five-year plan, kind of a combination of the Dodge Poetry Festival and the Fringe Festival, at different places in the city. We want to publicize it, but not control it."
Gontarek says he hopes for "this kind of unity . . . maybe once a year."