Collecting the Relics Of a Poetic Year

EVERY few years poetry, like jazz or punk rock, is pre-emptively eulogized by pessimists. Contemporary culture moves quickly, and the poet conjured by the collective imagination — brooding and solitary, with a notebook and a portrait of Dylan Thomas tucked under the pillow — is rarely clutching a Smartphone or trawling Facebook.
But even strident skeptics will be softened by the tomes on display at Poets House, a 50,000-volume poetry library and literary center that for 18 years has been amassing the previous year’s poetry and poetry-related books for its annual showcase. Meticulously cataloged and presented face-forward, the exhibition proffers wondrous evidence of the genre’s vitality.
The first showcase included 823 entries. This year organizers have gathered close to 2,200 books of, and about, poetry: anthologies; chapbooks; translations; poetry-related prose (essays, memoirs, academic works, biographies); poetry objects (poetry baseball cards, a series of poetry postcards); and multimedia titles published in the 14 months since the 2009 showcase. Maggie Balistreri, the Poets House librarian, is careful to avoid vanity presses (which publish books at an author’s expense) but embraces the pliable notion of the book as an art object, playful and tactile: poems are hidden in matchbooks, wrapped in cloth, rolled to resemble cigarettes, or, in the case of Dana T. Lomax’s “Lullaby,” curled inside a plastic prescription bottle. A good chunk of the exhibition’s appeal is its tangibility, an increasingly precious commodity in an era of virtual consumption.
This year, in addition to traditional texts, Ms. Balistreri noticed collaboration between poets and visual artists, who partnered to create visually compelling, pamphlet-size chapbooks. She discovered several — including three vividly colored volumes of “The Little Book of Zombie Limericks” by Emily White — by browsing the craft mecca
“There are many ways of getting poetry to a public, but we have a connection to the book as an art form,” said Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House.
Ms. Briccetti has worked there since 1989, when it was based out of a home economics room in a school on West 18th Street. (It now occupies a bright, airy building just a few steps from the Hudson River, where it is a rent-free tenant of the Battery Park City Authority.) She says the showcase is useful both as a cultural document — “This is a way to track the bounty of the whole field and to ask some questions about what’s happening in poetry today” — and as a way for poets to “participate in being part of the document of their art in our time.”
Purposefully inclusive, the showcase places well-known names (Pablo Neruda, John Ashbery) alongside newcomers; 26 languages (Tamil, Serbian, Urdu, Kurdish and Basque among them) and 641 American presses are represented.
“We have an effective relationship to the many-ness of poetry; it’s right for us and for the ethos of this organization,” Ms. Briccetti said. “The library is, in a way, a symbol of the Whitman democracy that we embrace. There are many, many voices in this country, and this is a moment of many-ness.”
The poet Kimiko Hahn, whose “Toxic Flora” (W. W. Norton) and a chapbook, “A Field Guide to the Intractable” (Small Anchor Press), are included, considers the showcase indicative of poetry’s continuing omnipresence.
“People always think of poetry as being very marginal, but when you start asking people about it — a subway worker, for example, or a retired firefighter — people are interested in poetry,” said Ms. Hahn, who lives in Brooklyn. “When you see the books and chapbooks represented at Poets House in any given year, you can see how poetry is not in the margins of people’s lives. It’s really at the center of people’s lives.”


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