Showcasing Poetry: An Annual Poets House Event Celebrates 25 Years

5 X 5: Poets (clockwise from top l.) Lynn Melenick, sam sax, Paolo Javier,
Kyle Dacuyan, and Aziza Barnes pick their favorites from the 25th annual
Poets House Showcase

A national treasure situated along the Hudson River in New York’s Battery City Park, Poets House offers one of the richest open-stack collections of poetry in the country—some 70,000 volumes altogether, available for free Tuesday through Saturday to anyone who wants to walk in and take a look. Its readings and workshops are legion, its soaring, sunlit spaces packed with dreamers and doodlers as well as browsers, and its Poetry in the Branches and National Institute programming used extensively by librarians nationwide.

Core to its identity, though, is the annual Poets House Showcase, a free exhibit that features new poetry books and related materials, including CDs, DVDs, one-of-a-kind books as art objects, and even trading cards. The showcase doesn’t just show off a wide and intriguing array of titles. It also serves as “a mechanism for building the collection,” as Executive Director Lee Briccetti explains. The 2017 event was special indeed. Held June 22 through August 26—halfway through, it was extended by two weeks given demand—it marked the 25th anniversary of the showcase, giving Poets House cause to celebrate while pondering its future moves.

Poets House was founded in 1985 by two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray as both a library and a meeting place where poets and the public could enter into the spirit of modern poetry. It officially opened its door in 1986, and the showcase was launched shortly thereafter. Initially, the showcase was meant as a one-shot deal allowing staff to think about the collection and build relationships, “but instantly we knew we were learning something,” explains Briccetti. At the time, poetry had shifted to the small presses, and while the material being published was eye-opening and abundant, distribution left much to be desired. There was no Internet, and as ­Briccetti wryly notes, “Amazon was just a river.” In the national conversation, East Coast and West Coast poets tended to prevail, which left much of the country untended.

Big start-up

The first showcase was “almost an instant tradition,” observes Briccetti proudly. “People from all over the country came to see their books, and everyone realized there was just so much.” Since then, the showcase has grown and grown, attracting poets, poetry lovers, and publishers alike while providing the building blocks of the collection. Post-event, all the materials are integrated into the stacks, with the more fragile chapbooks claiming a separate section.

Thus, if any one showcase serves as a snapshot of poetry at that moment in time, the showcases as a whole have become the driving force behind Poets House, embodying its history and ever-expanding mission. “What we are building is capacious and comprehensive,” insists Briccetti. “We are not picking the 200 books we think are best. We want everyone to participate.”

And participate they do. This year, more than 750 trade, academic, and independent presses donated a startling 3,600-plus books, published from January 2016 through the first half of 2017. Pondered all year but set up in a week and a half of hard work, the showcase is arranged not by book but by publisher. That way, explains Poets House librarian and archivist Amanda Glassman, “visitors get a sense of what a publisher’s contributions are, and poets can figure out the publishers they like; it makes the little ones more discoverable.” Along with powerhouse poetry publishers from Farrar Strauss to Copper Canyon, interested readers will find offerings from busy indies Belladonna, Finishing Line Press, Glass Lyre Press, Sugartown Publishing, and more. (For a pdf of the 2017 exhibition catalog, go to ­ow.ly/C7z930eNhz3.)

As always, this year’s showcase was highlighted by a grand series of readings that included National Book Award winners Gerald Stern and Ishion Hutchison, National Poetry series winner Marie Howie, Four Way publisher Martha Rhodes, and 2016 Yale Younger Poet Airea D. Matthews. But the celebration didn’t stop there. To honor the 25th anniversary, Poets House joined with the international journal Verse to present 5 X 5, five lists each containing five books and each chosen by an important new poet. “We wanted a mix of different aesthetics and different ages,” explains Briccetti, and the sensibilities indeed range widely. Rolled out over several weeks, the lists all received pop-up displays within the showcase.

The showcase was highlighted by a series readings, held outdoors when the weather
was good with this year’s books as backdrop. Photo by Nicola Bailey

5 X 5

Representing the open, nonjudgmental tenor of the event, each list has its own special feel, which makes 5 X 5 great for ambitious collection development. Lynn Melnick, who titled her list “5 Books I Want My Daughters To Read (now, or when they’re just a little bit older,” commented, “I find myself seeking out poems that I can file with those in my anthology under ‘important reading for coming of age in this political and social moment.’ ” ­Melnick included Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen (Black Lawrence, 2016), an acid study of suburban upbringing, and Pushcart Prize winner Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House, 2017), which unfolds the story of a black woman in brash, witty ­language. (For more on Melnick, see the review of her forthcoming Landscape with Sex and Violence, see LJ 9/15/17, p. 79.)

Philippines-born Paolo Javier, the former poet laureate of Queens, chose titles such as Shelley Feller’s TANGLED BANK & daily bugaboo jubilee (Letter [r], 2016) that represent today’s fecund political and sociosexual exploration as well as small-press design at its best and most beautiful. He also added to his pile the entertaining Lesbian Poet Trading Cards, 2017 Series (Headmistress). Commenting that “poems can be excellent vehicles for poking holes in capitalism,” Kyle Dacuyan, a 2017 Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow, chose a list embracing the late, great C.D. Wright and National Book Award winner Daniel Borzutzky as well as rising star Bao Phi’s stunning Thousand Star Hotel (Coffee House, 2017).

Winner of the Laughlin Award and the National Poetry Series for Madness (Penguin Poets, 2017), sam sax titled his list “The Five Books of Poems from Last Year That Changed How I Thought About Poems,” as evidenced by his observation that Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria (BOA, 2016) shows “how a poem can push back against the big erasure of history and make space for beauty.” He also hailed the originality of Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet, 2016) and agreed with poet Shane McCrae that Anaïs Duplan’s Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts, 2016) embodied a generation finding its voice.

Finally, Cave Canem fellow Aziza Barnes revels in the formal inventiveness and linked voices of works such as Ching-In Chen’s recombinant (Kelsey Street, 2017) and Harmony Holiday’s Hollywood Forever (Fence, 2017). Of the latter, Barnes says, “How can I even begin to describe this book, one which is hyper-saturated with media, some of the artist’s creation, drunk with poems?” (For the complete 5 X 5 lists, see ow.ly/hqP230eNiHU.)

Going forward

As the 2017 showcase titles begin entering the collection, Poets House is keeping up the beat by making plans to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a year of big-bang programming crowned by two shining projects. A chapbook website is being launched, digitizing select items from the 1950s through the 1970s and thus making groundbreaking works available to a range of readers. Doubtless, some of those works will come from well-known poets whose early efforts have been lost in the mists of time. “These chapbooks have historical value, and they haven’t been part of the conversation,” proclaims Briccetti. “The site will maintain the chapbooks’ material beauty and provide a context for learning.”

In addition, come the New Year, Poets House will launch a blog with contributions from all divisions of the library. The aim? To connect poetry readers worldwide while spurring conversations about the depth and breadth of the art they love and to clarify, explains Briccetti, “the potential for thinking of poetry as activism.”

Both projects will help Poets House consider its goals as an organization while allowing a fresh, rousing repositioning of the collection online, opening up more people to the wonder of verse. Clearly, that’s a huge part of the Poets House mission. But Briccetti invites readers to think bigger. “Language is important to democracy, and here we have all different voices colliding with each other.” she says. “Poetry is not going to change the world, but it changes something.”

In fact, as the showcase and its highlighted 5 X 5 titles reveal, poetry keenly voices the day’s personal and political concerns and, to quote sax, pushes back against the worst to create something of beauty. It helps us speak to our communities and our children, as Melnick would like, and lets us see the world in a new way. And that, poetry lovers would agree, is a lot.

Barbara Hoffert is editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Share
Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*