July 7, 2011

intimate and remote


The well-endowed Poetry Foundation has a fancy new building in River North. A generous (to put it mildly) bequest from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly made possible the $21.5 million land acquisition and construction.


While I don't like a lot of aspects of poetry culture, I've been obsessed with poetry as far back as I can remember.


...reading, memorization, recitation, rhyming couplets I wrote in elementary school, angsty allegorical poems—a specialty (isn't it everyone's?) in early high school, formal poems with precise internal rhyme schemes I wrote in college...


Also: the dorky pastime of sitting in the poetry section of a library or bookstore and copying down favorite lines...Van Wylen Library at Hope College, the Holland Barnes & Noble off 31, City Lights, Harvard Books, the Central Square Branch of the Cambridge Public Library, the Western Washington University Library in Bellingham. It has always been a very personal interest, one I've admittedly drifted from a bit in recent years.


Had I had access to a very public poetry building like this while drifting through the high school years, I probably would have planted myself here in the courtyard or library and, feeling found and grounded, never left. (I also would've been slightly worried I was going to spill something on the shiny floors and white carpets, as I was a couple weeks ago during the open house.)


Even the restrooms are intimidatingly immaculate!


Besides making sure not to spill anything at the open house, I went to a panel discussion and wrote about it for the Time Out blog. (My little write-up appears to have gotten lost in the shuffle and/or a staffer's inbox, however, so I'm putting it here.):


This Must Be the Place

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan writes poems in bed in her pajamas. Former Laureate Robert Hass writes in his study, gazing out the window at plum trees. Elizabeth Alexander, author of the 2009 presidential inauguration poem, jots down ideas on napkins in between attending to parental duties, and Edward Hirsch writes in his head while walking around New York.

"Place" was a recurring theme in a panel discussion last Sunday at the new Poetry Foundation building (61 W Superior St). In the bright, 125-seat performance space—clad in birch to be acoustically optimal for the spoken word—Jeffrey Brown of the PBS NewsHour posed questions to an all-star lineup of poets: Ryan, Hass, Alexander, Hirsch, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Chicago-born writer Sandra Cisneros. Jokingly introducing himself as "the best poetry correspondent on national nightly news," Brown asked the poets about the places where they write and the place of poetry, if any, in the cities where they grew up. He told the audience he'd originally hoped to discuss the place of poetry in the U.S. today, but when emailing the panelists beforehand, he had received an almost unanimous reply of "Ugh, anything but that."

One can't fault the all-stars for wanting to avoid this topic. During their terms as U.S. Poet Laureates, three of the them served as poetry ambassadors, working to elevate the place of poetry in our nation. Ryan—the poet who favors PJs—admitted that as a private person, she struggled with this public role. Yet the discussion on Sunday moved toward how the $21.5 million Poetry Foundation building, with its 30,000-volume library and capacity for hosting a range of programming, will help elevate poetry in fresh ways. "Kids can come in and pull a book off the shelf, and their weirdest and most awkward feelings will be mirrored back to them," Collins said. Hirsch—a panelist who had no qualms with commenting on the "place of poetry"—agreed. He wished he'd had access to such a place while growing up in Chicago, but has now made it his duty to "advocate on behalf of the interior life."

When Harriet Monroe created Poetry magazine in 1912, she had a similar aim, hoping "to give to poetry her own place." Who knows if she'd have envisioned a modern structure—with open-air garden and sleek layers of zinc, glass, and wood peel—as an extension of this mission, but the new building is poised to make its mark. Declared Foundation President John Barr, "The building will help us continue the oral tradition of reading and reciting poetry out loud, while shining a national spotlight on Chicago as the home of Poetry, one of the oldest and most important literary magazines in the English-speaking world."

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