To kick off National Poetry Month, the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America talks with Erica Wright about institutional rivalry, poetic diplomacy, and encountering verse in unlikely places.
Image from Flickr via MTAPhotos
While National Poetry Month might be the brainchild of the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America (PSA) does more than its fair share to stir up enthusiasm for verse. This non-profit organization recently turned 103, making it three years older than another New York City institution: Grand Central Station. The PSA will fête its younger sibling at an event this month featuring such literary stars as Marie Howe, Billy Collins, and Eduardo C. Corral alongside performers from Music Under New York. This is only one of many events occurring in the next few weeks, though, the most famous of which is the society’s annual awards ceremony. Indeed, it’s hard to keep up with the PSA’s busy calendar. When asked about whether they celebrate National Poetry Month, Deputy Director Brett Fletcher Lauer replied, “Yes, we do, but it isn’t like Spring Break in Florida[…] All year we’re busy presenting readings across the country, along with Poetry in Motion in transit systems, our annual chapbook program, and keeping our website interesting.” Lauer is also the poetry editor at A Public Space, and Four Way Books will publish his debut poetry collection, A Hotel in Belgium, next year.
—Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: Tell us about the Poetry Society of America/Academy of American Poets rivalry.
Brett Fletcher Lauer: Ahab and the whale. Tom and Jerry. Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. All rivalries are good for publicity—but alas, one doesn’t exist between the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. There aren’t even competitive Ping-Pong games or coveted bowling trophies, with each office counting the days until the next yearly tournament. The relationship is more like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Guernica: Do you celebrate National Poetry Month at the PSA?
Brett Fletcher Lauer: Yes, we do, but it isn’t like Spring Break in Florida or something, as we celebrate poetry every day. (Walt Whitman in a Photoshopped party hat is our Twitter profile background image!) We do have our Annual Awards Ceremony April 5th honoring Robert Bly with the Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in poetry, as well as a dozen other award winners, from high school poets to emerging writers to poets with a manuscript in progress. All year we’re busy presenting readings across the country, along with Poetry in Motion in transit systems, our annual chapbook program, and keeping our website interesting.
I don’t think every single reader of poetry needs to be an ambassador for poetry—that might be an unrealistic expectation or pressure, but I think if someone is inclined they should be generous with their knowledge and interests.
Guernica: Do we need a national poetry month?
Brett Fletcher Lauer: I don’t see why not. I know there is criticism that the month has the potential to trivialize or ghettoize poetry, while the rest of the year slowly passes without a peep being written or spoken about poetry. I think most writers and readers of poetry, and organizations which work to promote the art form, would welcome more thoughtful reviews, publications, and focus on a regular and consistent basis. National Poetry Month presents a convenient storyline, headline, or package for media outlets, and any eye-rolling about that I think is outweighed by the possibilities that the month might inspire a teacher to read a poem to her class, or readers to buy a few books of poems, or attend a reading, and the potential that those entry points may lead to a longer or meaningful relationship with poetry for those individuals.
Take for instance the Poetry Society’s Poetry in Motion program, which began in New York City in 1992 and has been tremendously successful and popular, having appeared in over thirty cities across the country. If I meet someone at a party or waiting next to me in a coffee shop and they ask me where I work and what I work on, and I mention the Poetry in Motion program, they immediately identify the program, and more often than not, recite a poem or tell me they copied the poem into a notebook. Even more incredible, the poems they remember are not just from the current batch in the subway system, but poems that may have appeared over five years ago or more. So, I think it is more than safe to say these programs raise the visibility of poetry.
Guernica: I was one of many commuters saddened to see Poetry in Motion disappear from the New York City transit system. How did the PSA manage its triumphant return?
Brett Fletcher Lauer: The return of Poetry in Motion to the New York Subway system was a result of the persistent support of many generous, talented, and committed individuals who let our office know of their tremendous devotion to the program and particularly the people at the MTA and especially at MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design, who shepherded the program back with new designs pairing poems with artwork from the transit system.
Guernica: What can poetry readers do to spread the love?
Brett Fletcher Lauer: I don’t think every single reader of poetry needs to be an ambassador for poetry—that might be an unrealistic expectation or pressure, but I think if someone is inclined they should be generous with their knowledge and interests. I think that can take any number of forms, from teaching or writing about poetry, supporting poets and their presses by ordering even more books from SPD, or taking friends to events like these “Guerilla Readings at MoMA” where poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Eileen Myles, and Vanessa Place are doing pop-up readings, or any number of the PSA’s own events, including the Keeping Time: Poets and Musicians Celebrate Grand Central on April 10th with a variety of poets including Billy Collins, Aracelis Girmay, Bob Holman, Marie Howe, Eduardo Corral, and Jeffrey Yang as well as a female Mariachi band and a New Orleans-style swing band.
Guernica: The PSA is more than a century old while your other home, A Public Space, will turn seven this year. Do you ever feel like you’re being pulled in two directions?
Brett Fletcher Lauer: The work I do and my responsibilities for each organization are different, though there is a Venn-diagram like intersection that is more than just the letters in their acronyms (PSA and APS). Rather than pulled apart by the dual positions, I would say I feel buoyed. I feel tremendously grateful to spend a good deal of my time with my colleagues thinking about poetry, reading poetry, and presenting poetry—though as in any office job, I have to fix the occasional paper jam.
Brett Fletcher Lauer was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the co-editor of Isn’t It Romantic: 100 Love Poems by Younger American Poets (Verse Press, 2004) and Poetry in Motion from Coast to Coast (W.W. Norton, 2002). He is the Deputy Director of the Poetry Society of America, and a Poetry Editor of A Public Space. His poems have appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, and elsewhere.
Erica Wright is the author of Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and the chapbook Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, From the Fishouse, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She is the Poetry Editor of Guernica.