Letter From The President

2007 Annual Letter: The Year in Review

The Poetry Foundation, January 2008

By John Barr

Ninety-six years ago, Poetry’s founding editor, Harriet Monroe, articulated the magazine’s now-famous Open Door policy. It continues to be the guiding legacy for Poetry and is also the primary principle informing all the programs and activities of the Poetry Foundation. It bears repeating here:

The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free of entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.

One of the best ways to open doors is through partnerships. To that end, the Foundation has collaborated with many other nonprofit and cultural institutions since it began operations four years ago. The beauty of a successful poetry partnership is that the resources of each partner support and amplify those of the other in their mutual dedication to the art form. Recently we counted up these collaborations and were surprised to find that our partners number more than 40 different national and local academic and cultural institutions. The collective effect of all of the Foundation’s activities in 2007—and here we thank our partners—was to place poems in front of 10 million people.

Fundamental to these endeavors are the hundreds of individual poets, writers, and literary scholars who contribute to our growing family of programs. From the pages of Poetry; to the poets who write for our blog, Harriet; to our television, podcast, and radio presenters; to the lecturers, panelists, and readers at our live events: these and many other gifted individuals are responsible for poetry’s growing presence in American culture today.

The Foundation’s aim is to increase that presence in both breadth and depth. Last year our partnership with the Library of Congress and its Office of the Poet Laureate sponsored a series of first-ever joint readings with the US and UK poets laureate in Chicago, Washington DC, and London, around a thematic program called Poetry Across the Atlantic. In keeping with this international theme, the April issue of Poetry once again was devoted to poetry in translation, while the September issue included a portfolio of contemporary poetry from India, and December featured a collection of Italian poetry.

Recognizing that poetry occurs in all corners of the culture, the Poetry Foundation has this past year cohosted readings in conjunction with the publication of McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, that publisher’s first foray into poetry. It also staged a widely praised experimental theatrical production of Frank Bidart’s “The Third Hour of the Night” in Chicago, and put on the ever-expanding Chicago Printers’ Ball, featuring more than 90 local literary organizations in a monthlong festival of the printed word. An alliance of the Foundation with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is celebrating, over the course of a year, how American poets, musicians, and visual artists have influenced one another. Our events have featured Eavan Boland at Poetry Day, a reading with four poets from Cave Canem, a panel at the Chicago Humanities Festival on writers’ relationships to the environment, and lectures by critics Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler.

Continuing Poetry’s long history of giving awards, the Foundation annually presents a family of poetry prizes celebrating both established and new voices. The Pegasus Awards include partnerships with poetry publishers, including the Library of America and Graywolf Press, who publish books by our Neglected Masters and Emily Dickinson winners, respectively. Award recipients in 2007 include Lucille Clifton for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; Anne Stevenson for the Neglected Masters Award; Herbert Leibowitz of Parnassus for the Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism; Brian Culhane for the Emily Dickinson First Book Award; and John Surowiecki for our new Verse Drama Prize. Surowiecki’s winning drama, My Nose and Me: (A TragedyLite or TragiDelight in 33 Scenes), will be staged in New York and Chicago in 2008.

Three years ago the Foundation’s partnership with the Library of Congress launched American Life in Poetry, a syndicated weekly column of poems selected by former poet laureate, Ted Kooser and published by the Foundation with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. That column now reaches more than four million newspaper readers each week, and the program is being expanded to offer a free poetry syndication service to newspapers featuring book reviews, op-eds, and articles on poets and poetry. In addition to continuing a series of broadcasts on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer exploring the role of poetry in society, the Foundation is also developing video projects with HBO, WGBH/Boston, and the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Those collaborations include a children’s television special; a series of short poetry features to air on public television stations; and a cutting-edge effort to bring poetry to new audiences through video technology in the nation’s transit systems. The common goal of these projects is to add a moment of introspection, wonder—even revelation—to the life of a harried commuter, a TV surfer, or a young child who has yet to encounter poetry.

Our research confirms that a positive experience with poetry early in life is the best way to create a lifelong reader of poetry. That has prompted the Poetry Foundation to develop programs aimed at both young adults and children. Now in its fourth year, our collaboration with the NEA, the acclaimed Poetry Out Loud competition, reached more than 175,000 high school students in 2007. A national recitation contest designed to return great poetry to the classroom, the project annually awards more than $100,000 in scholarship prizes. Jack Prelutsky, appointed the nation’s inaugural Children’s Poet Laureate by the Foundation, has made classroom visits and public appearances to raise the visibility of children’s poetry across the country. His contributions have ranged from a reading for 400 schoolchildren in Chicago to a standing-room-only presentation at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington DC. Prelutsky has also written a series of essays for the Foundation’s website recommending his favorite children’s poets.

We are delighted to report that in its first year, the Foundation website, poetryfoundation.org, received a prestigious Webby Award for being a significant, comprehensive online resource for poetry. Our site now features content from every new issue of Poetry and an archive of 6,000 poems by more than 600 classic and contemporary poets, all freely downloadable. It’s also an online poetry newspaper featuring journalism, a poetry best-seller list, reviews of events, and several podcasts, one of which (Poetry Off the Shelf) is now distributed by NPR. We are building an audio archive that will, over the next three years, include historic recordings by 125 essential American poets (selected by former poet laureate, Donald Hall in collaboration with UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s Poetry Archive), as well as recordings by numerous leading contemporary poets. In addition, the website is piloting collaborative efforts with the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

The Poetry Foundation is a young organization, and most of its programs are less than three years old. Two important new initiatives are just getting started. In order to serve the intellectual and critical dimensions of poetry, the Foundation has established the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute. The Institute is a collaborative forum that will bring together leading scholars, poets, translators, publishers, and thinkers from outside the poetry world to address issues of importance to poetry. The work of the Institute will emphasize extensive preparation and systematic follow-through on findings and recommendations. One could think of the Institute as a “think tank,” an Aspen Institute writ very small, with a single focus on poetry. In fact, the Foundation has agreed to partner with the Aspen Institute for the inaugural year of the Poetry Institute’s programs. Its first 12 months will start with a call for ideas and concerns,* followed by identification of issues and research, which will culminate in a conference to be held in Aspen in the spring of 2009.

Finally, the Foundation has purchased land and embarked on the building of a major new center for poetry in Chicago. The space will house the Foundation’s offices, archive, and library but also, we hope, will become a destination for visitors from all over the country. John Ronan Architects of Chicago will design the building, and we expect to open the newest of these Open Doors in 2010.

* In its initial call for ideas and concerns, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute is asking these questions: (1) What are the most pressing needs of poetry and the poetry community? (2) How can the delivery of poems from writers to readers be improved? (3) What hinders the discovery, circulation, and celebration of poems in our culture? (4) In what ways are poetry and the poetry community vital and thriving? If you have specific recommendations, we invite you to e-mail us at HMPI@poetryfoundation.org by February 22, 2008. We are eager to hear from you.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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