Bringing a New Readership to Poetry at Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop
Over at Poetry Society of America, there's a great interview with Jared White and Farrah Field, AKA Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop! Berl's usually has the latest, loveliest chapbooks by local and national poets (in addition to other small-press books and wares), and they set up shop at The Brooklyn Flea, which ensures some non-poet-buying, we'd wager. Here's a bit on that topic from their interview with Joshua Edwards:
I love knowing that somewhere in America a lava lamp and a chapbook could end going home together. Has talking about contemporary poetry with people in such a space—one where it may come as a surprise, one where it is surrounded by all sorts of things—changed the way you think of poetry's relationship to community?
Farrah Field: Absolutely. When we first started, I thought for sure we were going to hear comments like who cares about poetry or that kind of thing. Stuff parents say. Jared and I even practiced answering random questions like what is a poem and what do poets write about, but we've very rarely been approached with stuff like that.
First of all, I don't think most people expect to see a poetry table, so those who stop are really curious about what it's all about. Most of our customers are attracted to the multitude of beautiful books we display. Poetry books look different; they're artful and they come in all shapes and sizes. When people start picking up and flipping through books, they say something about not having looked at poetry in a long time or have never read poetry and ask for recommendations. I love helping people find a book they'd like to read. I usually have people talk about an author they like or a movie or artist they like, and it's actually quite easy to set people up with a book of poetry that they'll most likely respond to. Well, I shouldn't say it's easy because Jared and I spend quite a bit of time reading our inventory so that we can talk about them and hopefully sell them.
So the impact that poetry has on the larger community is that there's something for everyone. Almost every book of poetry is different. Sure, there are groupings and likenesses you can point out, and together we could list the different kinds of poetry (oy), but almost every poet has a unique approach to what they do, and poetry more than any other form of writing allows this. So it's a crying shame that most people don't read poetry because it means they haven't been taught how to find the book they'd most like.
I have to say European tourists are the exception to this because they almost always buy poetry when they stop at our table. Most of them act as though it's not really a big deal to buy a book of poetry.
Something I've been happy to discover is how far-reaching poet's lives are within the larger community. So many people stop at our table, point to a book, and say they went to college with so and so, or they used to work with a certain poet. (We once had a very exciting Dan Boehl request, which came from a co-worker of a poet.) People from all over visit New York and grew up with or lived with a poet. We were happy to discover very recently that a vendor neighbor attended college with Reginald Shepherd. How neat is that?
Following from your thoughts on readership and the book object, have you learned anything from your close relationship to audience and publishing that you might frame as advice to small presses, book artists, writers, or other bookstores?
Jared White: We have a running joke that whenever we put out books on our tables with the word "POEMS" on the cover, we consistently see readers drawn hypnotically to this slightly humorous promise: City Poems, The Race Poems, Arctic Poems, Berlin Poems, Revenge Poems, Complete Minimal Poems, etc! I think it is something of the straightforward thematic signaling, the unapologetic 'what you see is what you get' that people are drawn to: a poetry book as its own genre, with all the humorous, slightly hubristic comprehensiveness that that implies. That being said, I think that one of the enormous strengths of the poetry publishers we admire and work with is their confidence in their own vision of making beautiful and interesting books and trusting that the books will find readers who appreciate them. A customer at our table recently was joking about judging our books by their covers and, aptly, I thought, his friend responded that it was justifiable because the beauty of books as objects showed that someone—an editor, a book artist—cared about what was inside of it, and about the experience of reading. I wouldn't want to follow that logic too far, but we often see people drawn in first by our most unusually artisanal and innovative books, like Friedrich Kerksieck's multi-colored books on handmade paper for Small Fires Press or the triple-flip book SPELL/ING () BOUND by Cara Benson, Kathrin Schaeppi, Kai Fierle-Hedrick on Ellectrique Press that allows readers to mix-and-match from the three linear poems to create new horizontal lines of reading. After exploring these, shoppers may continue to browse and discover other exciting writing in our store hopefully. Thus, these kinds of experiments can not only open up creative avenues of exploration for thinking about poetry visually and phenomenologically but also provide new ways of introducing good poetry and poetry generally. One of our strong ambitions for Berl's was to create a way of displaying unconventional book objects such as tiny or thin chapbooks that disappear into bookshelves or shoeboxes. This is certainly an ongoing mission for us as we've enlisted unusual objects as bookholders and paperweights, built our own bookstands and display boxes, and most recently started making special hanging displays in the last month to feature works of a single press. (So far we've shone a light on the gorgeous Mindmade Books and belladonna* chaplets and are looking forward to bringing out a display of Trafficker Press works this coming Saturday.) We definitely hope to inspire other bookstores in the way that poetry bookstores we visited over the years inspired us!
Keep on, Berl's! Read the full interview here, which includes links to those presses mentioned.