- Matt Shelly
- Thomas Fucaloro at the first meeting of the Bay Ridge Poets Society
In January, one of the owners of the Owl’s Head wine bar in Bay Ridge asked me if I wanted to help him start a reading series. Since opening a year before, the bar had become a magnet for local artsy types, some of whom, the owner said, had been telling him he should get something going. I said yes, because I was in a phase in which I was saying yes to everything, but I had reservations beyond the personal: would people really come? Bay Ridge doesn’t have a reputation as the artsiest or most intellectual neighborhood in the borough; we have no other regular reading series, no real venues for original music, few spaces for fine art or The Arts in general.
But it turned out to be a Field of Dreams sort of thing; the first event drew a baker’s dozen of readers, plus twice that many more just hanging out. Sure, a lot of them were my friends, but after that first one we gathered momentum: it turned out lots of people I knew from the neighborhood were secretly poets, and they came and brought their friends who brought their own friends; other people hear about it on social networks, and the next thing you know we have almost 20 people signed up every month to read or perform, and a capacity audience to listen—neighborhood people, people from surrounding communities and boroughs, people from the poetry circuit: housewives, dayjobbers, and serious writers. Who would have thought?
Turns out it’s not just us: “Poetry, an art form often treated as whipping boy in the cultural landscape, is on an unexpected uptick in New York,” the Wall Street Journal reports today. Its examples are Manhattan-bound: the Nuyorican Poets Cafe has more than $5 million in grant money to renovate; the Bowery Poetry Club is back; and McNally Jackson is hosting major poetry events. But you’re also seeing it in the outerboroughs at the grassroots, from the Bay Ridge Poets Society to several series in Park Slope and Staten Island and one-offs in Prospect Heights and elsewhere. While I still meet resistance from people to a poetry reading—those worried it’ll be boring or all full of slam poets—we also change some minds. Heck, when I helped started the series, I didn’t like poetry, but the spirit of the people I’ve met and the quality of their work has inspired not only to curl up with e.e. cummings before bed but also to start writing some stuff of my own. Poetry is contagious.
At last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, the poetry panel that included Philip Levine had a line that wound several times around the rotunda in Borough Hall, to the surprise of everyone who came to get in it. Could poetry really be so popular? “I thought I was the only one who liked poetry,” one lady in line said. “That’s what everybody thinks,” a man told her. The truth is we are legion.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart