Poets & Writers: My visit to Broad Street

Poets & Writers by Patricia Riordan

Eliot Figman sits at a round table with his hands gripping the edge.  He looks me square in the eye.  He’s not nervous just deeply concentrated.

Concentration is a necessity in the day to day work at Poets & Writers.  As Executive Director, Eliot oversees fundraising, meetings with the board of directors, and publishing the magazine.  Poets & Writers is a magazine and website that offers resources aimed to help creative writers advance with information and encouragement.

High above Broad Street, the office suite is museum like.  The hallway is lined with black and white miniature portraits.  The walls in Eliot’s office are washed white with abstract paintings.  There is an old, black and white photograph in the back corner.  Eliot tells me it is a photograph of Robert Lowell, Alan Ginsberg, and Galen Williams.

Galen is the founder of Poets & Writers.  According to Eliot, she wasn’t a poet herself but had a deep love for poetry.  Her goal was to launch an organization that would provide writers with fees for performing in readings and teaching at workshops.  Little did she know at the time, that Poets & Writers would expand into the largest non-profit in the country for poets and writers of fiction and creative nonfiction.

Galen planted the seeds in 1970, but the company has really blossomed through the magazine and the website.  I was a bit dubious of the magazine’s role in the company.  There was only one bookshelf in Figman’s office.  Only one.  Where were the chapbooks from the small presses?  Where were the dusty novels from the antique bookstores?

I thought that perhaps the answer lies in a technology takeover.  The website must be the core of the organization.  Eliot’s round eyeglasses sat between us on the table.  His fingers gently tapped the table’s surface.  “I don’t see that people will give up the magazine in substitute for the website.  I think they are complimentary and together they support writers with information and advice.”

Turns out, I was a bit off the mark.  The facts support Eliot’s claim.  The magazine has 50,000 paid subscribers and sells about 10,000 issues on the newsstands.  It is also available in digital formats.  The magazine has not been declining, but instead growing in circulation.  In fact, 60% of the funding for Poets & Writers is earned income from the magazine.

So perhaps, the rest of the bookcases are instead found in the office of the Editor in Chief.  That is Kevin Larimer.  The staff generally collaborates and works together in finding current resources and following through with ideas.  The final decisions with the website and the magazine are made by Larimer.

Although Larimer makes significant decisions regarding the magazine and website, Eliot seems to be the one who has everything under control.  He remains in contact with the board of directors for programs and fundraising.  Eliot counts on the 22 board members to be goodwill ambassadors.  The members vary in career paths, having expertise in fields such as financing, marketing, and legal matters.

Poets & Writers also has workshops for about 700-800 writers a year.  They are in contact with CLMP, The Academy, PEN, and other organizations.  As much as they keep in contact with the big players of the literary scene, Poets & Writers prefers to set their own trends.  This method seems to be paying off.

I watch the NY waterway boat cruise through the bay.  It is a reflection that the skyscraper across the street is capturing outside Eliot’s office windows.  I wonder if he ever takes a moment to sit back in his office chair and admire the bay he cannot see.  “More live events” he interrupts my thoughts with one of his own and the concentrated stare he has upheld through the entire interview.  “We are looking to hold more live events that we sponsor.”

Sponsoring live events for writers and publishers to meet is the current future goal for Poets & Writers.  And with Eliot behind the goal it is sure to be accomplished.  Although I can’t say for sure, I would have to guess that this is an idea right out of Galen Williams’ playbook.