Visiting Poets House

By Patricia Riordan I was frustrated that I couldn’t see the boats lining the Hudson from the second floor of Poets House.  I was sitting in a chair adjacent to the large windows reading Galway Kinnell’s “Strong is Your Hold.”  Across from where I was sitting was a woman in her early twenties with long blond hair and a blue floral print dress.  She was curled up in the chair, sleeping with a book on her lap.

Poets House is a poetry library in Battery Park.  50,000 volumes of poetry are freely available to the public. Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Kray founded Poets House in Soho in 1985.  In 2006, Poets House signed a sixty year lease agreement with Battery Park City.  After three years of construction, the library opened its doors to the public in late September of 2009.

Those years of construction are captured in photographs on the walls of Lee Briccetti’s office.  “Notice that I’m facing away from them!” Lee laughs, sitting at her desk.  Lee Briccetti is the Executive Director of Poets House and considers the construction to be a mark of what they lived through.  Perhaps this is the cause of all of the gray hairs intertwined in Lee’s dark curls.  She is also wearing a dark gray shirt, yet despite all of the gray, she has a young face and a beaming smile.

Lee insisted that I am taken on a tour of Poets House before we continued the interview.  A staff member named Krista led me around the space.  She was young with her hair tied in a bow and she wore a necklace with a giant horse head pendant.  We walked downstairs and started from the lobby.  Krista let me have a sneak peek into Kray Hall.  The room was lined with shelves of books organized by press.  They were having a showcase event later that evening.

Outside of the showcase there was a wall printed with a group of names.  It caught my eye because I saw the name Galway Kinnell once again.  Later I learned that Kinnell is a member of the Poetry Advisory Committee.  The committee consists of a group of nearly 30 poets from all over the country who dedicate their time and efforts into creating programs and expanding the range of poetry in the library.  In addition to the committee, there is also a board of directors and a dedicated staff.  The board of directors is a group of sixteen individuals that uses the staff and advisory committee to gain knowledge and set future goals.

Before going upstairs we made a quick turn into the Children’s room.  There were rocking chairs, stuffed animals and an impressive card catalog cabinet filled with poems and accompanying dioramas.  Krista started reeling off the programs they host for children.  However, I was distracted by a child, about six years old, poking at the window.  His mother stood at a small distance with a carriage, beckoning him to keep walking.  The boy wanted to come inside and explore.

Upstairs, we explored a room with a small exhibit of poetry covering the March 2007 bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad.  An exhibition too small, perhaps, for the topic at hand, but nevertheless a startling taste of reality for those who entered.  We passed by the line of chairs against the windows in which I had previously been reading.  I was presented with a unique and extensive collection of chapbooks.  And then I was introduced to the staff members in the offices before returning to Lee.

The tour ended and I was back in Lee’s office.  She told me about the numerous programs hosted by Poets House.  They included talks, forums, showcases, and workshops for poets.  All the books in Poets House are donated so the library finds it extremely important to keep in communication with the National Museum of the American Indian, Poets & Writers, Poetry in the Branches, and a variety of other organizations in order to continue expanding their collection and audience.  Additional programs teach librarians how to include poetry into their collections.

The event I would be attending later that evening was the 21st Annual Showcase of all the poetry books published in the past year.  The showcase features more than 2,800 volumes of poetry from more than 700 publishers.  I told Lee that I had noticed from my sneak peek in Kray Hall that the showcase was organized not by title or author, but by press.  Lee felt that it was important to order them by press so visitors are well aware that presses are diverse and certain presses publish certain material.  It is this emphasis on the press that subsequently highlights the importance of the various types of poetic expression.  From the clever ordering of the books, poets are also introduced to the presses and what these presses have to offer in the grand literary landscape.

Suddenly excited about explaining the showcase to me, Lee said “This is the landscape.  This is the overview.  Here’s a snapshot of it all!”  She continued to tell me how the showcase is a great tool for practitioners and librarians to learn what is out there and for poets to have a sense of the whole community.  I believe that this is not a reflection of just the showcase but the whole library as well.

The interesting thing about the showcase is that it is an annual showcase.  Every year they present the collection from the past year.  It is as if each showcase is a pin mark on a growing timeline.  Later that evening Lee would introduce me to a woman in a bright green dress and a short black bob.  Her name is Alexandra Mann, the library’s publicity manager.  Looking around the showcase she says to me, “This is now, this is now.”

Lee said that there is a particular energy in Poets House.  She leaned across the desk as if she was going to give away a big secret.  “It exists in a place,” she said, “the whole notion that people with multiple points of entry can come together.”  Lee pointed out that in a way, the library is a sacred space in how it brings together poets, publishers, librarians, readers, artists, or anyone who has an interest in poetry.  This creates a cohesive creative energy that is focused on celebrating diverse poetic expression.

“Oh I hear high heels!” said Lee in response to a click-clacking on the wooden floors of the hallway.  It struck me as something a mother would say to her daughter leaving the house.  And with that I remembered my earlier frustration at the view of the Hudson.  I think my frustration was because I was expecting the view from Eliot Figman’s skyscraper office.  What I realized however, was that I wasn’t in an office suite or a typical library.  I was in a house.  A house where someone can curl up in a chair with a good book and drift to sleep.  When naming Poets House, Kunitz, said “Let’s call it Poets House. ‘House’ is so much bigger than any institution.”  Kunitz would be pleased to know that Lee has made Poets House into a home that is, indeed, much bigger than any institution.

Leaving the library, I saw Lee speaking to a visitor at the showcase.  Lee has a canvas bag over her shoulder with Dickinson’s words scrawled across it, “Dwell in Possibilities.”  More than appropriate, it’s safe to say that Lee follows Dickinson’s words to the letter.