February 15, 2016

Poetry Foundation Opens Doors Downtown and Beyond

Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation

“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!” So begins the Harriet Monroe quotation printed onto the wall that one sees upon walking into the Poetry Foundation.

First published in 1912, Poetry Magazine is one of the most prominent poetry monthlies in the literary world. From 1941 to 2003, the Modern Poetry Association produced the magazine, struggling from time to time to keep the foundation financially afloat.

But when the philanthropist Ruth Lilly donated more than $100 million to the magazine in 2003, the Poetry Foundation replaced the Modern Poetry Association, shaping the magazine into its present form.

“[Lilly] really wanted the magazine to use the money to keep poetry in our culture because poetry has fallen out of favor as a mainstream art form,” said Elizabeth Burke-Dain, the Poetry Foundation’s Marketing and Media Director.

Today, the Poetry Foundation aims to create “a more vigorous presence of poetry in our culture” through workshops, events, and extensive resources on its website. Google searches of poems and poets are quick to direct readers to—after all, the site includes an archive of over 13,000 poems, discussion guides, podcasts, and more.

However, not everyone who uses the site knows that the Foundation itself is located in Chicago, in a beautifully designed glass building on 61 West Superior Street.

There is a sense of modernity about the place that unites the traditional and progressive. The room is filled to the ceiling with poetry books while Apple computers line the long desk on the first floor. The exhibition currently on display, Volatile!: A Poetry and Scent Exhibition, invites visitors to smell certain scents before or after reading poems to see how their understanding is colored by sensory experience.

As Burke-Dain explains, the Foundation thus creates programs which “appeal to both readers and non-readers of poetry,” allowing visitors to “experience poetry in a [way] they hadn’t expected.”

The Foundation’s monthly Open Door Readings, appropriately named after Monroe’s words, feature readings by two Chicago-based graduate writing program instructors alongside two of their students. It also hosts Forms and Features, a series of free creative workshops which focuses on different elements of poetry. The most recent workshop discussed similes: a group of 15 people sat around a table to analyze how different poems incorporate similes, ultimately incorporating them into their own poems. On a more performative level, the Foundation collaborates with entities like the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project to bring poems to the stage through theater and dance. 

At the same time, the Foundation makes itself accessible to young audiences that may not formally study poetry. A whole section of the Foundation’s first-floor shelves features children’s poetry to be read aloud during its “Wednesday Poemtime” sessions it hosts to introduces children to poetry in an interactive way.

The Foundation is also part of an initiative directed towards high school students called “Poetry Out Loud,” which draws over 365,000 students per year. The competition culminates in Washington D.C., where one student from each state recites verse over a two-day period to compete in national championships.

Unsurprisingly, as educational institutions in the same city, the Poetry Foundation and the University of Chicago are also frequent collaborators. Associate Professor of English Srikanth Reddy has spoken at the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry and will be one of the faculty members leading the Foundation’s Summer Poetry Teachers Institute this year. Additionally, on April 19, Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor Rosanna Warren and her student Tim DeMay will share their work at the Open Door Reading. The Foundation has even collaborated with the University for its next exhibition, Bernadette Meyer’s Memory.

Walking into The Poetry Foundation and seeing the books lined on its shelves, I was immediately reminded of all the books that there are to read in the world, and all that I have yet to open. The Poetry Foundation encourages us to read, but to also smell, perform, and write. One can take comfort in knowing that it is less than an hour away from campus, ready to invite people of all ages and disciplines into the world of poetry with an open door.

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