On National Poetry Month: Some local poets would rather be celebrated all year long, while others shine in April
Sometimes, poets seem inscrutable. Case in point: April has been deemed, by the National Academy of Poets, National Poetry Month. This month, like Aprils since 1996 when National Poetry Month was established, will see events, book releases and advertising campaigns that highlight American poets and introduce their countrymen to the pleasures of reading poetry. Now, if you were a poet, and maybe you are, wouldn't that make you happy? "Every month is poetry month," said Ed Foster, founder of Talisman Publishing, a small but widely-respected poetry press and journal based in Jersey City. Foster's remarks were, to be truthful, tinged with disdain. And though on the face of it, a poet and poetry publisher not loving the idea of a celebration of poetry may seem odd, Foster's reasoning is sound. National Poetry Month has become an occasion for larger presses, the myriad of publishing conglomerates among them, to release poetry by the likes of United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, and to draw once-a-year capsulated reviews of said publisher's product in magazines like People. This isn't the stuff purveyors of the avant garde like Talisman pay attention to. And a national marketing campaign is something that many poets published in Talisman's journal would shun, preferring instead to hone their craft from within a community of poets. But who are these poets, and how do they find one another at a time when independent book stores and poetry-only readings have disappeared from the local landscape? "Hoboken is sort of like living in a bus station," said Joel Lewis, a poet who has been organizing and participating in Hudson county readings since his teen years in North Bergen. "I keep getting older but everyone around me is still 27." Lewis, whose poems were most recently collected in the 1999 Talisman Book Vertical's Currency
, was a key figure in the poetry scene that started first with readings at the Beaten Path (which became Zell's and is now the Whiskey) in 1979. He went uptown when the scene shifted to the Elysian, and later helped organize events with Blackwater Books, Hoboken's once-renowned, now defunct independent book store. But that community has largely dissipated, scattering because Hoboken got too expensive, too young or both. In its place there are mostly music venues that offer sporadic spoken word events or that mix poetry into an open mic format. The crowd is, as Lewis inferred, forever 27, and most often poetic neophytes trying their hand at verse on a whim. Like most of the poets interviewed, Peter Valente struggles between wanting to be part of an intimate group of in-the-know bards and wanting to reach out to new audiences. "There's so much out there now," said Valente, a graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology who decided to become a poet after he earned a degree in electrical engineering. "You end up sticking with a small number of poets, but that's problematic because it locks you in. [In things like National Poetry Month] there is a danger of sort of politicizing poetry. It might cater to poets who are well-known, have won prizes or are tenured." Valente has been widely published in poetry journals and had his first book of poetry published two years ago. He's made not being well-known (except among poets), not winning prizes and not being tenured work. Though he took several literature courses while at Stevens, and may be one product of that technical school's uniquely high requirement for liberal arts coursework, when he decided to be a poet he studied it on his own "rather furiously" as he put it. He pays the bills by working as a supervisor at the Edgewater Barnes & Noble, and he runs workshops there for poets, fiction writers and even jazz afficianados. At the Edgewater Barnes & Noble, Valente worked with Hoboken resident Flo Wetzel, a more recent devotee to poetry who is happy to participate in her local scene as it exists. "I like poetry because it's more bite sized and it's easier to share," said Wetzel, who wrote five as-yet unpublished novels between 1985 and 1996, when she took Valente's poetry workshop. "Poetry is more portable and more social in a way. There are lots of open mic poetry readings." In the three years that Wetzel has been concentrating on poetry, she's focused on writing and reading her work, and hasn't sent anything out to be published. Instead, she turns to a group of people she feels "lucky to know," for support and suggestions, like Valente, Long Shot publisher Danny Shot and Beat poet (and Bayonne resident) Hersch Silverman. "He's sort of a subtle mentor," said Wetzel. "I'll send him poems now and again and he sends me cryptic comments that make me think about my work in a new way." Wetzel, who now works at a data entry job in Manhattan, stays in the city Friday nights to read at the Pink Pony. But on April 14, she'll be at a National Poetry Month event at the Hoboken Barnes & Noble, reading her work with clarinetist Rozanne Levine. Also reading this month at Barnes & Noble will be Miriam Hartstein, a regular at the Washington Street store's monthly open mic poetry nights. "It's a great opportunity to hear other writers and meet other people," said Hartstein, who is an occupational therapist at St. Joseph's School for the Blind by day. "I just moved to New Jersey in September, so I haven't really checked out any other scene." Hartstein will lead Open Mic Poetry Night at Barnes & Noble (59 Washington St., Hoboken, 653-1165) on April 11.