Independent bookstores nationwide are staging creative events and activities in observance of this year’s National Poetry Month, which kicked off on Saturday, April 1. The month was created in 1996 as an initiative of the American Academy of Poets and has since become an international celebration of poets and poetry.
On April 4, at Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café in Asheville, North Carolina, artist Charles Vess joined poets David Bonner and Emoke B’Racz, the store’s owner, to present Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie (Faerie Magazine, 2016), a book of fantasy illustrations by Vess with poetry by Bonner, B’Racz, Neil Gaiman, Theodora Goss, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Hoffman, Gregory Maguire, and others. Then, on April 8 and April 14, Malaprop’s will host “Poetry on Request” in the store’s café, where customers can meet and speak with a visiting poet and request a poem written just for them.
“It’s a really interesting program,” said B’Racz, who has participated as a “Poetry on Request” poet. “People are always really receptive to the idea of not telling the poet what they want first, but just saying, ‘Write me a poem.’”
As a bookstore owner, B’Racz has always been very supportive of local poetry projects and poets. She edited the anthology Remember Me as a Time of Day, which features poems by members of Women on Words, a poetry critique circle founded at the store. She also has her own volume of poetry, Every Tree Is the Forest; both are published by Malaprop’s own Burning Bush Press.
The store puts on at least three poetry-related events every month, said B’Racz, and poetry sales at Malaprop’s are quite healthy. In addition to this year’s events, Malaprop’s also created a huge poetry book display.
“We opened the store in 1983 with the largest selection of poetry books in the area because that is what I knew the best, and our collection has established itself along the way,” said B’Racz. “There’s a saying that poetry is the backbone of the nation; I come from a culture in Hungary where poetry was a political statement most of the time.”
To celebrate National Poetry Month, New York City’s Strand Book Store is collaborating with local arts nonprofit The Poetry Society of New York to bring two projects to the Strand. The Poetry Brothel will come to Strand’s Rare Book Room on April 27. The interactive experience will reimagine the third-floor room as a decadent fin de siècle brothel where poets performing under pseudonyms will offer private, one-on-one poetry readings of their original work for a price: the event costs $50 for all guests and includes a happy hour and a $10 Strand gift card. A $75 VIP ticket package includes a gift bag, two private readings, and half-price drinks all night.
Leigh Altshuler, who joined Strand last month as director of marketing and communications, said The Poetry Brothel shows how the store can use its third-floor space in new innovative ways.
“We’d been talking about new ways to utilize our third-floor space for events,” said Altshuler. “We might add a theme for this one. Last week the Brothel did an animal-themed event, so right now we’re trying to come up with one for ours.”
Strand’s collaboration with The Poetry Society of New York also includes a month-long installation of The Typewriter Project on Strand’s main floor. Throughout April, visitors to the Strand can contribute their poems, thoughts, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings to the typewriter, which is connected to a custom-built USB Typewriter™ kit that records and stores every keystroke; the results are then posted online.
“All poems for the month of April will be uploaded to our website in real time,” said Altshuler. “The result will be a collection of thoughts and poems by the people of New York City as they come through the Strand, so I think it will be a really interesting curated group of writings. We’re really excited; we actually just had to put in new paper because we already ran out. People are definitely loving it.”
On April 29, Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse in La Cañada Flintridge, California, will host a poetry-themed celebration for Independent Bookstore Day 2017. Gail Mishkin, Flintridge’s events and marketing manager, said the fact that IBD occurs during National Poetry Month is a wonderful coincidence. Flintridge hosts regular open mics, she said, oftentimes in conjunction with other poetry events.
“In terms of general store sales, poetry is not the most popular,” said Mishkin. “There are other areas that do much better, but we have a lot of poetry events here and we are home to two local poetry groups, so we have a lot of poets who have agreed to come in for the day.”
On Independent Bookstore Day, children will be invited to visit Cedar the therapy dog and read to him from a book from the store’s children’s poetry shelf. Later in the day, Brian Sonia-Wallace, who as the RENT Poet writes and performs personal poetry on-the-spot for passersby at various events and locations, will use his manual typewriter to write poems for customers’ pets. He’ll also bring his own dog, a Shiba Inu, and his book, I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back (Yak Press).
Next will be a book signing and a presentation by second grade students from Paradise Canyon Elementary School, who will recite their original poetry and display their Lego creations.
“The kids worked with their teacher to make their own Lego people; then they glued them into scenes they drew and wrote poems — acrostics, haikus, couplets — to go along with them,” said Mishkin. The day will end, she said, with a poetry open mic for adults, which may feature a local poet as emcee.
Flintridge also has several poetry events planned for earlier in the month, including an evening with poets Sarah Bates and Truth Thomas on April 9, presented by Rattle, a literary magazine with a poetry focus. On April 23, the store will host a reading with the poets Lin Nelson Benedick, Elline Lipkin, and Lynne Thomas.
Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles, California, will present a “Poetry of Conscience” workshop on April 13, to be led by popular Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. The workshop, which costs $30, will allow poets of all experience levels to explore poetry as a gateway to compassion, and to look at “political” poetic verse.
“We’re pals of the fabulous Brendan Constantine, who has done readings at our bookstore and has done poetry workshops with us before,” said Liz Newstat, Chevalier’s co-manager and book buyer who also organizes all of the store’s poetry events.
Newstat said Chevalier’s is known for hosting events related to social justice, an influence, in part, of bookstore co-owners Bert Deixler, who is a lawyer, and Darryl Holter, who has a background as a social activist.
“The event is part of a larger social justice initiative by the store,” said Newstat. “Currently we hand out pocket Constitutions and do social justice display windows, with other events planned.”
Among the many other bookstores celebrating National Poetry Month with events this year is BookPeople of Moscow in Moscow, Idaho, which hosted a standing-room-only book launch on April 1 for poet Robert Wrigley’s newest collection, Box (Penguin Books). Wrigley’s previous book of poems, Anatomy of Melancholy, which launched at BookPeople on April 1, 2013, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association book award.
On April 3, Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, welcomed poet, critic, and Harvard Professor of English Steph Burt for a discussion of contemporary American poetry with Harvard Review managing editor Chloe Garcia Roberts. The event also included a discussion of Burt’s latest book, The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Belknap Press), which features selected poems accompanied by original essays explaining how each poem works and why it matters.
To add your store’s event to a list of National Poetry Month events taking place across the country this month and to see what other stores are doing, check out the events calendar on the Academy of American Poets’ website.