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Foundation plots versification strategy

September 08, 2004|Charles Storch | Chicago Tribune

The Poetry Foundation, no longer one of the arts' little match girls, is prepared to spend more than $3 million a year to fire the public's enthusiasm for verse.

The poetry world has been waiting almost two years to hear how the Chicago-based foundation will use a gift expected to exceed $100 million from Indianapolis pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. The foundation, publisher of the venerable Poetry magazine, is now revealing a strategic plan aimed at building the audience for verse.

In a letter recently sent to the magazine's subscribers, foundation President John Barr said the aim is to "raise poetry to a more visible and influential position in American culture."

Outside of academia, he wrote, "contemporary poetry can hardly be said to be on the mind of the general public. The wonder is that so much poetry continues to be written in the face of such resolute indifference."

He made clear that the foundation will not "be primarily a grantmaking or check-writing organization." The declaration may disappoint many poetry organizations and writers.

In an interview, Barr said the foundation already has received about $28 million from the Lilly gift and anticipates receiving $15 million more in January. "We have a responsibility to put that money to work for the poetry world," he said.

He also said the hope is to turn the foundation into a "think tank, a place where new thinking about poetry can occur."

He said the foundation's 2005 budget should be "in excess of $3 million," compared with $2 million this year and $860,000 in 2003. The budget covers Poetry magazine, other current operations and some new initiatives.

Those initiatives include:

* A national research study of public attitudes about poetry and what verse is encountered and where. Barr said the study will begin next year with focus groups within the poetry community, followed by a telephone survey of the general public. He said results could be published in the latter half of 2005.

"We want to find out how we might discover people who are potential consumers of poetry and how we can put more poetry before them," he said.

* A contemporary poetry database/search engine to be launched on the Internet sometime in 2005. Barr said the new site will be an "online, electronic anthology of poetry, available to the public at no cost."

* A program with schools that may include poetry recitation contests -- a throwback to school events once commonplace. The foundation also will seek ways to enhance the teaching of poetry by studying needs of teachers and school libraries.

* Reaching out to mainstream media -- print, broadcast and film -- to try to get them to publish or cite poetry.

* Introducing, at an awards ceremony this October, two prizes: a $50,000 Neglected Master Award for a living American poet whose work has been overlooked; and a $25,000 Mark Twain Award to recognize humor in American poetry. Barr said the foundation also will seek to find a publisher for a "neglected master" whose works are out of print.

Kevin Stein, the Bradley University professor who is Illinois' poet laureate, said he had read Barr's letter and found it "thoughtful and reasonable."

He said he might have put more emphasis on a program for schools, where, he said, "poetry is often mistaught rather than not taught."

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