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The spoken — and written — word thrives in many Richmond venues.

The Pleasure of Poetry


For most Americans, reading a book of poetry is not their idea of a good time. See a movie, go out to dinner, but don't curl up with a volume of verse. For this reason, the American Academy of Poetry undertook a bold move.

In 1996, the New York-based organization named April as Poetry Month to continue its original mission of supporting American poets and encouraging the appreciation of contemporary poetry. It sets up programs and provides support material to publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets from around the country to raise awareness and celebrate poetry's vital place in American culture.

Poetry Month has inspired some like New Yorker Andrew Carroll to drive from New York to California to distribute 100,000 free copies of poetry books. More common are poetry readings and prominent displays of posters and poetry books in bookstore windows. So far, these initiatives seem to be working.

Kelly Justice of Fountain Books says Poetry Month has made "a huge impact on poetry." Poetry sales at the independent bookstore have risen "dramatically." "I'd say poetry sales tripled in that time," she says. "How else would a work like 'Beowulf' hit the best-seller list?"

Though poetry books may never sell as well as nonfiction, awareness and appreciation of poetry has grown steadily in the last several years. Television, the last place one might expect to find poetry, devoted an entire show to it in 1999, "Fooling with Words," a PBS program moderated by Bill Moyers. Throughout the country, more and more poetry conferences are springing up with sizeable attendances. In any city, it's easy to find bookstores and coffee shops regularly offering open mics for poetry readings.

Here in Richmond, the poetry scene is thriving, as well. Poet and teacher Leslie Shiel, and writer and gallery owner Kirsten Gray, got together in fall 1999 to found an ongoing poetry series at Church Hill's Eric Schindler Gallery. Each reading focuses on four to eight invited poets reading on a specific theme. Between each reading, Shiel provides background on the poet and the work, then offers the audience a writing exercise based on the poem. This unusual and compelling combination of poetry reading and workshop has garnered a loyal group of followers.

Since 1998, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has sponsored a reading series, Poetic Principles. Nationally known poets such as John Ashberry, Philip Levine, Stanley Plumly and, reading in May, Ellen Bryant Voigt, typify the voices who apply elegance to language, turning phrases and netting metaphors that provide insight into living. Poetic Principles brings in mainstream writers who draw a steady crowd, anywhere from 100 to 300 people — a large audience for poetry.

Still, many more people shy away from such events. Poetry, they believe, is inaccessible and incomprehensible. Justice, an avid reader, admits to originally being intimidated by poetry. "Poetry is not always warm and fuzzy," she says.

Alfredo Franco, who oversees Poetic Principles, offers a simple solution to finding entry into poetry. All that's needed, he says, are ears. "Listen to it as you would to music," he says. "Much of the meaning comes across through the sound." Shiel offers similar advice: "Find someone who really, really loves poetry and get that person to read aloud to you."

It's the sonic quality that got Kelly Lane hooked on poetry. He and Shann Palmer organize open mics at Shockoe Espresso twice a month. "It's a place [where] poets can read their material and be warmly received," he says.

Though he's written for years, it wasn't until he got inspired from listening to fellow poets and began reading his own poetry aloud that his appreciation grew. "Reading aloud let me hear what improvements were necessary to my work," he says.

For Shiel, poetry "helps us get clear on issues that go beyond us. A poem creates a space for complexity and dissonance," she says. "It mirrors truth back from the community."

What poetry lovers can agree on is its cultural importance. "It uses the full resources of a language and helps keep it alive," Franco says. "It helps, also, to preserve and explore human experience. Anyone who speaks the English language owes a duty to regenerate it."

Reading Aloud
There's no shortage of forums for local poets. Here are a few regular venues:

Barnes & Noble, Libbie Place — Readings at 7:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month.

Borders Books, 9750 W. Broad Street — Readings at 8 p.m. on the fourth (or last) Tuesday of the month.

Shockoe Espresso, 104 Shockoe Slip — Readings from 2 to 4 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

Puddn'Heads Coffee House, 1211 W. Main St. — Readings at 2 p.m. on Fridays.

Tower Books, Willow Lawn Mall — Readings from 7 to 9 p.m. on the third Saturday of the

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