The Poetry Foundation Breaks Down Barriers Around Poetry



By Klaudia Zychowska



The Poetry Foundation has a special place in the heart of every poet and artist living in Chicago. Established in 2003 after a generous grant from Ruth Lilly, it is a literary organization linked directly to Poetry magazine, one of the most well-known and respected poetry magazines in the world. Although the Modern Poetry Association already existed, it wasn’t until the Poetry Foundation that poets found a place to call home in Chicago. Open and inviting to everyone who sets foot through their doors, the foundation presents poetry as something anyone can enjoy, and it breaks down barriers, expanding the definition of poetry to go beyond its traditional form. The variety of events organized successfully encourages the reading and writing of poetry and provides a safe haven where artists have a space to create and get a chance to be part of the Chicago community.  


The Poetry Foundation is located at Dearborn and Superior in the heart of Chicago. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

The Poetry Foundation’s Programming Director, Stephen Young, organizes events that are inclusive and interesting to a variety of audiences and participants. “Of course we hope to satisfy poetry’s core audience,” he says, “but we also seek connections to other art forms with the aim of drawing in the culturally curious who may not consider themselves poetry readers.” The foundation hosts events where the form of poetry collaborates with another form of art, such as “Poetry & Music” and “Poetry & Art,” which highlight how diverse and free-spirited poetry can be. “Poetry sometimes gets walled off as mystifying and esoteric,” Young says. “We try to tear down those walls.”


John Ronan designed the stunning and modern Poetry Foundation building. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

The room dedicated to poetry readings overlooks the garden. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

Library Book Club is a monthly event series that centers around a particular poet and their work each month. Daniel Borzutzky, Krista Franklin, and Emily Jungmin Yoon are all poets who had been invited to participate and did a reading at this event in the past. Stephen Young is continuously on the lookout for poets who will strike his interest. Although some of the chosen poets are featured in a recent issue of Poetry magazine, Young says he is “always open to suggestions from writers, publishers, and partner institutions.” Another monthly event, the Open Door Series, invites Chicagoland college and graduate writing program instructors to nominate a student to share their work. “I always ask both the students and teachers to say something about how they worked together, and I think anyone who attends leaves inspired with fresh ideas about how to approach poetry,” Young says. He is particularly fond of this event. “We’ve been doing them for five years and a few poets who first appeared as students have now participated as teachers,” he says. “It’s great to see and share in the development of emerging voices.” Library Book Club and the Open Door Series are only two series of the numerous events organized by the foundation. The foundation further facilitates the creation of poetry by annually honoring a poet with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, an award of $100,000. In 2018, the award went to the brilliant Martín Espada.  Another event is the seasonal Fall Party, a celebration of Poetry magazine’s recent issues. It’s free to the public and features readings and music. 


The winner of the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Martín Espada. Photo by Gerber + Scarpelli Photography., courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

The foundation’s Fall Party is a seasonal event that celebrates recent issues of the magazine. Photo by GlitterGuts, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

Apart from readings and discussions, the foundation also hosts writing workshops. Maggie Queeney, who is the foundation’s Library Coordinator, develops and runs a majority of the workshops. Some are organized in collaboration with institutions aimed at a particular group, like veterans, and some are open to everyone, regardless of their experience with poetry. Each workshop has a specific theme and focuses on a craft or form.  Generally, we open with 15 or so minutes of writing, then read and discuss poems for an hour,” Queeney says. “Folks are invited to share their work, either by reading at the end of the session or submitting a document at a later date, but no one is ever required to share work. We aim to keep our groups to around 15 people to make sure everyone has a chance to engage with the work, ask questions, and participate in the discussion.” Anyone interested in learning more about poetry is encouraged to attend these workshops. Extensive knowledge or experience of poetry is not needed, and the workshops are a safe place for people to learn and get inspired. There is nothing to lose, only to gain, by attending one of the workshops.

With the founding of Poetry magazine in 1912 and the evolution of the Poetry Foundation from the Modern Poetry Association, it is difficult to define what the first event was. However, there are several that qualify for the title. “In 1914, long before it was the Poetry Foundation, Poetry magazine hosted a dinner for William Butler Yeats at the Cliff Dwellers Club,” Stephen Young says. “Yeats was then one of the most esteemed living poets and the event helped put the magazine on the map.” After that dinner, the magazine caught the public’s attention and it continued to hold it, successfully organizing events with an increasing number of prominent poets in attendance. “In 1955, the magazine launched Poetry Day, one of the oldest and most prestigious reading series around,” Young continues. “Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Seamus Heaney, among many others have been featured readers in the series, which continues to this day.” Another relevant event occurred in the summer of 2011, soon after the completion of the Poetry Foundation building. Young recalls that the foundation “hosted a weekend-long poetry palooza with readings, talks, and conversations by Elizabeth Alexander, Sandra Cisneros, Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Mary Ann Hoberman, J. Patrick Lewis, Ange Mlinko, Jack Prelutsky, Atsuro Riley, and Kay Ryan. Neko Case performed. A few hardy souls attended all events—I hope they recovered!”


The foundation is home to a 30,000 volume library of poetry works. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

Stephen Young says that Chicago “has always been a home for innovation and experimentation in the art” and that it would be difficult to see the foundation based anywhere else. “Think of Poetry magazine or Marc Smith and the slam movement or the vital, influential work of Young Chicago Authors,” he continues. “These may be well established now, but none would exist without Chicago’s fierce artistic independence and its willingness to take risks.” The events he organizes all have a heavy Chicago presence to them. “We are always looking for new ways to work creatively with compatible partners in the area, and in any given season I estimate that roughly half of the poets we present are either from Chicago or have some strong connection to the Windy City.” Elise Paschen is one of those poets. She sees Chicago as a truly special city and the Poetry Foundation as a blessing for poets. After moving back to her home town Chicago from New York,  one thing that she missed was the poetry organization she ran—the Poetry Society of America. That is until the Poetry Foundation came along. “The founding of the Poetry Foundation filled a gap that was missing in the city,” she says. “It’s comforting to know that there’s this organization that can provide so much to poets.” Paschen has participated in several poetry readings at the foundation, and she’s grateful to Stephen Young for all the events he works hard to organize. “There are so many levels of poetry in Chicago,” she says. The poetry readings take place in a room built with the specific purpose of those readings. “It’s a very special place for a poet, one of the best places in the country,” Paschen admits. It’s also one of the newer venues in the country, and this allows for it to be quite high-tech and record all of the readings. Paschen observes that there is a “diversity of voices represented at the Poetry Foundation.” She believes that compared to poetry events in New York, “Chicago has more surprises. It’s not always the same audience, there are new faces, new people.” This diversity allows everyone to feel included and at home at the Poetry Foundation. “All sorts of ways people can get involved with the foundation,” she says. “No matter who you are, you will find something for yourself.”


Elise Paschen holding an issue of Poetry Magazine which features her poem “Lear’s Wife.” Photo by Rift Gardiner,  courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 


Ed Roberson and his student Jacob Saenz, and avery r. young and his student Nile Lansana at an Open Door reading. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

Eric Elshtain, Brianna Choate, Megan Stockton, and Jennifer Nelson at an Open Door reading. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. 

For those who have never attended an event at the Poetry Foundation, a poetry reading and discussion is a great place to start. However, individuals who are interested in poetry as a craft can feel free to participate in a workshop, even if it is something they have never done before. An open and safe space for everyone, the workshop is not a place where anyone is pressured. Maggie Queeney says that “these workshops are designed for everyone: folks who have never written a poem before, folks who have a regular poetry writing practice, and everyone in-between.” Stephen Young adds: “Poetry audiences are amazingly supportive and sympathetic.”

Stephen Young continually works to organize new types of events that bring in a variety of crowds. “In 2019, we’ll explore the idea of poetry and democracy, partly in celebration of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday,” he says. “There are always new events in the pipeline. At the end of ‘Song of the Open Road,’ Whitman wrote, ‘Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?’ We hope you’ll come travel with the Poetry Foundation events. The road is open and it offers adventures for your imagination.”


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