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How will Poetry Magazine spend $100 million?

Drug company heiress Lilly bequeathed the grant to the magazine
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joe Parisi, who for 20 years ran Poetry Magazine, is a short, sad-eyed man with the kind of low, detached voice that makes all the world seem a droll conspiracy.

Parisi loves to tell stories and the past year has provided a windfall. In November 2002, Poetry announced that a $100 million grant had made it rich beyond even a poet’s imagination. Suggestions for spending the money soon followed.

“One morning, I was sitting in the coffee shop, minding my own business ... and a guy comes by in a jogging suit, looks in the window and a few minutes later was standing in front me,” Parisi recalled.

“He introduces himself as a person working for a large financial institution, takes out his card and says he would like to get together and discuss being my financial adviser.”

Some stories Parisi won’t tell. In August, he abruptly left the magazine he had run since 1983 to “pursue his writing interests.” He declined further comment, but in an interview shortly before he announced his departure, he had called the gift a “mixed blessing” and appeared nostalgic for the days when he could drink his coffee undisturbed.

“We still have a magazine to publish, and we have to deal with this onslaught,” he said at the time.

Grant is a blessing and a curseFounded in 1912, Poetry had for decades defined itself as a struggling but intimate operation devoted solely to the self-evident mission of the magazine’s title. Now, money itself has become an occupation, enhancing and complicating that mission.

Receiving such a grant is far more involved than simply being handed a check and depositing it into a bank account. Because of tax laws and numerous other regulations, the money is to be spent over a 30-year period, with payments coming from a series of trust funds.

“It’s astonishing. It’s so hard to describe,” says Deborah Cummins, chairwoman of the board of trustees for The Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed by the magazine to manage the funds bequeathed by philanthropist Ruth E. Lilly, the drug company heiress.

Even the value of the Lilly grant has proved hard to talk about.

The gift came as Eli Lilly & Co. stock, which within months lost a third of its value and was sold. The bank in charge of the trusts, National City Bank of Indiana, is seeking exoneration from any mishandling of the funds. The case, filed in Indiana probate court, is still pending.

Spending the moneySo far, the magazine’s spending has been mostly confined to internal matters — two additional full-time staffers (bringing the total to six), a part-time financial officer, new computers, a new phone system. Cummins says Poetry has received a $14 million installment, but declined to say how much has been spent.

Poetry does have a history of sponsoring community programs, notably a “Poets in Person” series that featured Allen Ginsberg, Rita Dove and other leading writers. But while staffers have a lot of general ideas on how to use the grant, including reaching out to the business community, nothing specific has been decided. The foundation expects to soon hire a president who can organize and implement what Cummins calls a “strategic plan.”

“We can’t do anything until we have a strategic plan,” she says. “We’ve never been in this position before — the ones giving out the money. We’ve always been on the other side of the desk, writing grant applications.”

Meanwhile, the magazine has moved to larger quarters. Before the grant, Poetry was squeezed into an 850 square foot suite at Chicago’s Newberry Library, a leading research facility. Now the magazine rents about 5,000 square feet in a nearby office building, down the hall from a pediatric clinic and two floors below a health club.

While staffers used to practically collide during editing sessions at the Newberry building, they now have private offices, along with a conference room, reception area, a kitchen, a mail room and two small storerooms.

“We have space to grow into, which is important because nobody knows exactly how much staff we’ll be adding and what kind of help we’ll be needing,” says Helen Klaviter, Poetry’s business and projects manager.

A time of changesThe magazine itself has benefited both from the publicity and from the money. Poetry has added about 900 subscribers since receiving the grant and has a base of 8,900, far higher than most poetry magazines. And it has tripled its commission for poetry from $2 a line to $6 a line, substantially higher than comparable publications, according to Charles Flowers, associate director of the Academy of American Poets.

An attractive, pamphlet-sized monthly, Poetry looks essentially the same as it did before the Lilly grant. But changes are underway.

The goal of Parisi’s replacement, Christian Wiman, a 37-year-old poet whose work has appeared in the magazine, is to make the magazine more accessible both to its readers and to nonpoets. More letters to the editor will be published and next spring the magazine will start a new feature called “A View From Here.”’

“What I’m doing is asking people from other fields to take a bunch of new poetry books and write about them,” says Wiman, who already has pieces coming from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Garry Wills (“Lincoln at Gettysburg”) and Michael Lewis, author of the best selling “Liar’s Poker,” a critique of the investment banking industry.

Poetry Magazine has a number of ideas for expanding its circulation. The Web site is being redesigned and Wiman says ads will be placed in a few trade and general interest magazines; Poetry also plans a direct mail campaign to more than 100,000 people with an interest in “literature of one sort or another.”

A long tradition of quality
Inclusiveness has always been the goal of Poetry, founded by Harriet Monroe, a poet and editor who established an “open door” policy that judged submissions on quality alone, not on style or subject matter.

The magazine soon established itself as a forum for some of the most important work of the 20th century. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by a then-unknown T.S. Eliot, appeared in Poetry in 1915, and Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens were among other writers later published. Billy Collins, who recently ended a two-year stint as the nation’s poet laureate, is a current contributor.

“You feel like you’re joining a pantheon when you’re published there,” Collins says. “You feel as if you’re playing at least a minor role in the history of modern poetry.”

In 1970, a poet named Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr. submitted verse that was not accepted, although still believed worthy of a personal rejection letter. Mrs. Van Riper, whose maiden name was Ruth Lilly, was apparently not offended.

Lilly's legacyOver the next three decades, the since-divorced Lilly sponsored an annual poetry prize through the magazine and provided money for poetry fellowships. In 2001, her attorney informed Poetry about the $100 million gift, a sum so enormous that the magazine waited a year to tell the public.

“I thought it was a good idea to keep this quiet for as long as possible. We knew there’d be a media frenzy,” Parisi said.

Boxes worth of proposals came in: people with sick relatives in need of help, literary organizations, financial institutions. One would-be beneficiary successfully got past the front desk by claiming he was an old college friend of Parisi’s.

Few art forms could use financial help as much as poetry, which sells little compared to other genres. Flowers estimates about 1,000 poetry books are published each year, with print runs averaging between 1,000 and 2,000, rarely selling out within a year unless winning a major prize.

The most popular poetry book in recent times is not by Collins or Maya Angelou or U.S. poet laureate Louise Gluck, but by Mattie Stepanek, a 13-year-old with muscular dystrophy whose inspirational verse has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Best-selling books usually include a famous name from another field (Garrison Keillor, rapper Tupac Shakur) or are old narrative texts more likely to be assigned rather than voluntarily read (”The Canterbury Tales,” Dante’s “Inferno”).

The Lilly donation marked one of several news events over the past year that involved poetry. Amiri Baraka, New Jersey’s poet laureate, was strongly criticized after reading a poem that alleged Israelis had advanced knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Last winter, anti-war feelings among poets led first lady Laura Bush to postpone a White House literary symposium. Around the same time, poet Dana Gioia took over as head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

But if poetry can still grab our attention, there’s no proof of its hold on our imaginations, at least on a national scale.

Is there still a place for poetry?
Asked by to name a line from any poem over the past 20 years that has entered the public’s consciousness — such as Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month” — none of the staffers at Poetry Magazine could come up with one. Neither could Collins nor Gioia.

“If you listen to popular music, you will hear a song 100, 300 times,” Collins says. “That’s why you are or I or any American with a car radio is able to sing along with 500 songs. But there are very few poems you could say that about.”

As an art form, poetry is both enormously popular and stubbornly uncommercial. It has been featured at thousands of festivals and readings around the country and on National Public Radio, where Keillor daily recites a favorite work. But while millions clearly enjoy poetry, only a fraction regularly buy it.

“Even when you talk to students, I was always amazed ... how limited their reading was, that they weren’t terribly interested in anything beyond a small group they knew about,” Parisi said.

Getting poetry out to the public
Poetry Magazine itself has learned that not even the Lilly grant enables it to reach all readers. Many public libraries, including some branches in Chicago, are limited in both space and budget and don’t carry the magazine.

“If you can only display 30 magazines in a neighborhood branch, then you have to choose from out of the thousands of magazines being published,” says Carla Hayden, president of the American Library Association.

Officials at Poetry and elsewhere agree that poetry itself is the best advertisement for poetry, that the more people are exposed to it the more likely they are to read it.

As poet laureate, Collins initiated the Poetry 180 project, in which high school students hear a poem recited each of the 180 days of the academic year. His predecessor, Robert Pinsky, assembled a compilation of the public’s favorite poems and staged live readings with some of the book’s participants. Gioia makes a point of including a poem when making a public appearance.

“I find myself often quoting a poem from memory at the start of a speech and I’ve noticed how deeply and immediately audiences respond,” Gioia says. “I continue to believe there is a great hunger in public life for fine, passionate and memorable language.”