Husband-and-wife Jared White and Farrah Field recently opened Berl’s Poetry Shop, a bookstore on Front Street in DUMBO devoted to collections of verse. We spoke to them by email about the state of poetry in Brooklyn, and also about how to get people who think they don’t like poetry to reconsider.
What gave you the confidence to open a bookstore now when so many bookstores have been closing?
Actually, we see so many great offbeat bookstores opening up under the radar and thriving. Obviously, it’s a struggle, but we hope that by focusing entirely on poetry—and we are both poets ourselves—we can harness our passion and knowledge to create something unique and open-ended, a gallery for books we love. This romance gives us confidence that we can share with people, both those already invested in poetry and those who are merely curious. Fortunately, there are more poetry publishers than ever, and with online journals and social media, more ways to stay connected to everything happening in poetry across the country and the world. We focus particularly on limited-edition handmade books and micropresses, so our shelves are full of great writing that can’t be found most places. We have the freedom to experiment and the privilege to be joining a community that’s strong and vibrant. We aren’t trying to be the most comprehensive bookstore—just an interesting, fun space.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal said poetry in New York is hotter than it’s been in, like, a generation. Have you found that to be true?
It’s interesting that you ask this question about generations because it’s something that we’ve been thinking about as we plan events and stock our inventory. There are such perennial generational divides at poetry readings: young poets seldom attending readings by older writers and vice versa. We saw Joanne Kyger read one time at the Bowery Poetry Club and felt like the youngest people in the room by 20 years at least. MFA programs may exacerbate this, with each generation being practically two years long! In a way that it makes that friends of certain age attend each others’ readings, and people with kids can’t necessarily stay out at a midnight marathon reading. But it seems like every generation thinks it’s the hottest. We hope our store will be appealing to emerging poets as well as the most established and that our events, the more we have them, and the more varied they are, will bring out all the generations, even the stuffy ones.
Besides you now, obviously, what’re the poetry hot spots in Brooklyn?
Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights is one of the best bookstores in NYC, brimming with gems. We’ve been to great backyard events there at dusk, where the first reader read in golden light and the last in near darkness. We’re hearing amazing things about the Mellow Pages Library, a DIY crowd-sourced lending library in Bushwick that sounds like a socialist utopian fantasy of good books.
Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg has hosted fantastic readings on Friday nights for many years; Goodbye Blue Monday, The West, and 61 Local also play host to great ongoing poetry series. Some of our all-time favorite poetry events, though, are one-offs, like a marathon reading held after hours in the chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery. Of course, the hottest spot is someone’s living room or bedroom. We’d to love someday to arrange an intimate open-studio-style weekend tour of Brooklyn poets’ apartments.
Are poets attracted to Brooklyn the same way they are to Manhattan?
Well, if you throw a beer bottle, chances are you’ll probably hit a writer or artist in either borough, so yeah! New York in general is a great place to be a writer. So many writers pass through, and we think our own work continues to grow due to the variety of voices that we’re exposed to every day. We cherish the historically established poetry resources and venues such as The Poetry Project, Poets House, the 92nd Street Y, the Poetry Society of America, and the Academy of American Poets. We wonder as rent increases continue how many of these storied institutions may join us here in Brooklyn in the years to come!
We think DUMBO is a great place for a poetry bookstore, given that Walt Whitman used to work at the Brooklyn Eagle in this neighborhood. If you’re headed to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you can walk past his former office on Old Fulton Street. Fulton is also the only street that runs in a direct line over the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. So, Manhattan and Brooklyn aren’t all that separate!
What are some misconceptions people have about poetry?
We’re certain there are misconceptions people have, generally speaking, but our customers tend to be smart curious types and are pretty open. When most people see we’re a poetry shop, I think they’re interested because maybe they had an unforgettable teacher who was also a poet, or a college roommate, a friend from high school. People always surprise us by knowing about books we think of as obscure or just off the presses. Dan Boehl’s book Kings of the Fucking Sea was barely out on the local small press Birds LLC when a customer asked us for it based on a coworker’s rave recommendation. We heard later that his book title inspired a band to name themselves after it, and then they all went on tour together.
What are the best ways to win people over to poetry who might be predisposed against it?
We’ve found that most people don’t realize there are so many different kinds of poetry out there. So we usually try to find out things people like—music, movies, and other writers and books—and go from there. With poetry, there is always something that will appeal to everyone.
Some people who have a hard time with the frayed connections and seeming non sequiturs in a poem are already pretty comfortable with a weird or abstract work of art, or a music video, or a piece of performance art. Encouraging people to experience a poem like that can help.
Do you guys live in Brooklyn?
We do! We moved to Brooklyn before we knew each other; Farrah overlooked the Prospect Expressway in Kensington, and Jared slept in a tiny bedroom over the Waterfalls Café on Atlantic Avenue. Once, before we officially met, we both signed up for horseback riding lessons in the stables at Prospect Park and are pretty sure we passed each other without realizing.
We’ve now lived in DUMBO for 12 years. In the early days you had to walk across an abandoned lot to get to the A train. Everything has changed—except the cat living at Peas and Pickles. We love to be opening a bookstore in a neighborhood with four other very different but inviting places for book browsing, from the glossy hardcover photo spreads at powerHouse Arena to the dog-eared sci-fi at Singularity & Co. Brooklyn in general has such a phenomenal poetic/literary history, from Marianne Moore to George Oppen, Hart Crane, and of course Walt Whitman. We are so thrilled to be becoming a part of it.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart