The Spirit of Walt Whitman Lives On in Brooklyn Poets

Photos by Jane Bruce

There’s a popular myth of the writer as a solitary genius, wandering lonely as a cloud (Wordsworth) on the road somewhere (Kerouac), or just shuttered up in a cabin (Salinger, Dickinson, Thoreau). Then, according to the myth, out of his/her isolation springs the fully formed Great American Novel or Poem of Our Generation. The myth skips a step, however, because the writer surely had an editor, and then any combination of peers, family, spouses, lovers, and friends—all of whom provided some level of insight into the final Great text. Yes, the writer needs alone time, but the writer also needs people.

And, Brooklyn Poets has gathered a growing, supportive network of such people: teachers, mentors, packed-house open mic audiences, monthly groups and workshops, plus free or affordable, choose-your-own-level-of-commitment attendance options. “We wanted to create a true, homegrown community model,” says Jason Koo, the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets. “We have people coming from all over: amateur people who have never written a poem and then people who have been doing it for years, who have taken a lot of workshops and written a lot of poems.”

Since he founded Brooklyn Poets on May 31, 2012—Walt Whitman’s birthday—Koo tells me that he’s seen students gaining confidence, publishing poems, getting books picked up, and generally forming a tight-knit writing community. “They feel included,” Koo says, and they keep coming back.

I meet Koo at the Brooklyn Ball Factory, a small East Williamsburg cafe and one of Koo’s favorite spots because it has rooftop tables and quiet. He’s dressed in a dark grey “Brooklyn Poets” pennant t-shirt, which he calls ‘swag’ with a laugh. Poetry swag.

“I have many more swag ideas,” Koo explains. “If we had more staff, maybe eventually I could form a separate company that just handled the t-shirts. If I really worked on that, I feel like we could potentially fund the whole damn non-profit just on t-shirts.”

Koo is half-serious, half-joking since he did manage to almost single-handedly start Brooklyn Poets with just a Tumblr account and sheer determination: “I was like, ‘Well, why can’t I just teach my own workshops privately?'” Koo has a BA in English from Yale, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia (plus two books under his belt). At the time, he was also anxiously combing the job market, trying to make sure that he had an income when the fall semester started.

“I constructed this whole syllabus,” he says. “It was insane. It spanned at least ten months, and I constructed this five-week model, which is our model right now. The whole idea was that the workshops were supposed to feed into each other.” Koo chose to name the project Brooklyn Poets because it “kind of sounds like a community organization; it doesn’t sound like a private workshop thing,” and then he bought the URL. “Once I had the name, a lot of ideas started coming to me,” he says.

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But a few months in, Koo found out that he had landed an assistant professor position at Quinnipiac University. Of course, he was going to take the job (and he still teaches there), but, Koo decided, “I already did all this work, so why not just try to start this thing, which seemed really cool.” For the first workshop, he “scrounged together these students” after posting all over his social media accounts and reaching out to friends.

“What I didn’t realize in the beginning is how limited the market was for my teaching services,” he says, laughing. “Every poet sort of assumes that they’re more well-known than they are. You’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll just post this on Facebook and hundreds of students will sign up.’ But like, it’s really hard to get students because you don’t understand the power of branding.”

So, Koo quickly started picking up some business acumen. “You have to establish your workshop model as a legit model otherwise people aren’t going to give you money—even if you make it free, people aren’t going to sign up,” he says. “It took maybe like a year to a year and a half for us to establish ourselves. Once we started hiring other teachers, it started looking more like a thing. Now we have tons of teachers.”

He rapidly lists some literary heavy hitters: Dorothea Lasky. David Tomas Martinez. Bianca Stone. J. Scott Brownlee. “We’re obviously trying to hire poets because poets need money,” he says, “and a lot of them that can’t get jobs in universities are looking for work. They can’t live off [the workshops] the whole year, but it pays pretty well for five weeks. It actually pays really well.”

Until recently, Koo also used to teach every season but as the organization has grown, the workload has gotten to be too much and he’s had to cut back. “In the beginning, I wasn’t even taking the money [from teaching the workshops],” he remembers. “I would just give all the money I raised to Brooklyn Poets. It was insane. I think I taught like eight to ten workshops for free. I could definitely use that money now—that was probably four or five thousand dollars worth of money. But we needed it to start the company.”

In April this year, Brooklyn Poets launched The Bridge, an online networking site “that we built really just for poets to share work,” says Koo. He had started noticing that there were two main groups in need: “student poets coming to me and asking, ‘How can I find a mentor for my work?'” and “poets who are publishing, graduating from graduate school, with MFAs and PhDs and they don’t have work.” The Bridge connects both, acting as a platform where poets and mentors can create their own accounts, post poetry and workshops, follow each other, and request critiques of their work.

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Over the past three months, more than four hundred people have already signed up. “The exciting thing is there are already things happening with students contacting mentors,” says Koo, which makes the whole endeavor worthwhile for him. Koo spent over two and half years hammering out ideas, running an Indiegogo campaign (“the most painful thing I’ve ever done”), and working with developers to get the site running.

Still, Koo says, “I don’t think everyone understands that you can actually make money off the site if you’re a mentor. A lot of people out there looking for work…can be visible as a teacher and get students contacting them, and also…you can post workshops on the site.” The idea of posting workshops goes back to Koo’s original struggle to find his first handful of students for the nascent Brooklyn Poets. “The reason why that was so hard was because there was no advertising network for me to post my stuff, except for Facebook,” he says. Now, there’s The Bridge.

And, for those who are just looking to put their pen to the paper for their first poem (or their 100th poem), there’s also the Brooklyn Poets Yawp, a monthly poetry workshop and open mic held at 61 Local in Cobble Hill. The workshop is run by a different teacher each month, and Koo hosts the open mic afterwards. He cracks jokes, keeps it light, and makes sure that the poets stay under three minutes maximum at the mic.

“There is a diversity in poets, structure, and subject matter that is unmatched in other poetry open mics,” says Brooklyn-based poet Sonya Patel, and “these strangers are clapping, encouraging, whooping for you to start. It’s a really supportive atmosphere, with a lot of warmth.”

That same easy-going attitude also cuts through any snobbery that sometimes (accidentally? intentionally?) finds its way into established reading series in the city. Koo curates the bimonthly Brooklyn Poets Reading Series, and emphasizes his efforts to make it fun: “We play music in the beginning, and then we have free drinks and hors-d’oeuvres. Then we have a reading, and we treat the poets like rock stars. They have a walk up song. We pay them to read. We have a little bit of an after party and then they sign books.”

Still, if Koo had his way (and unlimited funds), the reading series would be even more fun: “It would kind of be like a hip-hop thing, where we’d have a DJ, and then we’d have the reading,” he says. “Then we’d have a dance party. The DJ would be spinning hip-hop tunes. You could get the graffiti artists and break dancers to come. That’s my idea of an amazing reading.”

Walt Whitman would probably approve.

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