Do you think poetry is boring or hard to understand? You have not been reading the right poetry. Moreover, you have not been to one of New York City’s best poetry reading series, Empire, hosted by Phantom Books.
This Friday, March 18, at Art Cafe + Bar in Prospect Heights, Empire presents its one-year anniversary reading with renowned poets Timothy Donnelly (recent recipient of the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Prize and Editor at Boston Review), Rowan Ricardo Phillips (long-listed this year for the National Book Award in Poetry this year), as well as Nicole Sealey and Ruth Madievsky, beloved and recently published in their own rights.
Last week, I sat down and talked with Empire series founders and Brooklynites, Hafizah Geter and Ryann Stevenson. They revealed some juicy tidbits about poets (they’re actually much like you and me), and a lot more: how they work to avoid the “affliction of the all-white room” (Empire readings are always chock full of a diverse, and honest representation of poets); what they think about the state of poetry in New York City (and generally), and why they keep their readings short (it has to do, again, with how poets are pretty much like normal people). While sipping delicious cocktails at Sisters in Clinton Hill, Stevenson and Geter thoughtfully discussed all of this and more—and reminded me that poetry’s ultimate goal is very simple: to be in conversation with life.
Let’s start with the basics: How do you know each other?
Hafizah Geter: We both got our MFAs in poetry at Columbia College in Chicago. While we were there we started a graduate reading series along with Kelly Forsythe (Phantom Books’ Editor-in-Chief). It was called the 33 Reading Series, named after the building all of our classes were in. Every other MFA program had a way to showcase their work, and so we thought we should have a way to showcase our work.
Actually, let’s go further back: What was the start of each of your lives with poetry?
Ryann Stevenson: In my senior year of high school I took a senior creative writing class (the first-ever to be offered at my school). There was a tiny little poetry unit we did that was a week or two long. I knew then that poetry was a thing that would always be an essential part of my life.
Geter: I didn’t realize I would get my MFA until I was closer to graduating from undergrad. I had had one writing workshop, and that was in all genres. That was the extent of my undergrad exposure to writing. After that I knew I didn’t want to go straight to work, and I knew I liked to write, and that I liked to write poetry, and that there were MFAs. It was also an immediate way to get out of South Carolina without having to find a job in another state.
Who were the poets you were reading at that early stage?
Stevenson: I was in an undergraduate class called Forms of Poetry. We were given an assignment for which we had to study one poet and write a poem in conversation with their work. Up until that point, the majority of my early poetry education had been white male poets, which was frustrating. So I decided to pick a name I had never heard of: Brenda Hillman. To this day, she is still absolutely one of my favorite poets—so influential to my work. It opened a door.
Geter: My parents had us memorize poems. The only poets I had really spent time with before were Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni and WS Merwin’s translation of Pablo Neruda’s work, and then like dead white guys in my college classes. I didn’t realize that there were other people writing poems, or in South Carolina, how much that lack of exposure was a problem. I had to come into that conversation later on in my poetry life.
I remember the first contemporary poem I read, I was like, oh my god: “I Go Back to May 1937,” by Sharon Olds. She is looking at this photo of her parents and wondering if they knew they were going to do horrible things to each other? If they knew they were going to do awful things to their children, and ruin lives? It’s an amazing poem. It was that and then Ellen Bass. I was in a poetry listserv (this was when the Internet was still new!) and the poet Ellen Bass came up, and I was like, oh my gosh: poetry. Those two poems brought me into poetry, and I thought, “people are doing this.”
How did Phantom Books begin?
Geter: Kelly (Forsythe), our fearless leader, and I had already graduated, and we just started it as a way for friends that were moving apart to stay tied together. It started small, but Kelly is a strategic planning beast, so we’ve grown tremendously. We are really dedicated to bringing a lot of diverse voices together, emerging and established, and people from diverse backgrounds. But perhaps one of the biggest motivators was our general obsession with each other and the friendships we had created. No harm saying it out loud.
Stevenson: In the beginning it was just the three of us plus (poetry editor) Jeffrey Allen. But it has now become so much bigger. I started as a poetry reader, and am the Chapbook Series Editor. We publish about four chapbooks a year; some of which are solicited, writers I seek out, and at least one is the result of our annual Breitling Poetry Prize (named in honor of Nathan Breitling, our late friend from Columbia College).
How do you find the state of Poetry in New York City? How do you feel about being a poet here—encouraging?
Geter: I would say it’s fascinating to be a poet in New York City. I’ll be on the train and see someone reading a poetry book; the first couple of years I thought it was so bizarre that anybody else would be interested, or crazy enough to do this, too. People say poetry is dying art, but it’s hard to see that when you’re in it because there are so many poems and poets in front of you with stories that deserve to be told and that you want to hear.
Stevenson: While the New York Poetry community is so influential and wonderfully diverse, sometimes it feels as though there’s this false belief that it’s the only poetry community: you become a bubble. I felt like an outsider for at least the first two years of being here, and sometimes still. But I’ve also felt the warmth of the bubble.
Geter: MFA programs create really intense bonds. For two years, we workshopped each others feelings. You form an emotional bond with people, and I think that makes it interesting to navigate. But the community resembles every other group. Especially recently, like other industries, there have been a lot of issues in terms of sexual harassment. It is the same things that affects every other industry, so not just sexual harassment, but a lack of diversity. Poetry suffers from the affliction of the all white room. It is just as segregated as people’s lives.
Stevenson: That was the main thing we wanted to work against. We did not want EMPIRE to be another all-white room. That’s something that is really important to us.
Geter: Especially in New York, because to have an all-white lineup is not an honest representation of the city or of the poetry community. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Stevenson: We’re overwhelmed by the talent pool at our disposal here.
Geter: There is so much diversity in poetry, it’s amazing: non-white, non-gender-conforming poets. Poets who are bending and defying binaries of being and of form are everywhere, if you know to look. It is like every other facet of life, you can choose to be as narrow-minded as you want. And people do. But one thing we tried to do with Empire is not just stage diverse poets, but get a diverse audience; ninety percent of readings I go to I am generally one of the few people of color in the audience and I usually came with most of the other people of color. As curators it’s your job to not only be diverse, but to also do it authentically. You have to ask yourself how you can make your reading series as diverse as possible without tokenizing people—like, hey, you’re the black person, come read!
How did you select the readers for this anniversary reading?
Stevenson: We have an ongoing reader wish list that we’re continuously adding to.
Geter: Ryann and I pretty much spend six hours a day on Gchat while we’re at our full time jobs, we are just Gchatting about our lives, our poetry, our series. We share Google Docs, and text each other at six in the morning. We harass each other. It’s kind of an organic process. Timothy Donnelly, and Nicole Sealey, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips are amazing New York based poets that we have been dying to have read. We got lucky that Ruth was coming to town from LA, and so we planned this date around her trip here. It was an opportunity we couldn’t afford to pass up.
Timothy and Rowan are really established. Timothy is the poetry editor Boston Review and won the Kingsley (and Kate Tufts Poetry Award) for poetry! Rowan was long-listed for a National Book award this year for poetry. We like to have combinations that people would not think of. Our lineup might not be on your poetry bookshelf, but after you hear them read together, we hope that audience members will feel moved to expand their reading shelves. Ruth’s first book just came out. Timothy has two books. Rowan was just nominated for the National Book Award. Nicole Sealey is beloved. Every reading has four readers, at 12 minutes each with a ten minute break in the middle. We like to keep it simple and not overwhelm folks. Poetry is compact and so absorbing; all of that at a reading can be hard.
At the end of day, poets also like to socialize. All of those dark emotions, you can only cry in the shower alone for so long. After that, you need to hang out.
Last question: Do you feel optimistic about the future of poetry?
Stevenson: I do. I think poetry is veering into a really exciting and important new chapter. It has always had the potential to impact the world on a political and social level, but the impact of poetry feels more inevitable and necessary than ever.
Geter: I feel optimistic, because poetry is changing the world. That’s clear as day to me. Claudia Rankine, as everyone knows is one of our country’s best poets. Someone took Claudia Rankine’s book to a Trump rally and read it form their bleacher seats on a camera. That was a huge deal; the book is all about race in America and micro-aggressions. Claudia and her work have opened a new door for dialogue. I feel poetry has appeared to be dying because it outgrew the medium it had to reach its audience. Another thing the Internet has fixed.
I’m also optimistic because poets are fun. The oldest, best kept secret that we’re (poets) the funnest of the bunch.
Stevenson: People are always shocked to discover that poets are a good time. My sister just moved here and came to our last EMPIRE reading. She couldn’t get over how much fun it was. I mean, we’re all just trying to understand what it means to be a human.
Geter: Though, we need to acknowledge that some poetry can be difficult as shit. With MFAs now in the picture, and with the socioeconomic requirement that can come with them, poetry can be seen as no longer for the masses. But I think that’s wrong. I would say the majority of poetry is an exercise in desire. The desire to be seen, heard, and understood.
Mainly, we’re just talking bout love, sex, and death. Everyone’s favorite things.
Stevenson: Right? Everyone can relate.