My Poetry Experience Not Lyrical
Posted by: Keir Graff
This morning I attended the dedication ceremony for the new Poetry Foundation headquarters building (which Blair Kamin gave a great review in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune). My presence was due to a trickle-down invitation: several higher-ups at ALA had been invited first but, as they were already en route to New Orleans and I’m not leaving until tomorrow, I RSVP’d as the ALA/Booklist alternate delegate.
My entrance was quite comical. First, as I approached the building on the corner of Superior and Dearborn (mere blocks from ALA HQ), I couldn’t find the door. Then, when a guy in a suit saw my confusion and directed me to the door, I couldn’t open it. I pulled and pushed but, apparently, my puny book-reviewer muscles were no match for the Poetry portcullis. Thankfully, a small woman inside saw my distress and gave me an assist from within the building.
After entering and some confused milling-about on my part, I made my way to the performance space, where I was greeted by a woman who asked who I was. “Keir Graff, Booklist,” I said. It’s not exactly “Bond, James Bond,” but the Booklist name does tend to open a door or two in the literary world—or, once you’ve muscled open the door, to remain at the party. The woman had never heard of Booklist. “It’s a review journal,” I said helpfully. That didn’t really register, either, but with a wan smile, she indicated that I was allowed to enter the room. I do think she was debating asking me whether I’d actually been invited.
There were brief remarks from Poetry bigwigs (and boy do I love saying “Poetry bigwigs”), who noted that it’s been nearly 100 years to the day since Harriet Monroe started Poetry on the strength of a $50 donation; from the architect, John Ronan; and someone from the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. It was also noted that the acoustics of the performance space had been engineered to be perfect for the human voice speaking poetry. And that may well be, but they need to work on the podium. Every time the speakers shifted their hands, their words were obscured by loudly amplified thumps. Might I suggest a cork placemat on which they can rest their texts?
Next came Garrison Keillor, who must have gotten over being savaged—savaged!—in Poetry‘s review of Good Poems (2002) (For the record, Booklist demurred: our own irascible Ray Olson wrote “It is astonishing how sound his judgment is.”) Keillor opened with a limerick he’d composed on the spot, which was pretty funny, and then recited from memory poems and lines of poems (and more limericks) without so much as pausing in transition. Then he sat down. I know Keillor can seem a little removed, but given the lack of warmth in his delivery, maybe he hasn’t gotten over the savaging after all.
After a ribbon-cutting, we were told, “The building is yours!” We were invited to visit the second floor, the offices, anywhere we liked. I wandered around and, boy, it is a gorgeous building. Handsome wood and sleek finishes, all of it glowing in an abundance of natural light. “Can you imagine working here?” I asked someone. Then, imagining working there, I fell into a brief reverie in which I pictured myself rejecting poetry submissions from a gorgeous desk, or planning a marketing campaign in the glass-walled conference room.
I made my way down to the library, then up the stairs to the second level of the library, where I admired the view and browsed spines. Selecting a slender book at random, I pulled it out and had to laugh. I took a picture of it. Then, before I knew it, Poetry‘s librarian was at my elbow, introducing herself and taking the book from my hand. The books weren’t cataloged yet, she explained. I told her I knew precisely where I’d taken it from (I’d bumped the books on either side out slightly as a memory aid), but that wasn’t the issue. I was welcome to look, she said, but her body language suggested that it was time to go downstairs.
I left shortly thereafter, taking with me only memories and a few pictures of the very impressive building. The book I shouldn’t have taken from its shelf?
I’m disappointed I didn’t get a chance to read it. Seems like the kind of book that gets people excited about poetry!