The residence of vital words

The residence of vital words

At Penn, a bustling haven for the essential human activity of writing

Philadelphia Inquirer
April 14, 1998

The residence of vital words

The residence of vital words

Philadelphia Inquirer

I write of the birth of hundreds of poets.

We live at a high point for poetry in America. It's very probably that more poets are writing more poetry more places in this country than have ever done it anywhere else before. Poetry could break out at any time. People use poetry for many occasions, and, if they can't find the right poem, by God, they sit down and write it themselves.

Philadelphia, poetry hotbed. People of all ages in this town are trying to get at the truth of things. They're getting smart, getting sensitive, getting inside language and life.

One place they're doing a lot of that is Kelly Writers House at Locust Walk on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Writers House is many things. They have readings and workshops and poetry slams there. Outbreaks of poetry are frequent:

What do Sat-
urdays do, the tech-
nique of yr person-
a, mine is all
ways bleeding.

That's Jessica Chiu, a sophomore and Writers House planning committee member. Writers House is trying to get the whole city involved in this poetry thing.

After 30 years as the residence of the campus chaplain, the house became part of a university-wide initiative to enrich the Penn undergraduate experience. The idea of a writing house came largely from students. Al Filreis, professor of English and faculty director of the Writers House, says, "The notion that poetry is 'hot' was really behind this." Poetry courses at Penn, which used to be those that "only the dweebiest students were interested in" (Filreis' words) are now SRO, places where the coolest students go.

Several of those cool students worked with faculty and staff to come up with a design. Ideas were put on the Web, all sorts of people contributed -- "The students were virtual squatters, in a way," says Filreis -- and a plan was concocted.

God threw down a magenta thunderbolt in the form of Paul Kelly, who donated $1.1 million to Writers House, which opened in the fall of 1996. Kelly's wonderfulness is why Writers House is so well-accoutred with computers and writing wherewithal -- and a fully-equipped kitchen. No seedy scribbler's dive this. No dog-eaten sofas and cardboard taped over the windows. This is where poetry breaks out:

The residence of vital words

The residence of vital words

Philadelphia Inquirer

from the corner of my closed
eye I attempt to read an
indecipherable memorandum,
my hands wrangling ungracefully
on my lap,
the staccato of a
my own

Heather Laszlo, assistant to the resident coordinator, wrote that.

Here, students can meet with one another and with writers from all over Philadelphia and the world, have a potluck dinner with the writers afterward -- and put their dishes in the dishwasher.

And maybe they'll tempt the guest writer out to a jazz club or coffeehouse. Teresa Leo, a member of the Writers House planning committee, asks, "How often do you get to hear a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet read and then talk to them afterward over dinner?" Not often enough, would be my answer.

Kerry Sherin, resident coordinator, saw graduate student Michael Magee leading a reading at the House and could not believe the scene: "I said, 'Wow -- we never had anything like this when I was a student.'" She applied for the job of resident coordinator and was amazed to get it. She has been known to break out in poetry:

left a trail of phosphores-
ent light
I could not see
and that was me

What she likes is the way folks pitch in: "People are constantly coming in to ask how they can help make something happen. I think the House is what it is because people take ownership."

So what starts out being for the students ends up being for the community. Writers will read at Barnes and Noble and then taxi across town to read at the House -- and vice versa. Students from Edison/Fareira High School in North Philadelphia just finished an exhibition of their artwork here. A magnetic poetry wall has appeared on College Green, just begging for passersby to stop and do it themselves. And on April 29, a marathon poetry reading will stretch from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. to celebrate National Poetry Month. I'll read a poem or two there myself.

Meanwhile, the readings, jam sessions, cookie bakes, marathons, films, literary projects, exhibits and discussions go on. Put your hand over your heart and repeat after Michael Magee:

I pay a lawyer
to defend
and I keep quiet in case I'm a murderer
and two deep-lined pockets
for which I stand
one plaintiff
and just this
for all

"The idea," Sherin says, "is to make this place a Philadelphia nexus for writers from all over, to invite them to share their work here."

I've never thought of poetry as an intellectual affair. Nor will I ever. People write for many reasons: to solve a problem, to assuage grief or give thanks, to play with words, to tell the truth, to praise goodness, to have fun. Leo tells me she writes "to connect with the other side of things," to bridge her life of work/sleep/eat with what does sometimes seem like another side, of transfigured depth and meaning.

When I consider all the poems being created right now, and the expense of time, effort and concentrated insight they represent, right now in this city, at Penn and our other schools, at Writers House and in house and apartments and head all over town and beyond -- well, I want to go write something.

April is one of the twelve months of poetry, and Writers House a place to go if you like hearing it, talking about it or writing it. Go. Hear. Talk. Write.