Poets House at Home

Glass-enclosed space’s opening was grand

After years in a cramped SoHo office, one of the country’s premiere poetry organizations has finally moved into its new home in Battery Park City.

Founded by the poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray in 1985, Poets House celebrated with an open house, readings and music last weekend. “This is the beginning of the true life of Poets House in this space,” said Executive Director Lee Briccetti.

The glass-enclosed, 11,000 square foot space boasts panoramic views of the Hudson, shows off its entire 50,000 volume poetry collection, and is eco-friendly. “Our goal was to make it a place that was cutting edge,” said architect Louise Braverman, “not a dusty old place, but at the same time with the warmth of the poets.”

Visitors enter on River Terrace and proceed through a double height foyer. Veer right and you’ll enter Elizabeth Kray Hall (which hosts readings, lectures and other programs). The high tech room can screen rare books on a projector, integrate sound into events and record programs digitally. Garage doors behind the podium open onto a small courtyard for outdoor programs. To the hall’s left is the Constance Laibe Hays Children’s Room. Though it doesn’t open full-time until April 2010, it will host monthly programs this fall. The space is friendly and inviting — and, like the rest of Poets House, contains artifacts from Kunitz (including two of his typewriters, which rest on a library card catalog). A curtain of paper cranes from the former space hangs, and stuffed animals pose with books. “We want it to be very hands-on,” said Mike Romanos, the Children’s Room coordinator.

A curving staircase winds above the Children’s Room, with an Alexander Calder mobile at its base. It will be on loan to Poets House for the next two years. The oval, glass-enclosed Cheney Chappell Exhibition Space at the top of the stairs places visitors squarely in the spectacular expanse of sky, water and land across the street. A collection of vintage books by poets such as Dylan Thomas, e. e. cummings, Ted Hughes and an early edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” are currently on display alongside Kunitz memorabilia.

The Reading Room and Reed Foundation Library, which holds all of Poets House’s books and current literary journals, occupies much of the second floor. Tables, chairs and couches invite people to linger. The couches were of utmost importance to its member poets in recalling the coziness of the Spring Street location.

The library enforces silence more strictly as guests progress through, until the Quiet Reading Room, where it is mandatory. Black and white photographs of Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Robert Pinsky and other poets who have read at Poets House, grace the walls.

The Stanley Kunitz Conference Room claims a corner spot at the end of the library, with sweeping views of the Irish Hunger Memorial, the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson’s expanse. Guests celebrated the opening of this airy, sunlight-drenched space. On the morning of September 25, (sustained by complimentary bagels and coffee), they listened to readings by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, several nearby Stuyvesant High School students, and two members of a Poets House workshop for senior citizens.

“This is a place in New York, and it’s a great, slick, modern place,” Collins said. “It balances the wrong image of poetry, that is something collecting dust on a shelf.”

The standing-room-only crowd applauded and laughed at Collins’ readings, particularly “Oh, My God!” which mocks the teenage girl’s colloquialism. The festivities attracted even newcomers. Mary Lou Wu lives in Chinatown and says the presence of Poets House piqued her interest. “I’ll come by when they have events and educate myself about poetry,” she said.

Silvia Gallo, a poetry lover, was visiting from Brazil on Saturday. “I knew there was a Poets House before this one, but I had never seen it, so I thought I would come,” she said.

Though clouds rolled in that day, a reading and performance by Natalie Merchant packed Nelson A. Rockefeller Park across the street. Seats filled quickly, and people spread out on the grass to watch. The poets Mark Dody, Philip Levine, Regie Cabico and Patricia Spears Jones, among others, read. Poet Marie Howe quoted Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.” Others read poems inspired by Poets House, particularly Michael Heller, who said, “The word that comes to me today is nourishment.” Crowd favorites Galway Kinnell and Billy Collins rounded out the series. Kinnell read his poem “Oatmeal,” and Collins closed, fittingly, with “Poetry.” Natalie Merchant performed selections of poetry she has set to music (including “If No One Ever Marries Me” and “Sailor, O Sailor”).

The organization’s new vitality inspired former member Esther Louise, a librarian and former writer herself, to become involved again. “I plan to use it a lot,” she said. “I will renew my membership.”

In the coming months, Poets House will host a variety of readings and lectures. In October, celebrate the life and work of poet David Bromige (who passed away this year) with poets including Gary Sullivan, Geoffrey Young and Nick Piombino. Later, John Felstiner (author of “Can Poetry Save the Earth?”) will hold a reading and two seminars on poetry and nature.

On November 14, kids can read, write and discuss poetry with Naomi Shihab Nye, author of the teen poetry collection “Honeybee.” On November 18, Cecilia Vicuña, co-editor of “The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry,” introduces a night of readings that span 500 years of Latin American poetry.

Poets House is already planning further, including collaborations with future neighbors like the New York Public Library and Museum of Jewish Heritage. Since it won’t have to fret about rent anymore, thanks to a yearly, one dollar lease with the Battery Park City Authority until 2069, director Briccetti was confident in the organization’s future.

“We have a sustainability we’ve never had before,” she said. “We have a permanency. We know we’re going to be here for the next 60 years.”

Poets House is located at 10 River Terrace. For information on upcoming events, call 212-431-7920 or visit www.poetshouse.org.