Poetry Magazine struggles to spend $100 million gift

Joe Parisi, who for 20 years ran Poetry Magazine, is a short, sad-eyed man with the kind of low, detached voice that makes all the world seem a droll conspiracy.

Parisi loves to tell stories and the past year has provided a windfall. In November 2002, Poetry announced that a $100 million grant had made it rich beyond even a poet's imagination. Suggestions for spending the money soon followed.

"One morning, I was sitting in the coffee shop, minding my own business ... and a guy comes by in a jogging suit, looks in the window and a few minutes later was standing in front me," Parisi recalled.

"He introduces himself as a person working for a large financial institution, takes out his card and says he would like to get together and discuss being my financial adviser."

Some stories Parisi won't tell. In August, he abruptly left the magazine he had run since 1983 to "pursue his writing interests." He declined further comment when contacted recently by The Associated Press, but in an AP interview shortly before he announced his departure, he had called the gift a "mixed blessing" and appeared nostalgic for the days when he could drink his coffee undisturbed.

"We still have a magazine to publish, and we have to deal with this onslaught," he said at the time.

Founded in 1912, Poetry had for decades defined itself as a struggling but intimate operation devoted solely to the self-evident mission of the magazine's title. Now, money itself has become an occupation, enhancing and complicating that mission.

Changes under way

Receiving such a grant is far more involved than simply being handed a check and depositing it into a bank account. Because of tax laws and numerous other regulations, the money is to be spent over a 30-year period, with payments coming from a series of trust funds.

"It's astonishing. It's so hard to describe," says Deborah Cummins, chairwoman of the board of trustees for The Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed by the magazine to manage the funds bequeathed by philanthropist Ruth E. Lilly, the drug company heiress.

So far, the magazine's spending has been mostly confined to internal matters -- two additional full-time staffers (bringing the total to six), a part-time financial officer, new computers, a new phone system.

Staffers have a lot of general ideas on how to use the grant, including reaching out to the business community, but nothing specific has been decided. The foundation expects to soon hire a president who can organize and implement what Cummins calls a "strategic plan."

"We can't do anything until we have a strategic plan," she says. "We've never been in this position before -- the ones giving out the money. We've always been on the other side of the desk, writing grant applications."

Meanwhile, the magazine has moved to larger quarters. Before the grant, Poetry was squeezed into an 850-square-foot suite at Chicago's Newberry Library, a leading research facility. Now the magazine rents about 5,000 square feet in a nearby office building.

An attractive, pamphlet-sized monthly, Poetry looks essentially the same as it did before the Lilly grant. But changes are underway.

The goal of Parisi's replacement, Christian Wiman, a 37-year-old poet whose work has appeared in the magazine, is to make the magazine more accessible both to its readers and to nonpoets. More letters to the editor will be published, and next spring the magazine will start a new feature called "A View From Here."'

"What I'm doing is asking people from other fields to take a bunch of new poetry books and write about them," says Wiman, who already has pieces coming from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Garry Wills ("Lincoln at Gettysburg") and Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling "Liar's Poker," a critique of the investment banking industry.

Sorely needed money

Inclusiveness has always been the goal of Poetry, founded by Harriet Monroe, a poet and editor who established an "open door" policy that judged submissions on quality alone, not on style or subject matter.

The magazine soon established itself as a forum for some of the most important work of the 20th century, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by a then-unknown T.S. Eliot. Billy Collins, who recently ended a two-year stint as the nation's poet laureate, is a current contributor.

"You feel like you're joining a pantheon when you're published there," Collins says. "You feel as if you're playing at least a minor role in the history of modern poetry."

In 1970, a poet named Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr. submitted verse that was not accepted, although still believed worthy of a personal rejection letter. Mrs. Van Riper, whose maiden name was Ruth Lilly, was apparently not offended.

Over the next three decades, the since-divorced Lilly sponsored an annual poetry prize through the magazine and provided money for poetry fellowships. In 2001, her attorney informed Poetry about the $100 million gift, a sum so enormous that the magazine waited a year to tell the public.

"I thought it was a good idea to keep this quiet for as long as possible. We knew there'd be a media frenzy," Parisi said.

Few art forms could use financial help as much as poetry, which sells little compared to other genres. Flowers estimates about 1,000 poetry books are published each year, with print runs averaging between 1,000 and 2,000, rarely selling out within a year unless winning a major prize.

Best-selling books usually include a famous name from another field (Garrison Keillor, rapper Tupac Shakur) or are old narrative texts more likely to be assigned rather than voluntarily read ("The Canterbury Tales," Dante's "Inferno").

Officials at Poetry Magazine and elsewhere agree that poetry itself is the best advertisement for poetry, that the more people are exposed to it the more likely they are to read it.

As poet laureate, Collins initiated the Poetry 180 project, in which high school students hear a poem recited each of the 180 days of the academic year. His predecessor, Robert Pinsky, assembled a compilation of the public's favorite poems and staged live readings with some of the book's participants. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, makes a point of including a poem when making a public appearance.

"I find myself often quoting a poem from memory at the start of a speech, and I've noticed how deeply and immediately audiences respond," Gioia says. "I continue to believe there is a great hunger in public life for fine, passionate and memorable language."


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