Poetry Foundation open house
The new Center for Poetry opens its doors.
It’s already been a pretty good year for the Poetry Foundation, dedicated to a literary form that you could argue hasn’t had a good year in 100 or so. Poetry magazine nabbed a 2011 National Magazine Award for general excellence, and the mag’s podcast won a National Magazine Award for digital media.
But this weekend the foundation—which sprouted up in 2002 when Indiana billionaire Ruth Lilly donated what was then more than $100 million to the tiny but respected Poetry—sees the culmination of its most ambitious project to date. The foundation’s new office, a two-story River North building (at 61 W Superior St) that was announced in 2005, sees completion this week and opens its doors to the public this weekend. The building’s second floor will house the foundation’s administrative offices and the magazine’s editorial staff, while the first floor includes a state-of-the-art theater for readings, and a 10,000-volume library that’s open to the public.
Poetry Foundation president John Barr says the building’s design (by Chicago architect John Ronan) is an “architectural metaphor” for poetry.
“A good poem doesn’t give itself away all at once,” he said. “There should be some element of mystery unfolding, with the lines commenting on each other. With the building, you get sight lines that open through windows and doors, and you see the way the spaces relate to each other.”
Aside from being the foundation’s most ambitious project, the new building has also been its most controversial. With a $100 million endowment, the foundation has faced criticism for using a large chunk of that money to construct new offices.
“We do what we do, we listen to our critics and we do the best we can,” Barr says. “It’s really not about us, it’s about poetry and the public. There are lots of people responsible for the resurgence of poetry back into American culture, but if we’re a part of that, we’re delighted to be a part of that.”
It remains to be seen how the public interacts with the new building. Certainly, the poetry theater will draw audiences, as the foundation plans to hold around 30 events there over the course of the year, and welcomes solicitations from outside groups to use the space. The open house will be the first run-through for the new theater, designed to carry the human voice and modestly built with 125 seats. Big-name authors like Sandra Cisneros and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will read at sold-out events Saturday and Sunday.
The library, which gets the magazine’s extensive archives out of the Newberry Library’s storage, will not circulate books but will be open to the public for reference.
What’s most interesting about the new building’s potential is the way it’s contributing to a rise in literary events downtown. With the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture’s publishing industry programs now holding events at the Chicago Cultural Center, and the downtown college campuses adding to the events already happening at the Harold Washington Library Center, there’s more institutional support for literary programming downtown than ever.
“The magazine was founded 99 years ago and has had 11 different addresses in that time,” Barr says. “All of those addresses were in this part of Chicago. It’s an urban magazine, and we wanted to be where the users are going to be.”
The open house takes place all weekend.