Funding poetry organizations online: building community through language
November 30, 2021
Since its conception in 1966, The Poetry Project has been family to so many of New York’s East Village artists: donations keep ticket prices low so that art can be accessible and shared with as many people as possible. Since the mid-1970s, St. Mark’s Church hosts The Poetry Project’s 24-hour poetry marathon, which starts at 11PM on New Year’s Eve and ends at 11PM on New Year’s Day. Because the pandemic made such in-person events impossible, The Poetry Project had to adapt and instead live-streamed their 47th annual New Year’s Day reading via YouTube and Facebook. Such a limitation quelled the typical excitement of the biggest fundraiser of the year, as part of the buzz comes from being inside the historic church, elbow to elbow with other artists, performers, writers, and New Yorkers. Everyone is an active participant in the wide-ranging performances of experimental and contemporary poets through a reciprocal energy exchange between artists and audience that continues through the night without stopping. Even when someone’s performing something you don’t fully understand, it feels right, like you’re in the right space, like this is where you’re meant to be.
St. Mark’s is one of Manhattan’s most treasured landmarks, especially for the artist community it’s historically supported since the 19th century. The building itself dates back to the 1700s, which is perhaps why no one minds it’s a little run down. In fact, that’s part of its charm. It’s drafty, so you feel weirdly cold and hot at varying times. The Poetry Project stage backdrop is makeshift with dim lighting and the typical folding, grey metal chairs. It feels different than other readings. Made for working-class poets, intended to amplify voices and create inclusive spaces.
Although they have events, readings, and workshops all throughout the year, a good portion of their funding comes from the New Year’s Day Marathon, which, according to their event page, has “historically been the Poetry Project’s most important fundraiser of the year.” This year they made the event free, and their call to financially support their vision still raised 83% of their fundraising goal, totaling nearly $25,000. Poets such as Michelle Tea, Prageeta Sharma, Joyelle McSweeney, Brenda Hillman, Tess Brown-Lavoie, Wayne Koestenbaum, Lydia Davis, and over 200 more artists and writers were included in the virtual lineup, donating their time to read and perform. Because of the move from a stage to an online platform, they were able to include DJ sets, music videos, cooking segments, short films, and other multimedia projects. Seventeen hours of this content is still available on The Poetry Project’s YouTube page. What seemed like a limitation actually allowed for a broader access. You don’t have to be from or in New York to feel like you’re a part of their events especially now that nearly everything is virtual.
Many organizations have needed to take an alternative approach to their otherwise in-person events. In a lot of ways these virtual avenues of fundraising allow a greater accessibility to wider audiences, not just those who live in or take the trip to the East Village. Part of The Poetry Project’s mission is “[to be] a space and community that expands access to poems, poets, education, and opportunities for sharing one’s work.” In moving forward this year, The Poetry Project is continuing their virtual access to events that would otherwise be hosted in St. Mark’s Church. They’ve shared virtual readings, lectures, and classes, all of which are accessible via Zoom and allow viewers to be in a space with others, preserving the need for a shared space. Although the New Year’s Day marathon was livestreamed to YouTube, their other events take place in Zoom meetings so that all participants can turn on their video or audio as opposed to the traditional webinar format where only designated panelists can be seen or heard. The Poetry Project’s online events are all free of cost, but they do allow you to make a donation to their organization if you’d like to when you sign up. Although it’s different being online, there’s still ample ability to build a community and by funding these events you allow more opportunities for people who otherwise might not be able to afford them.
This nonprofit in particular is special to me because my first time at St. Mark’s at the 43rd annual marathon, I waited 8 hours to see and then later meet my favorite writer, Eileen Myles. More recently, two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, I attended a talk on photographer Berenice Abbott and poet Muriel Rukeyser at The Poetry Project. While I was there, I was introduced to other writers and artists. In that space, I felt like I was part of a community. For so many who are deeply connected to the arts and the arts of New York, The Poetry Project is synonymous with writers, writing, and performers who are different or doing something differently. It’s a space that promotes and encourages diversity and inclusivity of voices while maintaining open, welcoming, and positive vibes. Now as a graduate student studying creative writing, I see the important role a sense of community has in raising awareness and funds for organizations like The Poetry Project that share writers and writing.
The Poetry Project isn’t the only organization working through this transition. There are other nonprofit organizations doing similar things, adapting to the pandemic and continuing fundraising efforts. The Flow Chart Foundation, for instance, based in Hudson, NY, promotes work inspired by poet John Ashbery as well as maintains the Ashbery Resource Center. The organizations “explores the interrelationships of various art forms with a focus on the language of inquiry know as poetry […]” while also offering programs for both “general and scholarly audiences.”
Throughout the pandemic, the Flow Chart Foundation has offered an online interactive Zoom series, Close Readings in a Virtual Space, with contemporary poets such as Kazim Ali, Lucy Ives, Rigoberto González, and more. Their Spring 2021 series will include giovanni singleton, Shane McCrae, Edwin Torres, among others. While the Poetry Project often emails PDFs of the work featured in their online workshops, the Flow Chart Foundation provides links to different poems that are or will be discussed during each weekly session. This allows those participating to engage directly with the writer and be a part of working through and with the work during the session. The Flow Chart Foundation doesn’t just put on staged readings—they invite renowned poets to guide the audience through other poets’ work. They also use Zoom meetings rather than webinars so that attendees can actively participate in the conversations.
These events are free, and like The Poetry Project, through Eventbrite, they allow you to seamlessly make donations if you’d like as you register for an event. This is especially important as they rely on fundraising to support their mission, continue to host free events, and ensure that Ashbery’s legacy can continue to inspire more work in the future.
By funding and participating in events run by these and many other arts organizations, we’re funding community experiences, which are especially important now across and beyond physical boundaries. The arts are struggling in all of their forms, but access to these kinds of events and opportunities allow us to bridge gaps, build community and still be able to fully engage in the arts. In order to continue to engage in these events, these organizations need our virtual (or physical, when time allows for it) presence and our financial support. As a graduate student living in a new town in a pandemic, being able to participate in these events has allowed me to feel like I belong somewhere. While I spend an hour participating in these events, listening to artists share their work and their language, I feel at home even in a virtual realm.
Kennedy Coyne is a graduate student in the M.F.A in Creative Writing program at Virginia Tech.