Volume 22, Number 20 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 25 - October 1, 2009

The sofas are old, but the poets’ home is new

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Poets House members got a preview of the new space at 10 River Terrace last week. The children’s room, middle, will only be open for special events and by appointment until the spring.

By Julie Shapiro

The expansive, sparkling new Poets House in Battery Park City could not be more different from the nonprofit’s old space in a Spring St. tenement.

On Spring St., in a neighborhood once funky but increasingly trendy, Poets House looked much like one would imagine a poetry library: dark and musty, cramped with bookshelves and unraveling furniture. The new Poets House, opening this weekend in the base of the Riverhouse condo building, is just the opposite — all air and light, with sweeping vistas of the Hudson River.

The bigger, brand-new space and the rent-free lease through 2069 were clear bonuses for the nonprofit library, but still, the question remained: When Poets House moved to quasi-suburban Battery Park City, would it lose its offbeat character?

“That was a big concern of a lot of our members,” said Michael Romanos, coordinator of the children’s room at the new location. “The biggest thing people said was to keep the old furniture — that quirkiness, that eclectic feeling.”

The old furniture made the journey (albeit reupholstered) and the children’s room especially has an air of whimsical fun, with a canoe-shaped bookcase, plush stuffed animals that appear to be reading and antique school desks holding typewriters that once belonged to Stanley Kunitz, a Poets House founder.

Romanos was confident that Poets House regulars would fall in love with the new space just as they had the old, especially once they saw the nearby parks. “We’ll win them over,” he predicted with a smile.

Last Thursday afternoon, when Poets House opened for the first time to members and supporters, it appeared that Romanos was right. Hundreds of people milled about the two-level, 11,000-square-foot space, exclaiming over features like the display case of rare first editions and the large west-facing windows that imbued the library with the setting sun’s golden glow.

Judith Jablonka, a Poets House member who lives in Tribeca, said the new space was unequivocally better than the old.

“It’s good to see poetry acknowledged and given prominence,” she said. She and her friend Judith Karnas said the bright, airy space may go against people’s preconceptions of poetry as a serious, sober art — and that was a good thing.

Jo Flores Chase, 78, who lives in Soho, also found Poets House’s new home an improvement over the “shabby” Spring St. tenement that had so many stairs to climb.

“From that tenement, they gave us this,” she said, gesturing to the sunlit stacks and artwork-hung walls. “It’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s a new age. This is for the future.”

The general public will get its first look at the new Poets House space at an open house this Friday, followed by a full day of programming on Saturday (10 River Terrace, poetshouse.org, 212-431-7920). More than a dozen poets will perform starting at 3 p.m. Saturday in Rockefeller Park, including Billy Collins, Mark Doty and Marie Ponsot, and Natalie Merchant will sing poetry-inspired songs from her new CD.

Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House, is excited to see Poets House filled with people. She said she cried a few weeks ago when the books were delivered, but it will be even more important to create a community around those books.

One of Briccetti’s favorite places in the new Poets House is the quiet reading room, a nook whose walls are hung with portraits of many of the poets who read at Poets House in the early ’90s, including Robert Pinsky, Robert Bly and William Matthews.

Briccetti also loves the children’s room, which is still a work in progress and won’t open with regular hours until next spring. For now, Poets House will host monthly public programs there and will also serve school groups by appointment.

Poets House is free to enter and starting Tues., Sept. 29 it will be open Tuesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Poets House will host many readings and workshops this fall, some free and others paid. More free events are coming next year, once the southern extension of Teardrop Park opens with a rocky amphitheater just outside Poets House’s back door.

While Poets House is receiving free rent in the Riverhouse condo building as part of the developer’s community giveback, the nonprofit still had to pay $8.7 million to fit out the space. Poets House has raised $9.8 million but still has to collect some of the payments, Briccetti said. She hopes to continue raising money for the future.

Briccetti said she wasn’t worried about the new Poets House losing any of the old location’s character. The welcoming nature of Poets House is what creates the feeling of intimacy the members like, Briccetti and Romanos said.

“Welcome home,” Briccetti repeated as she spoke to a crowd of Poets House supporters in the space last week. “Welcome home.”





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