The Business of Poetry

Article excerpt

When John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, enters a room, the image that comes to mind is "live wire." Make that "power line," since Barr, formerly an investment banker known for structuring complex utility deals, seems to have great energy beneath a cool exterior. His quick smile and striking white hair add to the impression that he doesn't just occupy a room, he commands it.

But once the interview begins, that image is replaced by another: Barr walking a tightrope, with thousands of spectators below. After all, the poetry world has been watching Barr since he was named president of the two-year-old foundation in February 2004. He is expected to be fiscally conservative with the roughly $100 million gift from heiress Ruth Lilly, which made Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation the wealthiest literary organization in the nation. He is also expected to implement bold new programs that will move poetry from the shadows to a prominent place in American culture.

That's quite a challenge, given that poets and businesspeople view risk-taking in vastly different ways.

"The artist really has to seek it out. No risk, no reward," says Barr, who has published six books of poems and founded three companies. "In business, you look for an asymmetrical relationship, a set of actions for the least amount of risk."

Maintaining that "asymmetrical relationship" helped Barr rise to the top on Wall Street. He was a managing director at Morgan Stanley and later was chairman of SG Barr Devlin, which serves the electric and gas industries. The Wall Street Journal has described him as "a seasoned financial expert."

To succeed in his new venture, though, Barr must merge his analytical and artistic sides and successfully pitch poetry to a seemingly indifferent public.

The wire is high and thin

At the heart of Barr's challenge is the foundation's strategic plan, announced in early September. He leans forward a bit in his chair as he explains his objectives: "We want to be uncommonly good at discovering the best poetry. We don't want to celebrate the status quo," he declares. At the same time, "we want to get work out there in front of people, placing it before the largest audience possible."

This two-pronged approach shaped the plan:

* Fund a national study of people's attitudes toward poetry and where and how they encounter it.

* Hire a media manager to persuade newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations to run poetry and criticism of poetry.

* Create the "biggest and baddest" poetry website in the United States, featuring the largest anthology available.

* Start a poetry recitation program with competitions at the local, state, and national level, similar to the national spelling bee.

* Establish several new prizes, including a $25,000 Mark Twain Poetry Award for humorous work and a $50,000 Neglected Masters Award. The first recipients were Billy Collins and Samuel Menashe, respectively. Menashe's selected poems will be published by the Library of America.

Barr hopes these and future initiatives will broaden the audience for poetry so much that print runs for poetry books will one day be 50,000 copies rather than 1,500 copies, which is currently the norm. Ambitious is an understatement, especially since many in the poetry world aren't yet persuaded by Barr's balancing act.

An article in The Straits Times (Singapore) led with the headline: "Literary Awards Can Only Do So Much." And Perihelion, an online magazine, questioned Barr about whether he needs to find more creative ways to interest people in poetry, perhaps with a poetic version of "The Apprentice" TV show. It also asked why he has no plans to help individual poets.

But Barr is not easily dissuaded. Or ruffled.

"We've gotten a lot of letters back from people, and they've been very positive and enthusiastic [about the plan]," he says in a calm, even voice. …