Scanning April for good verse

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It's April again. That means poetry raining down in waves. You can hear it on TV, on the radio, in schools, and in libraries. National Poetry Month has helped train American ears. But what about American eyes? How good is the poetry section in your local bookstore looking?

The founders of National Poetry Month are betting it's probably not very good. And they know that until people have access to lots of good poetry books, the current poetry "revolution" will never be complete.

That's why the Academy of American Poets in New York City is so excited about their new poetry book club, the first of its kind in the United States. (Britain has had one for years.)

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The academy's goal is simple: help poets and presses find a broader audience, and help readers develop a greater appreciation and understanding of this vibrant, ever-changing art form.

Here's how the book club works: Subscribers receive a catalog once every two months. Each catalog features one main selection, which subscribers will automatically receive unless they decline. The catalog will also contain other noteworthy titles: anthologies, limited editions, biographies and letters of poets, translations, and books about the craft. There will also be a small number of debut collections.

Currently, the club has more than 200 titles, representing 80 different presses. The academy staff chooses the books in consultation with 75 nominators, all well-known poets and critics.

According to the academy, there are already 6,000 subscribers, 4,000 of whom have joined in the last three months. Of the club's original members, 86 percent write poetry themselves. Thirty percent are educators who were originally contacted in June 1998 when the academy launched a test phase of the club.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and donations from seven publishers, the academy (a nonprofit organization) sent out a direct-mail invitation to 50,000 people. More than 2,500 accepted.

Charles Flowers, director of marketing and promotion for the club, hopes to have 7,500 members by the end of this year. The club will not become self-sufficient, though, until it reaches 8,000 to 10,000 members.

One important step, he says, is the club's e-commerce site, which is scheduled to launch June 1. This site will allow subscribers to order books, take part in discussion forums, read excerpts, and hear audio clips. New members will also have the option of receiving a digital catalog instead of a hard-copy catalog through the mail.

But the book club doesn't want to stop there. Beginning in June, the club will send its catalog to the 1,100 members of Book Sense, independent bookstores organized by the American Booksellers Assoc.

The catalog will be a marketing and educational tool for sellers who want to develop poetry sections and promote their titles.

The poetry club's biggest challenges, according to member surveys, are speeding up service and becoming competitive with online booksellers. Amazon.com can provide readers with almost any poetry book in just a few days. The book club can take weeks to deliver the same volume, because books are shipped from a warehouse in Atlanta. The club's prices and shipping charges are much higher, too. Some members also report that the book club's selections tend to be too mainstream and old. There is little in the way of new or risky voices.

According to Mr. Flowers, the book club is working to address these concerns, but he isn't too worried about the price issue. If people are looking strictly at cost, he says, they will shop elsewhere. But if readers value the academy's expertise, its many outreach programs like National Poetry Month, and its 65-year reputation, they will stick with the club.

The academy, he says, sees the club not just as a way to sell books, but as another extension of its larger mission "to educate, enlighten, promote, and celebrate poetry." There's rhyme and reason to that.

* Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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