From rhymes to riches: Poetry's sudden gift
JOSEPH PARISI has one thing on his mind today: getting the January issue of Poetry Magazine proofed and sent to the printer in Pennsylvania.Skip to next paragraph
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It's already a few days late. But Mr. Parisi, editor of the prestigious 90-year-old journal, keeps getting interrupted by reporters. Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, has just given the magazine an estimated $100 million - one of the largest gifts ever to an American arts organization.
Parisi understands this is big news. Poetry has long been the art world's poor cousin, and $10,000,000 - the first installment - would keep the magazine afloat for 20 years. The bequest, which could swell to $150 million depending upon the value of Eli Lilly stock, could buy the Minnesota Twins. In the poetry world, a gift of this size is as unlikely as the US Army delivering all orders in iambic pentameter.
In his weaker moments, Parisi might say that rarity is a good thing. "This is a terrible burden," he says. "People don't realize the responsibility." The jeans-clad editor certainly didn't realize what he was in for when he announced the gift last Friday at the journal's 90th-anniversary celebration. Since then, his phone has not stopped ringing.
The attention is a bit overwhelming: Parisi likens the magazine's plight to that of the martyred little red hen, who could find no help in raising the wheat, but plenty of volunteers to eat it.
As the day wears on, messages continue to stack up on his desk, which is covered with poetry books and submissions. Nuisance calls stack up, too: investors who want to help him manage the new money; real estate agents offering beautiful new digs; poets asking if Parisi will share the wealth with them - now.
The answer to that last question is no. One immediate goal is to set up a foundation, as required by the IRS. Another is to find Poetry a larger, more permanent home. For the last 15 years, the magazine has enjoyed free rent of two rooms and what the staff calls a "walk-in closet" in the annex of Chicago's Newberry Library - a nondescript place where bleak earth tones are broken only by brightly colored spines of books and a single window looking out onto stone buildings, sky, and a strip of grass.
The arrangement has kept the operation afloat during times when Poetry had "just a hundred dollars in the till," according to senior editor Stephen Young. But every inch of shelf space is filled with poetry collections or past issues of the magazine, and the four-member staff is awash in books and paper. The book collection is so large - 25,000 to 30,000 titles - that much of it must be kept in the basement, two stories down. Papers heap and spill across a wide laminate table in the center of the room. Nine large boxes hold submissions from the last three months, and three postal bins overflow with new arrivals: The publication gets 90,000 submissions annually.
That number is expected to jump, as is circulation. In the past week, the four-member staff has processed 165 new subscriptions. Not bad, considering that total circulation is 10,000.
But as with most things in the literary world, numbers don't tell the whole story. Poetry is one of the most respected journals in the US, and since its beginning in 1912, it has introduced many now-classic modern poets, including Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. T.S. Eliot first published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" on Poetry's pages. Ezra Pound's famous Imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro" debuted here as well.
Parisi hopes Lilly's gift will allow Poetry, the oldest continuous monthly devoted to verse, to continue breaking new ground. He already has some big ideas in mind, given that he'll no longer spend half his time fundraising.
He'll devote the next year to planning with Mr. Young and Deborah Cummins, president of the Modern Poetry Association, which publishes Poetry.
First, says Cummins, Poetry wants to create a library for serious scholars and the public, with a collection that would rival universities. Second, the new foundation plans to start a teachers' institute. The pilot program would invite select middle- and high-school teachers to "a total immersion experience" in Chicago, where master poets would introduce them to modern poetry. Eventually, poets could take the program across the US.