Kevin Riordan: In Philadelphia, a flourishing poetry scene

From left, Philadelphia-area poets Warren Longmire, Alina Pleskova, Lillian Dunn, and Steve Burns at the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia. "There are so many different types of writing by so many different people," Dunn, 27, says. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
From left, Philadelphia-area poets Warren Longmire, Alina Pleskova, Lillian Dunn, and Steve Burns at the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia. "There are so many different types of writing by so many different people," Dunn, 27, says. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 24, 2013

Steve Burns is a part-time waiter. He does carpentry, too. But his real job is poetry.

The Sicklerville resident, 23, volunteers for Apiary, a print and online literary magazine as energetic and eclectic as the Philly poetry scene it nurtures.

From the current issue, available free in the literature room at the Parkway branch of the Free Library:

I lost my Philly accent somewhere in the outback

returned with a tan and an easy disposition

"Apiary is a medley of everything," says Burns, who reviews readings, tours independent bookstores, and conducts interviews for his "Captain Steve" column.

As the city attracts new young residents and art-makers, a fresh cultural pulse is palpable. "It's an amazing time to be a writer in Philly," says Lillian Dunn, who, with Tamara Oakman, is a founder and executive editor of Apiary.

Dunn is referring not to April, which is National Poetry Month, but to the pockets of poetry flourishing citywide, from South Philly to West Philly, from Germantown to Fishtown.

A fresh crop of performance venues, publications, and publishers provides outlets and opportunities for poets. They augment the established anchors of poetry in the city, including the universities and local publications such as the American Poetry Review and the Painted Bride Quarterly.

"There are so many different types of writing by so many different people," Dunn, 27, says. "We're trying to bring the best work from all these different writing communities together in one place."

The Painted Bride Art Center in Old City, a fixture on the poetry scene, is where I sit down with Dunn, Burns, and their Apiary colleagues Alina Pleskova and Warren Longmire. They're lively and whip-smart, holding day jobs while pursuing their passion, poetry.

(In college I wrote poetry, too, but eventually realized the best way for me to honor this wonderful art form was to read it.)

Apiary's first issue appeared in 2010. The magazine is Philly-centric but hardly parochial; 730 men, women, and children from all over the country submitted poetry and short fiction for the forthcoming Apiary 6. And the current issue includes "Where I'm From," a poem by Jason Zuzga about growing up in Cherry Hill.

Meanwhile, the Apiarymagazine.com website - its slogan is "written by humans," like the print magazine's - emphasizes what's going on locally. The site also offers video and audio "mixtapes" of performances and other original content.

Another sample:

I am in Philadelphia

holding your wrinkly hand

wondering

what songs?

"Our goal is to connect people, to get dialogue started, to introduce people to each other, and to each other's work," Pleskova, 26, says.

Referring to the launch parties Apiary has hosted for each of its five issues so far, Pleskova observes, "Where else do you see an Ivy League professor read, and then a 7-year-old girl, and then a guy who looks like he just walked out of a dive bar?"

"He did actually just walk out of a dive bar," Dunn says.

And this:

You in a party dress, risen from the garden.

Me in a work shirt, a rust belt city in decline.

The scene's diversity is evident in this quartet of unpaid Apiary staffers: Burns grew up in Camden County, Dunn hails from the Midwest, Pleskova was born in Moscow, and Longmire is a proud product of North Philly.

"My background is in the spoken-word community," says Longmire, 31. "I've been a part of several different slams, and slam teams. But at the same time, I wanted to have a connection with [printed] 'page poetry' communities in Philadelphia. And Apiary has given me a chance to do that."

Burns, who will attend the graduate writing program at Rutgers-Camden in the fall, also credits the magazine with encouraging his commitment to poetry.

Meeting fellow scribes at readings and trying out a new poem in front of an audience outside one's own stylistic or geographical neighborhood is essential.

Good poems, Dunn says, "have a message-in-a-bottle quality."

And Apiary's message?

Poetry is alive and well here.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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