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Poetry forum to fall into silence

| Friday, April 10, 2009

Sam Hazo was told a series devoted to poetry would not be well-received in a town forged by hard labor.

People laughed, he recalls, at the suggestion that Pittsburgh steelworkers, laborers and housewives would care about such an endeavor.

But from the first reading in 1966, featuring poet Archibald MacLeish, the International Poetry Forum was a success.

"We had to turn away 300 people in the rain," Hazo says about the series' debut at Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland. "For the rest of the year, I had to schedule matinee readings, as well as evening readings."

Forty-three years later, the International Poetry Forum is shutting its doors. Citing a lack of foundation money and the stock market's downturn, Hazo reluctantly will stage the series' final event — a reading by poet Adam Zagajewski — on Tuesday. The yearly budget, according to Hazo, has been close to $200,000 per year, with funds coming from contributions by foundations and individual contributors.

Attendance peaked during the forum's first decade, when programs drew 900 people, but the core audience lately ranged from 200 to 400.

"Sam Hazo deserves a medal for the great work accomplished for many years by the International Poetry Forum," says Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States who was a guest of the series. "He helped make the fundamental art of poetry available and honored — and he did it with imagination, dignity and taste, all firmly based on respect for the art."

The list of poets Hazo brought to Pittsburgh is akin to a modern Greek dais of the best and brightest. Among them: W. H. Auden, Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton, Octavio Paz, Elizabeth Bishop, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Adrienne Rich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Derek Walcott.

It was important, Hazo says, to attract the best poets in order to make poetry attractive to the masses.

"My expectations were that anybody exposed to poetry, to good poets, would naturally feel a necessity for poetry in his or her life," says Hazo, 80. "I thought we had a unique opportunity to do so."

Because Hazo envisioned the series as a special event, he insisted that it distance itself from the "coffeehouse" mentality popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Hazo considered a poet to be a virtuoso, and chose as a suitable stage the ornate lecture hall. He printed programs with incisive guest biographies, and held receptions following readings.

"I didn't want to do it on the cheap," he says. "If we couldn't do it the right way, I didn't want to do it at all."

Hazo realized that star power, in measured doses, would draw attention to the series. Gregory Peck, Princess Grace of Monaco, Eva Marie Saint (who sent a note when she heard the series was ending), James Earl Jones, Brooke Shields, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were among those recruited.

"Sam manage to pull in all kinds of unlikely people, musicians and actors and all kinds of folks who were not typical of the typical poetry scene," says Lynn Emanuel, a poet and a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's another thing that made the poetry forum so alive, and probably made it so attractive to people who weren't usually into poetry."

David Conrad, the television actor and Edgewood native, performed at forum readings and is a member of its board of directors. He says the forum took chances that other arts organizations in Pittsburgh do not.

"Sam has consistently programmed women and minority poets," Conrad says. "He brought Princess Grace here, he persuaded Queen Noor of Jordan to do her keynote address here, he was the guy who brought Yevtushenko to the States. That's first-rate curating. ... Look at the other sacred cows of the 'Burgh's art scene; the (Pittsburgh) Symphony, the Public (Theater) and the (Pittsburgh) Opera have had far more conservative programming."

The forum's archives will be available to the public at the series' current home at Carlow University in Oakland. If he can find money, Hazo will try to organize one or two events a year.

"We're going to revive the IPF," Conrad says. "It'll happen. I promise."

Additional Information:

What, where, how much

Adam Zagajewski reading at International Poetry Forum

When : 8 p.m. Tuesday

Admission: $12

Where: Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland

Details: 412-621-9893, online

Additional Information:

Esteemed guests

In 43 years, the International Poetry Forum attracted an elite roster: Chinua Achebe, Edward Albee, Dame Judith Anderson, John Ashberry, W. H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Bishop, Claire Bloom, Robert Bly, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Brodsky, Ellen Burstyn, Pat Carroll, Judy Collins, Hume Cronyn, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Dickey, Annie Dillard, E. L. Doctorow, Melvyn Douglas, Martin Espada, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jose Ferrer, Danny Glover, Princess Grace of Monaco, Seamus Heaney, John Houseman, Anne Jackson, James Earl Jones, Erica Jong, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakka, Jerzy Kosinski, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, Viveca Lindfors, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Tommy Makem, Eugene McCarthy, Gian-Carlo Menotti, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz, V. S. Naipul, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Papp, Octavio Paz, Gregory Peck, Robert Pinsky, Reynolds Price, Adrienne Rich, Eva Marie Saint, Anne Sexton, Brooke Shields, Maureen Stapleton, Mark Strand, Sekou Sundiata, Jessica Tandy, John Updike, Peter Ustinov, Mark Van Doren, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Derek Walcott, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Lucinda Williams, Miller Williams, Tennessee Williams, Paul Winter, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Michael York and Anthony Zerbe.

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