Why Not Reader-Written Poetry? p. 18

By: Arthur Kamin

Asbury Park (N.J.) Press has been running it for 20 years and
feature editor says it’s a way to get readers to participate sp.

MENTION THE USE of reader-written poetry in newspapers to most feature editors ? make that almost any editor ? and it usually brings forth a smile or a snicker.
Sometimes it even brings a small laugh. But more often, it brings a big laugh with a “get lost” thrown in to make the point with a punctuation mark.
That’s the way it is today ? and has been for as long as many editors can remember. There’s something about poetry that brings forth an immediate reaction ? invariably a negative one.
But Gary Schoening, Sunday editor at the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press ? with a Sunday circulation of 232,979 and daily circulation of 164,756 ? registers some surprise and even a hint of disdain at his colleagues throughout the country who so quickly reject the literature, in meter or verse, that comes to them in the mail, is dropped off by hand or sent by fax to the newsroom begging to be printed.
“We have been running poetry on a regular basis for more than 20 years,” Schoening said. “It is a popular feature. It brings reader participation and reader response. What’s all the fuss about? Newspapers should be in the business of encouraging reading ? all types of reading. To me, poetry is a form of literature.”
No one is absolutely certain, but it is possible that the Press may be the only, or at best one of only a very few, large newspapers that print poetry regularly.
“I know of no others,” said Susan Bischoff, assistant managing editor of the Houston Chronicle and president of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. “After what you tell me about the Asbury Park Press, I think I will take a second look at some of our poetry submissions . . . . Maybe it’s time for a review.”
The New York Times, for example, “almost never runs unsolicited poetry,” said David Corcoran, the paper’s deputy op-ed editor.
However, the Times does carry a page of poetry on two specific days during the year ? New Year’s Day and the first day of summer. Those poems are sought out ? and come from “published poets,” Corcoran said.
Why those two days?
“Call it a family tradition,” he added, remembering that “every now and then,” the Times will publish “a piece of light verse” on a specific topic.
Schoening did admit that there was a time when poetry was used in the Press every Sunday ? but a cutback in space has limited its use to the third Sunday of the month on the book review page. Still, the poems keep coming ? sometimes 25 to 30 a month. The number can go up to 50 or more at different times of the year. Four or five are printed at a time.
The poetry column, with the heading “Poetry: Original works from our readers,” has managed to survive the regular stringent and hard-nosed internal reviews of all features by editors.
“There’s always an excuse why not to use poetry,” Michael Smith said, “and invariably it boils down to space and the necessary resources.” Smith is assistant director of the Newspaper Management Center associated with the Graduate School of Management and the Graduate School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He has worked at several Knight-Ridder newspapers for more than 20 years and has a strong background in features.
Smith called the Press’ poetry column “bold” and said he did not know of another large newspaper giving that much space to such a feature. “It’s one more example that we should make certain we give readers what they like and enjoy,” he added.
It was under the leadership of Si Liberman, a retired Sunday editor at the Press, that the poetry feature began 20 years ago. He remembered when the Sunday circulation of the newspaper was 27,000.
“No, poetry didn’t build all that readership,” Liberman said. “But it was part of a combination of the exciting things we were doing years ago that brought the Press a large and a diverse circulation in a rapidly growing area of New Jersey.”
And Liberman said the newspaper’s management, including the publishers under whom he served, supported the use of poetry. “And why not?” he asked. “It had a built-in readership from all spectrums of the region we covered.”
Two English professors at Monmouth College in West Long Branch, N.J. ? Drs. Prescott Evarts and Thomas Reiter ? read and select the poetry to be printed.
They quietly slip into the Press newsroom ? a few miles from the college ? once a week, read the poems, turn them over to the book review editor and leave.
They are paid for their efforts.
“Some of the stuff we get is excellent,” Evarts said. “And some of it is bad. Very bad. We try to keep our selections on as high a level as possible.” The two judges stress brevity in the works received.
Both Evarts and Reiter are published poets. Evarts has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from Columbia University. Reiter did his undergraduate work at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His doctorate is from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Even though there are four-year colleges and community colleges within the Press’ direct circulation area and Princeton and Rutgers universities are close by, it is not just academics and students who submit their works, Evarts said. “Indeed, we get poems from people in all walks of life.”
?(Kamin, a former newspaper president and editor who lives in Fair Haven, N.J., is a free-lance journalist)

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