“The Solace of Poetry.” In Troubling Times, This Funder is Making the Form More Accessible

Always on the lookout for a compelling introduction, and when sitting down to write this profile on the New York-based Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation (ABPF), I Googled: “Is poetry dead?”

Newsweek did indeed give last rites to the art form back in 2003, but 12 years later, CNN had a slightly more optimistic take, asking, “Does poetry still matter?” The implication here is that poetry was technically alive, although not necessarily relevant to our fast-paced digital age.

My own two cents is that poetry is very much not dead, and matters more than ever thanks, at least in part, to two key factors. The first is the cumulative efforts of funders like the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which sponsors the largest poetry event in North America, and the Mellon Foundation, which is led by poet Elizabeth Alexander and helps poets address important issues to their communities. Dodge, Mellon and all of the other funders operating in this niche space are guided by the same north star — making poetry accessible and relevant to all audiences.

The second factor, tragically enough, is the pandemic. Last April, NPR’s Jeevika Verma reported that overall visits to poets.org increased 30% during the crisis, while on the Poetry Foundation’s website, Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” received approximately 30% more visits in 2020 than in 2019. Poetry “ can guide us when it gets difficult to manage the intensity of what we’re feeling,” Verma wrote. “So it’s no surprise that people sought out poetry for comfort this past year.”

All of which brings me to the ABPF. The foundation seeks to expand access to poetry by maintaining an ever-growing archive of poems on its site, producing exhibitions, and creating beautifully shot films of actors, poets and others reading poems to “make the immediacy and depth of poetry felt through digital means.” ,” said the ABPF’s founders, Peter and Cathy Halstead, in a statement announcing the launch of the foundation’s site.

The ABPF released the statement on April 23, 2020 when people were turning to poetry for meaning and consolation. Soon after, the ABPF launched Words We Share, a series of poetry readings shot by poets and actors at home in the spring and summer of 2020, intended for viewers in their own homes. The series aimed to “connect great contemporary poets with the general public in a direct, intimate way — by spreading their words and wisdom among digital audiences, so anyone longing for the solace of poetry in difficult times can find it.”

Click here to see the ABPF’s archive of individuals reading poems in the United States, the UK, and Ireland, produced in collaboration with organizations including the Academy of American Poets, 92Y, Poetry Ireland, Poet in the City, and Druid Theatre, a theater company based in Galway, Ireland. Also check out films on the foundation’s social media channels, including Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Cathy and Peter Halstead met when they were 16 and were later classmates at Columbia and New York University. Cathy is an abstract painter and serves on the board of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Peter is a pianist, photographer and poet. In 2016, the couple established both the ABPF and the Tippet Rise Art Center, a 12,000-acre sculpture park and classical music venue in Fishtail, Montana. As for the ABPF’s name, Adrian Brinkerhoff is a name under which Peter has written at times in his career, and appears as a character in his in-process novel about him.

The Halsteads are trustees of their family foundation, the New York-based Sidney E. Frank Foundation. Cathy Halstead is the daughter of Sidney Frank, the American businessman behind the successful marketing of Gray Goose and Jägermeister, who died in 2006. The foundation was responsible for all of the charitable contributions the ABPF received — $450,000 — in the fiscal year ending December 2019 , according to the latter’s most recent Form 990. The ABPF cited $215,013 that year in expenses related to charitable activities earmarked for “the printing of books and recordings of poetry by poets and actors.”

The ABPF’s mission is to create programs through its website, film series and exhibitions that make poetry more accessible. Grants in support of poetry and literature to organizations flow from the Halsteads’ Sidney E. Frank Foundation, which had $313 million in total assets and disbursed $15 million for the fiscal year ending 2019. The foundation makes over 90 grants annually to organizations in the US, UK and Ireland. Other recipients include the Academy of American Poets, Poetry in America, and In-Na-Po, an organization that supports Indigenous poetry.

Looking ahead, the ABPF is creating two new film series in the United States focused on contemporary poets who live and work in the New York metro area and in the Mountain West region. Some of the New York films will debut at this year’s PoetryFest, an annual four-day festival celebrating poetry hosted by the Irish Arts Center. The ABPF is a lead partner of the festival.

In addition to producing more films, the ABPF also plans to include “great poems in translation from many cultures in many languages” on its site, and is working toward establishing libraries in the US and Ireland to supplement its digital presence so future generations will know what it feels like “to hold a beautiful edition or a traditional binding.”

Almost a year to the day from when the ABPF launched its site during those harrowing early days of the pandemic, NPR’s Verma looked back on the subsequent 12-month stretch that included a contested election, civil unrest and an “unprecedented economic crisis.” Poetry, she concluded, is more alive than ever, and when the pandemic is over, “poems will be here for us, holding space for relief and escape.”

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