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The Poetry Foundation's new blood

A chat with new president Robert Polito

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In January the Poetry Foundation picked Robert Polito—poet, professor, biographer, and critic—as its new president, following the retirement of inaugural president John Barr. We asked the brand-new boss what's in store.

What are you most excited about in your new role at the Poetry Foundation?

Right now I am most excited by the staff at the foundation, and getting to know them—everyone here is so smart, talented, and steeped in poetry. Outside of our radiant new building, I want to move our national cultural conversation about poetry beyond life enrichment to include the vital close reading skills and other critically alert habits of mind that come from reading and writing it. Poetry is at once a vehicle and model for complex thinking and feeling, whether as a writer or reader, and those skills can be applied to the public sphere and everyday citizenship as well as to one's most private experience.

What are some of the highlights of the fall season?

The September issue of Poetry features a lively portfolio curated by Lemony Snicket. Robert Pinsky will be reading with jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood on October 10—Pinsky performs from deep inside the music, so you shouldn't miss it. Sarah Ruhl's Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell staged reading premieres mid-September. Watch for a bravura poetry and painting exhibition in the gallery around the turn of the year that I can't talk about yet.

Your own work touches upon other artistic media. To what extent should the Poetry Foundation strive to connect poetry with other art forms in Chicago?

For many of us the arts all mutually reflect and refract. Poetry was transformed by the movies, popular music, photography, and painting—and vice versa. So, of course, the Poetry Foundation should assume its rightful place among the great Chicago arts institutions. I am reaching out to some of them already for possible collaborations.

Which traditions of your predecessor do you hope to continue and what are some of your own goals?

John Barr accomplished so much in ten years—a building, the finest American poetry website, Poetry Out Loud, and tripling the circulation of Poetry magazine. I feel grateful and lucky. As for new directions, I'm particularly interested in the role of poetry inside K-12 education, and also eager to discover what the 21st century holds for poetry. Back in the last century, the arts didn't catch up with the powerful inventions of the 1890s—movies, automobiles, the typewriter, radio—until about 1915, and 100 years later that's where we find ourselves with our own turn-of-the-century inventions, the personal computer and the Internet. "Things should start to get interesting right about now," as Bob Dylan sang.

How is the Chicago poetry scene different than what you saw in New York?

I moved here only in July, so I am feeling—and listening—my way around, and won't presume to describe the Chicago scene. I know I do want the Poetry Foundation to span the exceptional diversity of the poetry being created across this city, from the Green Mill and Danny's to the dynamic local writing programs.

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