Poetry Forum utters its final verse

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It was clear that something was in the air at Wednesday night's reading by Samuel Hazo at the International Poetry Forum, the organization he founded in 1966.

On a blustery rainy night, the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall was more crowded than usual, the audience largely of Dr. Hazo's generation and familiar with his work. The poet himself greeted many of them at the door as though they were guests at his own home.

Dressed comfortably in a brown sports jacket and matching turtleneck, Dr. Hazo, standing always at center stage, departed frequently from delivering his own poems from memory with reminisces about his travels, his meetings with great poets and celebrities, snatches of verse in Italian and German, one-liners from a Vegas comedian and finally tributes to his family, including wife Mary Ann sitting in the front row.

It had all the feeling of a farewell, which is what it was. Seeming reluctant to leave the stage he has held for 43 years as Pittsburgh's poetry impresario, Sam Hazo said goodbye to the poetry forum.

Stepping forward after his final poem, ironically titled "And The Time Is," Dr. Hazo said quietly, "It looks like this is the last year" for the forum.

Messages about the evening's announcement had gone out earlier in the day to the forum's board members, advisers and longtime supporters. They responded by filling the hall.

He explained the reading series was caught in the country's financial whirlpool that has washed so many organizations down the drain since the collapse last summer.

Like all investors in Wall Street, the forum's stock portfolio lost 25 percent of value, as did the holdings of Pittsburgh foundations that had contributed to the forum in the past.

"There's no foundation money to be had," Dr. Hazo said. Coupled with the cutoff of funds was the forum's inability to secure a replacement for the 80-year-old director. "Next season is out."

Yesterday, he said, "Last year at this time, I believed we had at least two more years of life if we didn't raise a penny, then the market took a hit. It was a 25 percent loss for us."

Ticket sales barely covered a fourth of the forum's costs, he said, so he depended on nonprofit and private support. Helping out in the past, privately, was Anthony O'Reilly, former head of H.J. Heinz, and from the nonprofit sector, the McCune Foundation and its director, Henry S. Beukema, Dr. Hazo said.

McCune gave the forum $25,000 last year to support its Poets-in-Person outreach program that sends writers to public and private middle and high schools in five counties around Pittsburgh.

According to the foundation Web site, it had contributed $177,500 since 1997.

Literary arts patron Drue Heinz funded an upgrade of the forum's Web site. Dr. Hazo said the site would continue to be upgraded as it expands its audio archive of poetry readings.

He also will write a revised history of the organization, first published in 1999.

"It's the end of a era," said a surprised Jim Daniels, poet and professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.

"I had never seen anything like the poetry forum anywhere until I came to Pittsburgh [in the early 1980s]," he said. "It's a miracle that Hazo could sustain an organization that long. Just the idea of selling subscriptions to poetry readings is unusual around the country."

The forum brought "the stars of poetry to Pittsburgh," said Mr. Daniels. "Some of these writers will be in poetry anthologies for a hundred years.

Among the poets were Russia's Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, U.S. poets laureate Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Richard Wilbur and Stanley Kunitz and other key figures such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and the late John Updike, who brought his parents to his reading in 1969.

"It's amazing to expose that many people to contemporary poets," he added. "Not everyone agreed with him, of course, but that's poetry."

Sherrie Flick is co-director of the Gist Street Reading Series, a year-around literary program founded in 2001. In a city with two major university writing programs, the forum's independence was critical, she said.

"The forum seems to have a rich history, and I'm sad to see it go. I think it's important for literature to reside both inside and outside of academia, and with the poetry forum gone, there's one less established outside resource for lovers of literature."

"In starting the forum, he was the person who created the first element of the poetry renaissance in Pittsburgh," said Edward Ochester, editor of the Pitt Poetry Series at the University of Pittsburgh Press.It's really remarkable and he did it with an enormous amount of energy for raising money and getting things going."

Mr. Ochester, himself a poet and professor of English emeritus at Pitt called the International Poetry Forum "a major resource for the city. What Sam did certainly spread to inspire poetry readings at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Chatham. Pittsburgh is now a center of poetry in the United States. It's a sad loss."

Ms. Flick added that she wished Dr. Hazo "could have passed on the organization, wish it could have seen a new vision, some new ideas that might have made it appealing to new generations."

Dr. Hazo sounded confident that there was life after the International Poetry Forum.

"I'm deeply sorrowful to hear this news. It's really a very sad thing," said Lynn Emanuel, poet, professor and organizer of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series at Pitt.

"The poetry forum is the father of all of us. Sam and the IPF were what started it all. I don't know how many reading series there are in the city now, but frankly without them, I doubt that very many of us would be doing what we are doing.

"Sam managed to maintain an extraordinary quality throughout the whole program. He really set the bench mark for the rest of us," she concluded.

"I'm a writer after all. Last year I published a novel and a book of poetry and I have a publisher interested in a new book. I'm also invited to give readings all over the country," he said.

"I can also stand back and observe my son [Samuel Hazo], who's a composer of wind symphonies."


Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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