October 13, 2002
Dedicated Poets Connect Poetry and Audience

If the Boston area is a place where you can hear poetry just about any night of the week, the credit goes to an eager audience of readers and writers, and to people who have given hours--often their own scarce writing time--to make it happen. People like Diana Der-Hovanessian and Michael Brown.

Der-Hovanessian never wanted to be president of the New England Poetry Club, the group she has led for two decades. "I'm not the type to be president," she protested when she was first asked. It was especially daunting for her to think of heading a group whose first two presidents were Amy Lowell and Robert Frost.

Der-Hovanessian, whose 20 published books include seven volumes of translations of Armenian poetry, recalls that she finally let herself be talked into taking the post, "because of my Armenian name." When she joined in the late Œ70s, the New England Poetry Club had a roster heavy with Anglo-Saxon heritage. The box for the club's prestigious Golden Rose Award is engraved with names like Robert Penn Warren, James Merrill, Robert Lowell, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, and Galway Kinnell.

Over lunch in her book-filled home, Der-Hovanessian said,"I knew it was going to change the club if I became president, and I wondered if I had a right to do that. But I think it was good for the poetry scene. At the time there weren't poetry slams. The Grolier wasn't having readings and the Blacksmith House series didn't exist. There weren't other voices being heard."

To bring some of those other voices to the Boston poetry audience, Der-Hovanessian encouraged the club's board to invite Native American poets, as well as those from faraway cultures such as the Soviet Union, Japan, the Caribbean, Romania, and Finland.

I felt our mission was to entertain people with good poetry, and to provide a place where poets could find fellowship. We have always tried to get the most interesting, best poets we can."

Der-Hovanessian acknowledges that the time she has given the New England Poetry Club has cut seriously into her own writing time. She has lost track of exactly how many years she has been the group's president. "If I really ever counted, I'd probably quit," she says.

It's a sentiment Michael Brown could understand. As the host of the Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab in Central Square for the past ten years, Brown knows all too well what behind-the-scenes work it takes to keep the poetry coming. The press releases; the scheduling; the national and international contacts with touring poets; the logistics of doorkeeper, sound system, and books for sale all are invisible but necessary chores that eat away at writing time.

"It take time away from my own writing," he said in an interview at a Central Square outdoor cafe. "But paying attention to other people's poetry challenges me to write well."

Like Der-Hovanessian, Brown had a vision of new voices he wanted to bring to area audiences. The slam, in which poets compete in a format that values presentation as much as poetry, was an exotic Chicago import that took a while to find a venue and an audience. But when it took hold, it really made an impression, expanding the scope of poetry to include a completely new group of poets and listeners.

"After the '60s I never thought I'd be in the forefront of a cultural movement again," Brown says, looking back at the growth in the poetry audience nationwide, and in the Boston slam audience that fills the Cantab's downstairs room every Wednesday night. Brown, author of The Falling Wallendas and the newly-published The Man Who Makes Amusement Rides, says "I'm riding a surfboard on a cultural wave. I feel very fortunate to be in a place that values the written word and has a nucleus of quality poets.

"We're always looking for the next great writer. Our main goals at the Cantab are to give new people their first feature, to have a good representation of what's going on nationally, and to find the strongest poets from our own community. We draw an audience that's not only poets. And everybody who comes in to read or to listen broadens the appeal."

The New England Poetry Club's readings are held the first Monday of every month from September to June (in January it's the the second Monday) at 7 at the Cambridge Public Library on Broadway. During the summer, readings are on alternate Sundays at the Longfellow House in Cambridge.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

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