Commitment to Community
Like the soft place in my heart reserved for First Books and LaurelBooks, I have another for our community outreach programs that bring poetry to new audiences. In fact, very early on, when someone asked me for a phrase, (a possible tagline) that would describe CKP, I immediately answered, “a not-for-profit press that serves both art and community.” And that we do. In fact, our community programs are our lifeblood. As I mentioned earlier, I was raised in a community that took care of each other—be it building extensions on one another’s houses, minding the children, or organizing a beach patrol to fix up the beach so the kids could swim in safe, clean water. In addition to my concern for including the general reader in the poetry banquet, it’s natural for me to want to create that same spirit of connectedness and generosity in CKP.
One such program is GiftBooks, which brings fine literature to underserved populations. The idea came from a story I read sometime ago of a man who stood on a corner giving out free poetry books to passersby. This seemed like such a simple way to share poetry with people who might otherwise not be privy to it. Though we don’t quite stand on street corners, we do give liberally; in our 20 years of service we’ve donated nearly 35,000 books to underserved communities in such places as geriatric centers, shelters, hospitals, correctional facilities, schools, and underfunded libraries. Operation “Support Our Troops” and the Widows and Children’s Fund of Police and Firefighters Lost on 9/11, as well as schools and libraries damaged by Katrina are three of our early recipient groups among countless others. Most recently, we’ve donated over 700 books to 15 hospitals to support our frontline healthcare workers during COVID-19. Requests from interested agencies are welcomed.
Another of our outreach programs is Presenting Poetry & Prose, which focuses on bringing literary art to people where they live—into their own homes and meeting places. The original “Presenting Poetry & Prose” was a program I founded and curated at the John Harms Center for the Arts in Englewood, New Jersey. Though the program was desired and highly successful to the writers who participated and the audience we were able to attract, it was unable to sustain itself because we could not maintain an audience. It occurred to me at that time that to ask people to come out of their homes to a theatre to listen to poetry on a weeknight, as nice as it was, would be somewhat unrealistic. People are inundated with time commitments to family, work and rest and have little time (and inclination, I believe) to break away to come to hear poetry being read. In addition, since most poetry and prose readings take place in libraries and bookstores, they tend to be attended only by those who visit these places, which excludes a large percentage of the reading population. As we pointed out earlier in this discussion, it was clear that we needed to bring the poetry to the audience rather than ask them to come to us.
Thus, CavanKerry brings poetry into people’s neighborhoods and community centers through free readings at hospitals, community centers, churches, schools, synagogues, prisons etc. We do this in two ways. First, we accept requests for free readings from the general reading public/specific groups and work with the individual/social director/librarian to arrange these readings in which CK writers read their own work and the work of others, without any cost to the person or organization requesting it. Usually 2-3 CK writers participate in each reading/discussion. In addition, “Presenting Poetry & Prose” is an outgrowth of the GiftBooks program in that populations that receive free books are also offered free readings and workshops. These too are sponsored and organized by CK and conducted by CK poets.
In lieu of in-person appearances during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made our two editions of The Waiting Room Reader free for download on our website and provided weekly excerpts from our books in our “Words to Keep You Company” series, as well as curating and collecting new writing from several of our authors in response to the state of the nation in our “Dispatches from 2020” series. Further, former Associate Publisher Teresa Carson, other guest writers, and I have made consistent new contributions to our blog. Each of these efforts serves to offer a window for our writers to connect with our readers during this time of isolation and desperation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as part of their contractual agreement with CavanKerry, our writers are committed to three free outreach efforts each year while their book is in print; these are over and above any marketing or literary readings/workshops they do. Thus, our writers go out into their own communities and bring their poems and stories to listeners: offering workshops/readings, mentoring younger writers, visiting infirm writers et al. CavanKerry writers then become the spine of our community outreach: they participate in other CK activities as part of a communal or cooperative body. In addition to being excellent writers, each is an excellent teacher and reader. Writers who have published their first book have learned a great deal about the heroic making of poems: they thereby have a great deal to offer students of poetry. Writers are welcome visitors to ailing individuals and members of the writing community in need; they make themselves available to go out to read & conduct workshops to underserved communities in their geographical area.
A Community of Writers
The twin to our community of readers is CKP’s commitment to creating a community of writers as a partial antidote to the isolation and loneliness that we writers often feel. Our goal was to create a community where writers could share their art and the process of making art. Towards that end, we instituted the CKP Writer’s Summit which once occurred annually at my home. The summit included 5 hours of poems, conversation, and good food and touched on topics of interest and concern to the writers and the press. Additionally, CKP or the writers themselves arrange for readings and events in which they can read together and introduce each other’s work; these are joyful occasions when the poets share their work to each other and a broader audience.
CavanKerry writers also participate with CK where we need them—in reading new manuscripts, in recommending others, writing articles for the CKP newsletter, offering workshops, helping with fundraising, and organizing events. Throughout the ongoing quarantine, we have launched virtual programming and readings featuring 12 of our authors in collaboration with multiple institutions, including Caldwell University and the Poetry Society of NY to further connect with our authors during this period where in-person events are not possible. More and more, we resemble that community we set out to create.