by Craig Morgan Teicher)
The Academy of American poets, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, is one of the most important American organizations entirely devoted to poetry. It sponsors readings across the country, prizes that honor poets and their books, publishes a magazine for its membership, and, most notably, it sponsors National Poetry Month (which it founded) each April.The Academy does not put the poems on subways and buses—that is the Poetry Society of America; the Academy’s way of putting poems in front of a wider audience is Poem-A-Day, a program through which a new poem by a contemporary poet is emailed to a wide readership every day. The Academy has just signed a deal with King Features to syndicate these daily poems, so they may be showing up in newspapers all over the country soon.
Since the late 1990s, however, the Academy’s biggest program has been its website, Poets.org. At the core of the site is an ever-growing trove of poems old and new, as well as literary essays, teaching materials, features, interviews, and tributes that have become a linchpin for the teaching of poetry and a frequent destination for poetry lovers and poets themselves. This April, under the hands of recently appointed executive director Jennifer Benka, a totally redesigned poets.org is being unveiled (sometime around the 15th), along with a rebranding of the Academy as a whole.
This is big news in the little world of poetry. A few years ago, the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine and is the third big organization devoted to poetry, debuted a sexy new website that to many seemed to eclipse the features of the Academy’s old one. Then years passed, with few updates to the Academy site. Then Jen Benka was hired in 2012, and she knew she had to do something fast. Redesigning the site in conjunction with coming up with new logos and branding was her first big project.
“We aimed to create a design and visual identity for our organization that conveys that poetry is a living, contemporary art form, and that our programs and resources are available and accessible to multiple audiences,” says Benka. “We especially wanted to communicate that poets are at the heart of everything we do. ” And poets today aren’t just bearded white men smoking pipes—they get written up in Vice magazine and manage websites for a living. They’re diverse, cool, and savvy.
The Academy offices, located in the financial district in Manhattan, are in fact lined with bookshelves, housing thousands of poetry books. It’s a place beholden as much to books as authors. In that spirit, Benka notes, “Our new branding is rooted in type. With the aid of our designers, Project Projects, we spent time thinking about how poems as objects of art are made and distributed, and the tradition of printing poems.”
The new site and branding certainly looks hip, awash in inviting blues, utilizing tiles and big navigation buttons and lots of images; it looks right at home next to models of contemporary Web design like Medium.com. It’s a place where today’s Web-native readers will feel comfortable, but it’s also meant to appeal to the Academy’s traditional constituency by acknowledging the fact that poetry readers love old books. “It was important to us to reflect our lineage as an established cultural organization,” says Benka—the Academy was founded in 1934, during a wave of new cultural organizations in New York, when the Guggenheim Foundation, MoMA, and the Whitney, among others, also began. Art at the time was tasked with combating the doldrums of the Depression.
Bridging the past and future is what the new site is all about. “We are utilizing two fonts—Founders Grotesk and Electra, classic literary fonts,” says Benka. “As part of our Web project we also worked with the design firm Commercial Type to create a new digitized version of Electra, restoring this font for the Web. Electra had last been digitized in the 1980s, and so it had fallen out of favor for use online.” The Academy will have exclusive use of the new Electra font online for the next couple of years.
Poems on the new site are presented in a layout reminiscent of how they’d appear in books, but with a couple of clicks, they’re easily shared, copied, printed and embedded. They feel like the nucleus of whatever page they’re on. There’s also tons of audio hosted by the popular music platform SoundCloud (the Academy has a vast archive of recorded readings from decades past) and images from throughout the organization’s 80-year history. Benka adds that the Academy will be working more closely with partner organizations to ensure that it is not duplicating others’ efforts, “but celebrating and promoting them.”
Education is a huge part of the Academy’s mission, and the site is the hub for its outreach. “We’ll feature a creative collection of lesson plans for K-12 teachers, made available in partnership with 826 National, ” says Benka. In addition to other educational programs, National Poetry Month puts posters and other materials in the hands of teachers. The site is where educators can go to find deeper resources for their lessons.
The site will also have other cool Web eat features, like state pages that will use visitors’ IP addresses to create maps of local poetry events. The templates are also designed to be easily accessible on tablets and phones. It will also provide a slick new home for Poem-A-Day.
Poem-A-Day is an innovative digital program the Academy began in April 2006. Each day, the Academy emails to subscribers a new poem—an unpublished poem by a living poet each weekday and a classic public domain poem on Saturdays and Sundays—and each poem joins the site’s archive. It’s a unique opportunity for poets: with a readership of over 90,000 subscribers and a total reach of over 300,000 via social media, it offers an unprecedented audience by poetry standards. Poem-A-Day, which is also getting new design in line with the typographical branding, puts poems by new poets right in the in-boxes of fans who just might click the link to buy the book at the bottom of the newsletter.
Perhaps the biggest news from the Academy this April is the aforementioned deal with King Features, a unit of Hearst Corporation, to syndicate Poem-A-Day. Starting April 14, King Features will make the daily poems—along with a short bio and explanatory paragraph from the poet—available to newspapers across the country. This could exponentially grow the readership for Poem-A-Day, and for poetry in general. In a press release, Glenn Mott, managing editor of King Features, said, “Journalists and poets are often in conflict over the meaning of words, but not their place in the world; poets may naturally envy journalists their readership, and journalists may envy poets their permanence. But they share many traits in the daily practice of their craft.” That’s poetic thinking in a forum where it hasn’t appeared for years.
Maintaining a robust online presence may be a designer’s delight but an administrator’s nightmare. Any site that wants to keep current must undergo constant tweaking and a serious overhaul every few years. If the Academy had a weak spot over the last decade, it was its site. That’s no longer going to be a problem.
Alongside all the changes visitors will notice, Benka is excited “for what people won’t be able to see: that Poets.org is on a leading edge technology platform that will enable us to experiment and innovate in the months and years ahead.” Digital activity is only going to become more central to what the Academy accomplishes, and now it has the technical underpinnings to take it as far as the imaginations of its staff, and the poets whose poems will always be the core of the site, can reach.