Q & A with 92nd Street Y's Alexandra Wilder
Recently, I corresponded with Alexandra Wilder, the Managing Director of the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City. The Poetry Center has booked some fantastic and important poets throughout its history. The list includes such greats as T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Dylan Thomas. I asked Alexandra some questions about the role of the Unterberg Poetry Center and her own relationship to poetry. Her experience working at an organization that brings so many fascinating literary figures to New York City each month has given her a compelling perspective within the poetry community.
FSG: When did you begin working at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center as their Managing Director?
Alexandra Wilder: I began working here in October 2005, soon after I completed an MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence, as a Research Assistant, and was promoted to Managing Director in July 2007. I help run our readings—which consist of our main reading series in the evenings, our Biographers & Brunch and Critics and Brunch series on Sunday mornings, our Children’s Reading Series on Saturday afternoons and our Afternoon Night Table series on weekday afternoons. Most of my work involves programming and running our Writing Program, which has been around since our reading series began in 1939. We offer around 45 classes a year, ranging from creative writing workshops in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and playwriting, to literary seminars on topics such as the work of James Joyce and Emily Dickinson.
FSG: Are there any poetry events coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
AW: I’m really looking forward to our reading with Natasha Trethewey and Charles Wright on April 6. I love Wright’s poem “Words and the Diminution of All Things.” One of my favorite readings of every season is our “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry contest winners' reading, which will be on May 11 this year. The winners are poets at the beginning of their careers and, as such, are always so excited to have won and to be able to present their work that I’m intensely reminded of why I love to do what I do. Also, I’m really looking forward to Richard Wilbur’s reading here on May 21. He first read at the Unterberg Poetry Center on March 23, 1950!
FSG: Do you find that poetry events at the Center are popular? Do you get to observe enthusiasm for poetry through your work, despite what seems at times like a small readership of it?
AW: Yes, our poetry readings are well-attended. However, if you were to ask me if they are as well-attended as, say, the Toni Morrison reading we had this fall, I would, of course, have to say no. But just because the audience for poetry is smaller than the audience for fiction, I don’t believe there’s reason to fear that poetry is dying. Poetry lovers are a small but tenacious bunch! People who attend our poetry readings will stay long afterwards to talk to the poets and have their books signed. I find people tend to linger and socialize a lot more after a poetry reading than any other kind of reading here … are we poetry lovers like LARPers (Live Action Role Players) in that way, united in our passion for an obscure art? I wouldn’t go that far, but the poetry community is able to be much more close-knit by nature of the fact that it’s smaller.
FSG: Without naming names, have there been any past events that you weren’t pleased with? What makes a reading disappointing, and what makes a reading successful?
AW: I can’t think of any events that I thought of as unsuccessful; even if there’s the odd event that runs off-course a bit (more likely to occur if it involves a group of people), or that runs a bit too long, there’s always a successful aspect to it. I’m happy to say there’ve only been a handful of times that we’ve had to deal with difficult or diva-ish writers; for the most part, writers, unlike rock stars, are extremely gracious and professional. The events we’ve had that have been the most successful are the ones in which the writer is able to really connect with the audience and make his or her work come alive.
FSG: Tell us about the best poetry event you attended or organized.
AW: Well, my favorite contemporary poet is Kay Ryan; she has had a huge impact on me. Read some of her poems here in this New York Times portfolio, including one of my favorites, “Blandeur.” Her poems navigate that balance between funny and serious in a way that’s so original and surprising and, well … just very much the way that life is. We’ve had her here a couple times in the past few years and she’s an incredible reader—so warm and funny and self-deprecating. I’d love to bring anyone who thinks they don’t like poetry to a reading by Kay Ryan. We had an event with Anne Carson last spring which was also fantastic; she’s an example of another poet who really takes the common conception of poetry and throws it out the window. Her poetry readings aren’t your grandma’s poetry readings—they involve dancers and various visual elements that really elevate it to a performance piece. She’s another poet who doesn’t take herself too seriously, and the audience really responds to that. Yes, poetry speaks a truth in a way that no other art form can … but it can make you laugh, too!
FSG: Which poet living or dead would you be most excited to hear read their work for an audience, and what about their poetry makes you want to hear it aloud and in person? What are the virtues of reading poetry aloud?
AW: This is a tough question to answer because there are just so many poets I would have loved to hear read their work. Just to name a few: I would have loved to hear W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings and Sylvia Plath—though we’re lucky to have recordings of them reading. How amazing would it be to hear Emily Dickinson read? How would she have wrapped her voice around those words of hers? That’s a wonderful thing to imagine. A Canadian poet who had a great influence on me as a kid (I was born and raised in Toronto) was Gwendolyn MacEwen. She lived from 1941 to 1987 and is highly regarded in Canadian literary circles. Her poetry is full of magic and myth and mysterious beauty. She had a very soft and musical voice and, from what I’ve read, her readings cast an incantatory spell over the audience. The music of poetry—the meter and rhythm and texture—can only be fully appreciated by hearing it aloud. I encourage anyone who is unable to attend a reading for whatever reason to read aloud to themselves or to others or, better yet, try to memorize a poem. It seems old-fashioned, but memorizing a poem is the best way to get inside it and appreciate it fully.