In an era often indifferent to poetry, the Lowcountry is enjoying an energetic revival of the form, one rivaling the celebrated Charleston Renaissance of the 1920s.
More area poets are being published now than in the heyday of the Modernists who forged the Southern Literary Renaissance (1915 – 1940), in which Charlestonians played a pivotal role.
Locals with books in release include Richard Garcia, Emily Rosko, Jim Lundy, Barbara Hagerty, Derek Berry, Susan Meyers, Marcus Amaker, Matthew Foley and Marjory Wentworth, long-time poet laureate of South Carolina and co-founder of the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts.
“For all of the 1920s, the entire output of published work by Charleston poets was 18 books. Area members of the Poetry Society of South Carolina now publish as many as 18 books in a given year,” says poet Jim Lundy, former president of the Society and current curator of the weekly Monday Night Poetry and Music (MNP&M) showcase at the East Bay Meeting House (160 East Bay St.). “There are also so many alternatives for poetry readings here. Apart from the meetings of the Poetry Society and MNP&M performances, there are several other slam poetry open mics that have popped up around town, like The Unspoken Word, held twice a month on Tuesdays at King Dusko [541 King St.].”
Originated by Ellie Davis, Monday Night Poetry & Music showcases a featured poet or musician, followed by open mic readings. While Poetry Society and MNP&N gigs generally draw established poets with audiences to match, The Unspoken Word—directed by Derek Berry—offers programs of topical interest and trends a bit younger.
Programs of the Poetry Society, founded in 1920, are held on the second Friday of the month at the Charleston Library Society (164 King St.), and are frequently accompanied by seminars. Readings, followed by signings and a reception, are free and open to the public. The Society also holds two rounds of poetry contests each academic year, with prize-winning work published on the Society website (poetrysocietysc.org) and in its PSSC Yearbook.
Elsewhere, two respected literary journals are published by the College of Charleston. After a year’s hiatus, Illuminations returns this summer, again edited by Simon Lewis. Crazyhorse, edited by Emily Rosko, features work by poets of different backgrounds or in different stages of their careers. Published in April and in November, Crazyhorse casts a wide net and often includes translations of internationally renowned poets.
Rosko also is enthused by the local scene: “I’m so impressed by our community. … We have a strong base of people here writing poetry and holding meetings and workshops.”
Many visiting poets have commented on the sophistication and creativity of the local poetry community, notes Katherine Williams, new president of the Poetry Society.
Williams’ husband, Richard Garcia, directs The Long Table Poets, a group whose members are publishing work ranging from lyric and formal poems to collaborative experimental verse, winning fellowships and book prizes in the process.
“Charleston’s poets are ambitious for their poetry at the national level,” adds Williams, “and as long as they keep writing and gathering, our poetry scene is only going to become richer.”
Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat (University of South Carolina Press).