If the mostly bare and tall white walls of Berl’s Poetry Shop, which is located precisely down under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, give off the air of an art gallery, there is a reason why. Books are regarded as art at Berl’s. And not just any books. We’re talking about books of poetry here. The hard stuff. The weird stuff. The lyrical and the experimental. The stuff you can’t find at Barnes & Noble and most likely not through Amazon either. The books of poetry Berl’s sells are revered in a manner reserved for more stereotypically regal disciplines. And New York City and all the territories that surround it are better off because of this reverie.
Somewhere along the course of this country’s literary evolution, poetry became a niche genre relegated to a bookshelf here or a Google search there. It was left pretty much undisturbed until 1996, when a public arts initiative brought it to the forefront of our minds (April, National Poetry Month).
At Berl’s, every month is poetry month and every day a celebration of the genre. There are lovely handcrafted limited-edition and letter-pressed chapbooks not found anywhere else, as well as perfectly bound books from writers and presses whose work pushes the definition of the genre to glorious new places. There are book launch parties by newcomers fresh out of MFA programs and new collections by experienced practitioners. What there isn’t is a pair of antiquated lenses through which to view poetry. At Berl’s, poetry is a live performance art—electric, multi-colored and full of vitality.
In a world desperately seeking new ways of articulating experience and story while honoring both brevity and surprise, poetry is the new fiction. The shop is its respectful herald in the form of a beautiful museum of words. Each display of books is a stanza and each aisle a caesura, making the room itself a kind of pulsating poem.
Berl’s is a family-owned and operated business. It is named after co-owner Jared White’s grandfather, who was, supposedly, a big fan of Walt Whitman. Jared and his wife Farrah Field (both poets) started out selling books of poems at the now famous Brooklyn Flea before buying the present space almost a year ago on Front Street. Whitman, of course, made his home in Brooklyn for quite some time and roamed the neighborhoods in search of his muse. It is easy to imagine his hands on the window after hours, his long gray beard pressed against the glass and all the excitement percolating in his imagination at the thought of home, sweet home.
On May 29th, Berl’s welcomes many of the New York-based nominees for the yearly Lambda Awards in LGBT poetry writing including Michael Klein, Angelo Nikolopoulos, Ana Bozicevic and many other fantastic local writers.
Hear/See/Speak It: For more details about the reading on the 29th or a complete listing of upcoming events, visit berlsbrooklynpoetryshop.blogspot.com.
Alan Semerdjian is a nationally-recognized poet and songwriter and an award-winning educator who has been writing for Long Island Pulse since its first issue. He’ll be performing at Rockwood Music Hall on May 3rd. For more information on his music, visit alansemerdjian.com.