The Unexpected Origins of Success

Someone—I forget who—pointed out that there was a lot of free paper. It was the mid-2000s, and professors were still transitioning to electronic submissions. At Binghamton University, undergrads got 75 free pages to print each week. I never used all of mine. Hardly anyone did. There’s something appealing about the value of overlooked things. I sensed an opportunity: to print a ‘throwaway’ magazine of poetry.

I asked friends to donate their pages. The pages were lopped in half by one of those guillotine-style paper cutters and then stapled together like a flipbook. I called it The Cartographer Electric. I handed copies to people I knew. Put them in student lounges. Left them in the bathroom stalls for reading material. Some friends, Adam Pelligrinni and Joel Davis, started to pitch in. We published good writing by people we knew. Then Adam had the idea of a reading series at a local dive bar-cum-hipster hangout called The Belmar. I still remember seeing the unused backroom we used to stage the events. It was pretty dirty, but it was like that unused print count: it had the value of the overlooked.

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To our surprise, we packed the place: it was deep winter, an off-peak weeknight for the bar. Ed, the bar’s owner, was impressed by the turnout and handed me $50. I had a choice. I thought of keeping it, of course. But while I’d put work into the reading, others had too. In the end, I gave it to the bartenders because I figured they’d probably been stiffed a few times that night. If they weren’t on our side, the reading would never be successful!

The series’s success grew among the writers at Binghamton University, which had a vibrant undergrad writing scene at the time, thanks in part to faculty like Joe Weil, Maria Gillan, Lesley Heywood, and Christine Gelineau. These faculty had gotten their students into writing as a way of life. But something unexpected happened: the reading grew beyond the university scene, the ‘writerly writers.’ People from the community got involved: neighbors and friends, writers and non-writers who enjoyed getting together to share something. A few people who really didn’t like poetry even showed up—just because it was fun.

The lessons I learned through the magazine and the reading series—about finding value where it’s unexpected, about the openness that leads to community, about the unexpected ways that generosity returns to you—these lessons later shaped THEthe Poetry Blog, which I helped establish.

Someone suggested that Joe Weil start a blog. At the time, many writers looked down on blogs. It was still an open question whether online journals, much less blogs, were serious venues for “serious writers.” But Joe was an early adopter of the internet as a semi-formal space for publishing his speculative essays; these were exciting pieces that were unlike anything I’d read before, and I wanted to see them gain a wider audience.

I asked Adam Fitzgerald, one of Joe’s former students, to help, and he had the idea of inviting a whole community of rotating bloggers. Joe liked that idea, and Adam snagged established writers like Alfred Corn, as well as other exciting writers like Metta Sama and Bianca Stone. Friends brought friends, and pretty soon we had a huge stable of contributors, including folks like Saeed Jones and David Shapiro. Much like the reading series, the website quickly took on a life of its own. Somebody (still not quite sure who) named it THEthe Poetry.

The site has gone through many different formats, had several extended features and collaborations, and featured work by a variety of writers, but it has maintained that ethos of being open toward whoever wanted to put their shoulder to the wheel for a time. As a result, the site has featured a wide array of writers, aesthetics, and topics, and we’ve reached people who might otherwise have been unengaged with dialogues about contemporary poetry.

As I look back, it’s clear that THEthe Poetry’s success is due less to its creators than to the openness of people who were able to find and create value in neglected spaces.

Micah Towery teaches writing and literature at Goshen College. His writing has appeared in magazines like The AWP Chronicle, The Cimarron Review, and The Paterson Literary Review.

08.25.15 by Micah Towery