The Forum's imminent demise is a body blow to the local literary scene. It won't of course be fully felt until late April, after this final season's final two readings take place. But no group has brought in top-ranking, even legendary poets, as regularly as the Forum, from Czeslaw Milosz to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Anne Sexton to Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. And nobody else has been doing it for anything like the group's almost mind-boggling 43 seasons.
Before I ever encountered the Forum, I knew of its founder and guiding light, Samuel Hazo. In the mid-'90s, I saw him recite his work for a small crowd in a basement a friend of mine had converted into a performance venue. And I do mean recited: Hazo knows his own voluminous work, and many other verses, by heart.
In the past few years, I've been to about half a dozen of the Forum's typically Wednesday-night readings, always at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. Each has been memorable: Martin Espada, Richard Wilbur, Paul Muldoon. Particular favorites included the great W.S. Merwin, who visited a couple of years ago, and more recently Brian Turner, the soldier-poet who'd served in Iraq and read from his riveting collection Here, Bullet.
Each of these readings (the Forum hosted six a year) bolstered Hazo's contention that poetry must be heard aloud to be fully appreciated. To hear the verses from the mouths of the Pulitzer- and Nobel-winners -- as well as up-and-coming poets -- who'd written them doubled the privilege. And in a town where lecture tickets run to $25, you can still get a seat at the Forum for $12 ($8 for students and seniors).
Pittsburgh still boasts a preponderance of places to hear poetry: The monthly Gist Street Reading Series, for instance, always pairs a poet and a fiction writer. Pitt's Contemporary Writers Series often hosts poets, too; Autumn House Press brings in many of the poets it publishes, often artists of national stature, while opportunities for local poets to read aloud abound.
But the Forum's status is unique, which makes the dried-up funding Hazo announced as the cause of its demise that much harder to take.
Can anyone fill its niche? In this funding climate, it seems a long shot. So -- and if only to say thanks to Hazo -- take full advantage of these final Forum readings: Ron Padgett (March 11) and Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (April 15). (See www.thepoetryforum.org.)