Poets of unique talent recognized for $49.95 Balto. Co. publisher well-versed in flattery

December 30, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It's a dark sky on a dark day

Folks seem to have lost their way

The path up is a long long way

From "Time For a New Beginning," by Alma T. Watts, winner of the National Library of Poetry's Editor's Choice Award. Alma Watts says she's not much of a poet -- but the judges didn't seem to know it.

"It was terrible," the retired office worker says of her entry in the National Library of Poetry's North American Open Poetry Contest. "I just wrote it just to be writing."

Still, the Owings Mills-based organizers of the contest responded with raves, naming Watts a "semi-finalist" whose work might even be good enough for an upcoming book -- which, by the way, was on sale at a "special pre-publication price" for a limited time only.

In ads in magazines and newspapers worldwide, the National Library of Poetry says it was founded "to promote the artistic accomplishments of contemporary poets" and has awarded more than $150,000 in prizes.

But this "library" is also a thriving business that has turned the poetry of common folk into a small industry of books, plaques, cassette tapes and yearly conventions. It is a $5 million-a-year marketing machine built with thousands of fawning form letters like the one sent to Watts.

Such letters have gone to future contest winners -- and to the spelling-challenged, to prisoners and to pranksters who submitted intentionally rancid verse. One gushing letter went to a Canadian serial killer. Another went to a baby girl, whose father had transcribed her babbling.

Yet another form letter -- this one soliciting contributions for an anthology, "Best Poems of 1995" -- reached humor columnist Dave Barry. He responded with "Love," a poem with the opening couplet: O love is a feeling that makes a person strive

To crank out one of the Best Poems of 1995

Sure enough, "Love" was published in the anthology. In a recent interview, Barry proclaimed: "I must have spent over four minutes writing that poem."

The National Library of Poetry will, for the $49.95 price of the book, ensure that your poetry is published in one of its anthologies. Will, for another $20, print your biography in the book.

Will sell you a plaque adorned with a laser-printed version of your verse ($38) or an audio cassette with a reading of your poem ($29.95). Will send you a magazine every three months, will even rent you space on its Web site ($95 setup plus $20 a year maintenance).

Its sister company, the International Society of Poets, might name you an "International Poet of Merit," nominate you for "Poet of the Year" and invite you to bask in "thunderous applause" at its annual convention. There, for $595, you can literally see your name in lights, wear a badge labeled "poet," recite your verse -- and even get your photo taken with Florence Henderson.

"We just try to be Poetry 'R' Us," says company founder and president Jeffrey Franz. "We try to service all the people who want to publish their poetry."

Franz and partner Howard Friedman say they have found a winning marketing formula in the ads that bring the poems and the carefully worded letters that stroke potential customers.

"Our whole philosophy is, 'You have a unique vision and it deserves to be recognized and it deserves to be published,' " Franz says. "We play that up. We're not in the business of sending out rejection slips to people."

To some, the National Library of Poetry is proof that poetry is not only for the academic elite. Others say the company's mass-produced talent assessments might even border on fraud. Angry letters from as far away as England help fill two folders of inquiries and complaints at the consumer protection division of the Maryland attorney general's office.

A lawyer for the attorney general's office said most complaints involve slow delivery of books and are easily resolved. No charges have been filed against the company for its marketing techniques.

One complaint came from Dundalk's Ruth Cook, 68, who felt misled by the library. Saddened by the breakup of her marriage and the deaths of her daughter and sister, she wrote "Alone by the Sea" and entered it in the contest.

For her entry, she set her poetry against a drawing of a solitary beachcomber. She received the standard letter saying her work deserved to be published.

"I thought, 'Oh boy, I've been chosen.' But as I read on, it was a money-making gimmick," she recalls. "I felt foolish because I'd taken it so seriously."

Area poets and writing professors say the National Library of Poetry feeds upon an aspiring but naive writer's vulnerable ego. Rosemary Klein, editor of the Maryland Poetry Review, also says a spot in such anthologies -- nearly all of which are bought by the poets -- is not the ticket to fame.

But writing experts say the library may be right for some. "For people who are beginners, who have no other market available to them, if they access that National Library of Poetry and it makes them feel good, it serves a purpose," Klein says.

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