April is National Poetry Month, and anyone looking to celebrate it should consider a visit to the Poetry Den at the Indiana University South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center. This month’s event will be held on Sunday, April 23, but poetry lovers should know that the Poetry Den hosts readings every month, all year round.
Host Pam Blair, an accomplished poet herself, has held the monthly gatherings since June 2012. Previously, she ran the open mic nights at Chicory Café, and she was struck by how many talented poets were showing up. She started the Poetry Den in order to provide them a quiet audience of good listeners. The first Poetry Den location was Merrimans’ Playhouse, the local jazz club. In May 2016, the Poetry Den moved to its current home at the Civil Rights Heritage Center.
Each month’s event begins with a series of poets, ranging from first-timers to published authors, reading their pieces. The headliner of each gathering takes a longer sequence at the end.
George Garner, the CRHC’s assistant director and curator, says that the venue’s mission matches the Poetry Den’s activities perfectly.
“It was a natural fit for a space like ours to host something that’s all about human expression, human connections, joy and pain,” Garner says. “Pam has put in the hard work needed to make it sustainable.”
The group meets at the CRHC at 1040 W. Washington St., but the readings are also livestreamed on Zoom and archived on YouTube. These innovations were crucial during the lockdown portion of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they continue to be beneficial because income and physical limitations do not present an obstacle to anyone who would like to participate.
“Being able to access something online is a justice issue,” Garner says. “For people with limited mobility, coming out to a space can be a huge barrier. Not everyone has a car, and the buses don’t run on Sundays. One thing Covid taught us was how to provide alternative paths for entry.”
Blair has cultivated a large number of colleagues over the years, and she usually has her guest performers scheduled a year in advance. Some of them are published poets and some come right up from within the Poetry Den program.
“Sometimes, we’ll have someone join us for the first time – someone who has only just started writing poetry – and they’ll get excited about it and continue writing,” Blair says. “I’ll see them continue to progress and then I end up asking them to be one of our featured artists.”
Blair says that the spirit of the Poetry Den is closer to an open-mic session than it is to a “poetry slam.”
“A slam tends to be more competitive,” she says. “This is a non-competitive space, much more welcoming.”