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FRONTLINE: Neighborhood


Call Them Crazy
The Mad Poets Society offers refuge for Main Line creative types.

Growing up, Autumn Konopka was the “solitary type.” She loved reading and writing. She was creative. She kept journals and diaries. One summer, though, she went to extremes: She created a tent for herself in her bedroom.

Years later, she isn’t afraid to retell the story. “I’d just sweat and read,” she recalls. “I have no idea why I made a tent. Call my therapist, maybe. But in there, I could pull up, and it was my little creative environment in my own little world.”

Konopka is long out of the tent—and front-and-center tonight as a member and host of the Mad Poets Society’s “Love is Grand v. Love Stinks!” open-mic night two weeks before Valentine’s Day at Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr. “That’s why tonight’s so well-attended,” Konopka says. “This one’s special.”

But aren’t they all—some 80 events a year in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs? Oct. 7’s 20th Annual Mad Poets Festival features 40 local and nationally known poets reading five minutes each from noon to 5 p.m. in the “parlor” at 3rd and Jackson streets at Media Borough Hall in conjunction with the Media Food & Crafts Festival.

Mad Poets runs separate monthly series in a dozen locations, along with individual poetry readings, competitions, workshops and festivals other than its own. Aside from Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr, current local hosts include the Delaware County Science Museum, Harvest Books in Media, West Chester Public Library, Gryphon Café in Wayne, and Steel City Coffee in Phoenixville.

The group also has April and November readings at Haverford Public Library and biannual bonfire readings at Ridley Creek State Park. Its Young Poets Competition typically garners some 2,000 submissions from Delaware County schools. Mad Poets even secured a proclamation from then-Mayor Frank Daly naming March “poetry month” in Media.

That’s quite significant, since it comes a month before April’s National Poetry Month sponsored by the Academy of American Poets.

THE MAD POETS SOCIETY was founded in 1987 as the Delaware County Poets Cooperative. But when Eileen D’Angelo took the helm in 1988, she changed the name to reflect an organization of some 100 poets and writers from all walks of life, at all levels of accomplishment, who join for camaraderie and critique to celebrate the creative soul and promote the literary arts and individual growth through self-expression.

In Bryn Mawr, at the Mad Poets’ unofficial February kickoff event, Autumn Konopka loves the “vibes.” “You make friends at these,” she says. “There are no pretensions. We all love poetry, and we all want to hear you read. I feed off that.”

Some of the poets meet for dinner beforehand at Gullifty’s in Rosemont Square Shopping Center. But for those who are new—or who missed dinner—a spirited D’Angelo offers, “You were afraid to come to dinner. Admit it.”

No, Konopka says, “We don’t want people to be afraid of poets. Poets are friendly people. Poetry is not off-limits—and it isn’t scary.”

She sets the first open-mic round at two poems each, then one poem each in a second round—“or 17 haikus.”

“I’m feeling a little frisky,” Konopka announces to the group.

No one can get too frisky, though. They’re set up in the second-floor children’s section at Barnes & Noble, which presents its problems when it comes to love poetry. “We always cringe,” says D’Angelo.

There are 16 total readers—an even gender mix. Actually, many of the males sign up first. “It’s like a dance marathon,” Konopka warns them. “If you get tired and have to drop out, it’s OK.”

Arlene Bernstein asks about time-sharing: “If I leave early, can I sell my space—you know, sell my time?”

“Are you kidding?” a cohort, Lawren Bale, blurts out. “We’ll need to get a restraining order to get you to leave.”

Mike Cohen, a passionate reader, is first. He provides a general introduction: “It’s good to see all of you who are in love and those who are also out of love,” he says. “I’ve been both.”

Many aren’t sure whether their poems—one, “The Astronomer’s Song,” is full of sexual and space images—are pro- or anti-love. Others are definitive: In one “love stinks” poem, chocolate is a poison. Others ask the audience to decide.

Allan Heller reads his “The Limits of Love: A Valentine Day Sonnet.” It’s an impressive title, but then Heller reveals how ill prepared he is: He’s only brought one poem. Northeast Philadelphia’s Steve Delia, a heavy-set 30-year poet with long, thin hair beneath a bald, round top, works behind-the-scenes at Acme Markets. He unveils his steamy “Ode to Cecily”—a “poem of lust,” he says. It begins: “I probably should not/Watch Channel 6 news/If I am truly interested/In the weather/because rain, snow or shine/I can only think about/Cecily [Tynan]’s underwear.”

“I want her to know, and then I don’t,” Delia says afterwards.

For an encore, there’s his “When I Get Married.” Nine verses all begin with “When I get married …” The funniest: “When I get married/I hope she’s not a construction worker/With battleships tattooed on her triceps/Or cannons on her butt/She might beat the hell out of me/If I left the cap off the toothpaste.”

Greek-born Lili Bita is leaving for the University of Hawaii the next day to read love poetry there. But she decided to make a local stop, too. She passes copies of her “Credo,” then dramatically announces, “We want to read this together like an orchestra,” but only after she’s read and modeled it first. For her encore, from memory, she reels off a poem in Greek. (Who would know if she missed a line?)

“If any of the rest of you have a poem that’s inappropriate for the children’s section, do it in Greek,” Konopka says.

Bita—often a one-woman show as a musician, poet and actress—has published more than a dozen volumes of fiction and verse. Her latest book, Sister of Darkness: A Memoir, chronicles her escape from a violent marriage. “I’ve found my freedom,” she says before leaving. “This is my life—the arts, music, poetry. All three agree.”

Kevin Keenan has memorized his two poems. Well, almost. He can’t quite finish “The Candle.” “I blew it,” he says, stepping away from the microphone.

Some, like Bill Hetznecker, read hand-written poems on lined legal pads tucked inside manila folders. He’s older, quieter and reads like he’s remembering a sentimental journey. When he finishes, his words evoke a collective sigh.

Anthony Palma doesn’t pitter-patter. He reads “Nakedness.” It draws a “hubba-hubba-hubba” from the crowd.

High school student Miracle Brown is reading for the first time in public. “I was invited,” she says bashfully.

By the second round, Miracle feels welcome. She closes with a tribute to lesbianism.

Shameless self-promotion of all kinds is welcome here, so before she reads, Konopka pushes the 224-page Mad Poets Review, the society’s annual literary journal published each fall.

“If you could buy each poem on each page, and you just gave $1, you’d be paying at least $200,” she says. “For $12, this is a bargain.”

For her turn, Konopka reads the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet—but only Romeo’s part. “I always thought he had the better lines,” she says.

Then she reads her “Presence of Light,” about a darkroom, from the bookstore’s bathroom.

When Konopka introduces D’Angelo, it’s with high praise. “She’s the one person who works her butt off so we can all do this,” Konopka says.

A paralegal, D’Angelo boasts countless poetry awards, credits, collections and judging appearances—including Philadelphia auditions for the HBO pilot series Def Poetry Jam. She has lectured and read so many places that only a website can list them all. “I’ve heard so many amazing voices,” she says.

D’Angelo’s the boss, so she breaks the rules, reading four poems—two of her own—in the first round. In one, she compares love to a mirage, a puddle of water that vanishes in the heat.

Konopka actually gets ideas from titles on children’s books while listening to the others read. At the bookstore, she sees “I Go Potty” and files it. In 10 years, she may use it.

Konopka discovered the Mad Poets Society in the fall of 2000 after finishing her degree as a writing major at the University of Pittsburgh. While she was there, a professor refused to write her a letter of recommendation. He told her to get a job first, before explaining why so many enter the real world and stop writing. “I took it as a challenge,” Konopka recalls.

A third-grade teacher was more supportive. She showed the class an image of a boy sitting on a curb with a bird flying overhead. The bird had a dollar bill in its beak. “I named the boy and the bird,” Konopka says. “No one else in the class gave them names, so the teacher singled me out and said how creative I was.”

In seventh or eighth grade, she remembers writing a poem about a cat another teacher liked. More affirmation arrived.

“That’s when I said to myself, ‘This is what I do. This is what I’m good at,’” says Konopka. “I’m a writer.”

To learn more about the Mad Poets Society, visit madpoetssociety.com.

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