THE MAGIC ACT OF ART IS ITS capacity to achieve stillness in the midst of chaos. An appreciation of poetry likewise can calm the frenzy, or at least quiet it a little.
Which is why, amid the current uncertainties, and on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, the Poetry Society of South Carolina (PSSC) is as vital a literary instrument as we have.
The oldest state poetry society in the nation, the PSSC was born in 1920 after a two-decade-long gestation period set in motion by Charleston transplant John Bennett. Some of its earliest members included DuBose Heyward and Josephine Pinckney, writers who helped spark what came to be known as the Charleston Renaissance (1915–1940).
Noted Charleston historian Harlan Greene has written that the PSSC, owning a national audience in the 1920s, “helped revive the arts, not just in Charleston and South Carolina, but in the South in general” and is credited with having engendered one of the first flowerings of the larger Southern Literary Renaissance.
Among the major American poets featured at PSSC meetings through the years have been Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Henry Taylor and Billy Collins.
Although its fortunes have waxed and waned since its heyday of national renown, the Poetry Society of South Carolina endures. Charleston’s Jim Lundy, enjoying his second stint as president, is keen to address its continuing significance.
Q: What observations or programs are being planned to commemorate the PSSC’s centennial?
Lundy: Virus permitting, our biggest event will be held on January 8, 2021, to mark the 100th anniversary—to the month—of the very first meeting of the Poetry Society. Terrance Hayes, one of the preeminent poets of our time, has been contracted to read. The gala will take place at South Carolina Society Hall, just as the first meeting did. We will also be highlighting the history of the Society throughout the year at each of our monthly meetings, through the newsletters and through a book I am writing on the Society’s history.
Q: Do you think the Society still embodies its original imperatives?
Lundy: The PSSC is now and has always had the mission to promote poetry, poets and education. There has never been a requirement to be a poet in order to be a member. In fact, there has never been a time when those actively writing poetry have outnumbered those who were members simply to enjoy poetry or learn about it.
Q: What have been your principal goals in sustaining and expanding the Society?
Lundy: The biggest challenge is getting the word out. I feel like the Poetry Society is South Carolina’s best-kept secret, and that’s the last thing we want to be. Our board spends a lot of time discussing how we can cast our publicity net wide enough to connect with those who would enjoy and benefit from what we have to offer.
Q: Has the basic format evolved in recent years or remained much the same?
Lundy: The format is very much the same as it has been for the last 99 years, with one big exception: For much of the history, the guest readers were primarily delivering educational lectures about poetry or poets, more so than reading their own poetry. For the last quarter-century, give or take, the emphasis of the meetings has shifted to be exclusively poetry readings. But our guest poets give
a workshop or seminar on the day following the reading.
Q: How many members are there currently, and from how many cities in the state?
Lundy: We maintain a steady membership of around 130–150 members, about half of whom live in the Charleston metropolitan area, with the other half strewn around the state. In normal times, we have regular monthly meetings at the Charleston Library Society at 164 King St. on the second Friday of every month, September to May. Every year we also strive to have readings and seminars around the state on a rotating basis.
Q: Is there any particular emphasis to meetings and readings?
Lundy: Each poetry reading is carefully planned. They start with introductory remarks by me, followed by a local poet doing a kind of “warmup” reading for 10 minutes, and then the featured poet gives a reading for about 35 minutes. Afterward, there is a reception and a book signing. That is the “society” part of the evening.
Q: Are there gifted amateurs that complement the professionals?
Lundy: I would wager that probably a third of our members have never written a poem in their lives. There are many who have books or chapbooks to their credit, have won awards and had some financial compensation for their work. But if by “professional” you mean someone who makes a living writing poetry, there probably aren’t more than a handful in the world who can claim that.
Q: How often do you have guest speakers?
Lundy: We have guest poets for seven of those nine months, with a holiday party in December and an open mic in January. Our program chair, Danielle DeTiberus, puts a lot of effort in getting exciting published poets for our calendar.
Q: Does the Society sponsor any outreach programs for local schools?
Lundy: We do a lot with schools and colleges, such as sponsor Skylark Prize, a $500 prize for the best poem by a high school student in the state. The prize has been awarded almost the entirety of the Society’s existence, originally given by John Bennett, who funded and judged it for decades. This year, we have also arranged for Terrance Hayes to read for the School of the Arts when he is in town for the Centennial gala. And our workshops are free for any college student. *
Bill Thompson covers the arts, books and design.