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Walt Whitman must be smiling. His beloved Brooklyn, the borough that inspired his greatest work, is finally giving poets the recognition they need.

Borough President Marty Markowitz is launching "Brooklyn Poetry Outreach," a monthly poetry reading series at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble, 267 Seventh Ave. at Sixth Street. The reading will feature an adult poet selected by Brooklyn Poet Laureate Ken Siegelman followed by an open mic and finally a young poet chosen by Siegelman.

Siegelman is inviting students from elementary through high school to submit their best work to him. The selected young poet’s parents, relatives and friends, as well as community leaders and the public are invited to attend the readings, during which the youngster will be awarded a certificate of recognition from the borough president. [All winning poems will appear on the borough president’s Web site at www.brooklyn-usa/index2.html, along with the poet laureate’s poem of the month.]

The program is really the brainchild of Siegelman, who was appointed poet laureate on Jan. 24, 2002.

"The position of poet laureate was left open to whatever ideas the poet laureate had," Siegelman told GO Brooklyn. "I expanded it to include the reading series to make poetry a more inclusive vehicle for all Brooklynites."

Siegelman believes the position should not be merely an honorary one to advance the career of the poet.

"There are many different poetry groups in Brooklyn, but they are localized and don’t meet each other," he said. "I thought it would be a good idea to bring together all these groups in a prestigious place - Barnes & Noble - a beautiful, beautiful location. This will be a tremendous incentive that has not existed before for both professional and amateur poets."

Siegelman, who will be 57 in February, taught social studies for 34 years, 32 of them at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island. While he was teaching, Siegelman came up with the interesting innovation of using poetry to teach social studies to his students, many of who were learning English as a second language.

"Language was the only thing that stood in their way," said Siegelman. "So I used my poetry to bridge the language gap."

At first teachers and publishers were skeptical.

Siegelman said they asked, "What could a social studies teacher know about poetry?"

He showed them that poetry could personalize the subject and induce critical thinking.

"In two of my books, ’Urbania’ and ’American Imprints,’ for each poem I created a brief synopsis of the social and political context with which the poem was written and three or four critical thinking questions, which forced the reader to question what the poet was actually saying," he said.

Despite the initial skepticism, "When it took off, it was extremely successful," said Siegelman.

Today, Siegelman is the author of nine books of poetry, three of which have been distributed by Teacher’s Discovery, Discovery Enterprises and the Gifted Education Press, as well as being featured in Education Update. And three of his books have been purchased by the Rockefeller Library at Brown University.

One of Siegelman’s favorite subjects is the neighborhoods of Brooklyn in all of their glorious diversity. In "Gerritsen Beach" he writes, "Green cut-out Shamrocks/Still triad many of the front windows, clustering/At Easter/Much the way some outside Christmas lights/Always seem to linger well into mid-February." In "Bensonhurst," Siegelman gives Brooklynites heroic grandeur: "It was the fathers;/G­randfather­s/And all their sons/Conceived in parked Buicks with the passion/Of hot blooded Romeos who never read/Shakespeare/Or heard of the Renaissance "

The poetry series will begin on Jan. 29 with poet-singer Marion Palm reading. Palm, who lives in Sunset Park with her son and their two cats, is the daughter of Swedish immigrants. Her work is archived in the Oral History collection at the National Museum of Naturalization and Immigration on Ellis Island, where she is recorded reading a poem about her grandmother Theresia coming to America with her son, Sven.

Palm is the author of six chapbooks. Her poetry speaks to the condition of recent immigrants: separation from family, striving to fit in, expectations and disappointments of those who must negotiate between two languages and two different cultures.

After working with Markowitz on this project, Siegelman believes he and the borough president have something in common.

"All his life Marty aspired to be borough president," says Siegelman. "And all my life I’ve wanted to be poet laureate."

Now Siegelman is proud to be part of the borough president’s plan to "provide morale and a revitalized sense for Brooklyn and to reach out to Brooklyn’s rich heritage."


"Brooklyn Poetry Outreach," a monthly poetry reading series hosted by Brooklyn Poet Laureate Ken Siegelman at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble, 267 Seventh Ave. at Sixth Street, begins Jan. 29 at 6:30 pm with poet-singer Marion Palm. Open mic signup begins at 6 pm. For more information, call (718) 832-9066.

Poems will be judged by their artful use of poetic devices, sensitivity to social issues and the inventiveness of their personal search. Send entries to Ken Siegelman, 2225 W. Fifth St., Brooklyn, NY 11223.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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