Bob Bartel remembers the trip that gave birth to what became the Poets and Writers Literary Forum of Springfield. "My wife, Janice,and I visited New York in 1993. We toured coffee shops in Greenwich Village that had poetry readings seven days a week. The very first place I read was in a church basement. The regulars seemed to be full-timers who read and wrote poetry 24/7."
Bartel introduced himself as being from the hometown of Vachel Lindsay, adding, "Has anyone ever read his works?" Bartel was surprised to see most of the hands in the room go up. He read for five minutes, and the audience responded by snapping their fingers. Bartel brought the idea of poetry readings back with him to Springfield.
From that beginning, PWLF has grown to some 60 members, staged numerous open mics, held seminars and workshops, and taken advantage of every opportunity to promote the literary arts in central Illinois. At the close of its first decade, PWLF celebrates an established presence on the Springfield arts scene.
It began in July 1993 at Jimmy's Sub Shop, downtown at Sixth and Monroe streets. Bartel, who knew owner Jimmy Hopper, told him of his New York trip, and Hopper agreed to open on Saturday nights from 7-10 p.m. Anyone who wished could read at the open mic, which was followed by a "featured poet." The first reading at Jimmy's featured Jim Andrews, Bartel's old literature teacher at Springfield High. Fifty people attended that open mic, and the numbers steadily increased from there.
"It got to be overflowing -- there were over 100 people at many of Jimmy's events," recalls Bartel. "Street people were reading alongside Ph.D.s; grandmothers with grandsons; teachers were grading their students who read. It was a great time. There was a vitality and energy I don't see now."
The open mics quickly outgrew Jimmy's space, and in January 1994 the readings moved to Barnes & Noble. The association with PWLF continues to this day. Bartel, who credits longtime University of Illinois-Springfield professor Marcellus Leonard for the group's name, established PWLF as a nonprofit organization. He became its first president, wife Janice served as secretary and they, with a little help from their friends, formed a board of directors.
In late 1994, Bartel left the group, in part, he says, because "I didn't want to be an administrator or a dictator. I'm an artist. New blood had to come in."
Bartel brought another idea back from New York: the chapbook, a self-published book of a poet's works. Many PWLF members have published at least one. Early examples include Bartel's Type Cast in Bold Print, David Bishop's Looking for Grace, Théa Chesley's ... And Tattooed and David Pitchford's Romantic Re-enchanted.
Job Conger brought out the Forum's monthly newsletter, Writers'Chronicle, in October 1994. Karen Mollett succeeded Bartel as president and changed the newsletter's name to PenChant. She was succeeded by Conger, who issued his first chapbook, Minstrel's Ramble, in late 1996. Conger, a regular Illinois Times contributor, has been on the group's scene since the second reading at Jimmy's, and with his passion for local bard Lindsay (and his trademark multicolored sport jacket), Conger became a vivid presence, hosting most open mics for the next few years.
Other recurring open mics included a 1997 Sunday-night series at Kane's, hosted by Chesley. That series lasted only a few months before the bar was sold (it's now the Alamo). Starting the same year was a Monday-night series at the South 11th Street Coffee Club. PWLF has hosted several one-time readings at such varied venues as the New Salem Visitors Center, the Old Capitol Art Fair, schools, churches, libraries, and nursing homes.
The first Writers' Chronicle asked, "What if there were a biweekly meeting for poets who want to sit around a table, sip their favorite beverages, and just talk about poetry?" Such a meeting eventually came about in 1996. Writer's Bloc began meeting Saturday mornings at Capitol Caffe on South Sixth Street. Now in its eighth year, the Bloc remains a weekend staple for its regulars, who call the Trout Lily Café (across from the long-since closed Capitol Caffe) home.
In addition to individual members' books, PWLF has published several poetry collections. Some are one-time publications built around a common theme, such as Brew's Muse (1998) and this year's Brew's Muse 2, which focus on coffee. Siobhan Pitchford produced Poetry of the Sex Goddesses in 2000.
PWLF also is responsible for Prism Galliard, a literary quarterly that made its debut in 1998 and features poetry and short fiction by members and other talented writers from central Illinois.
Targeting a younger audience is Navigating the Maze, created by Anita Stienstra in 1999. Maze features poetry by high-school students. The 2004 issue includes works by 56 contributors representing 11 area high schools and seven middle schools. The book, says Stienstra, combines her love of poetry with her love of children: "I studied early-childhood education, have always been around young people, and have children of my own, so this was a natural. I told the PWLF board, of which I was secretary at the time, that I was going to do this project whether they were interested in it or not." The Forum took her up on her offer, to an enthusiastic response that's grown with each successive year.
Of Maze, Pitchford says, "Anita's baby is our most important outreach. It serves our mission -- to increase support and awareness of the literary arts -- more than any other single project." This year's edition will be released at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 22, at Barnes & Noble.
The '90s drew to a close with new milestones for PWLF. The Writer's Round Table, an online forum (at www.online-springfield.com), introduced "10-word challenges," in which contributors post one or two words each, then create a poem around the 10 words. Several members read their creations at First Night Springfield on New Year's Eve 1998. David Pitchford began Daybreak Press to publish chapbooks. His wife, Siobhan (who met him through PWLF), issued her first chapbook, Intimations, with a CD included; it's the first and so far only publication by a Forum member to have one.
The new decade began with Conger's leaving the presidency of PWLF to devote more time to other interests, including aviation news and history. David Pitchford was elected to succeed him and still holds that office.
The Forum concludes its first decade with an understandable sense of pride. "We haven't stumbled across the statistics yet," says the March issue of PenChant, "but we're certain that when we do, we'll find that organizations of this nature (not-for-profit literary groups run by volunteers) typically don't live quite this long." The open mics continue, once a month at Barnes & Noble and twice a month at Imo's Pizza, 751 S. Durkin Drive, which Corrine Frisch, an Illinois Times contributor who recently retired from her position as public-information officer at Lincoln Library, calls "absolutely the best venue we've ever had." The membership continues to release chapbooks; hold workshops; bring out-of-town poets to Springfield; raise funds for such charities as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Heartland Peace Center, Sojourn House, and SARA Center; and find new ways, as one member, with tongue in cheek, put it, to "inflict poetry on the masses."
The man who started it all is proud of what PWLF has become.
"I still miss the Forum," says Bob Bartel. "I come around every so often just to see them. It's really great that David and Siobhan carry on with what I brought back from New York."
The Poets and Writers Literary Forum's 10th-anniversary celebration will be held at Stella Blue, 221 S. Fifth St., in Springfield, from 6:30-10 p.m. Saturday, April 17. Appetizers will be served, and a cash bar will be available. PWLF will recognize its past presidents and honor John Knoepfle for his life's work in the literary arts. Tickets are $20 in advance, with a limited number available at the door for $25. For more information, visit the PWLF Web site, www.pwlf.com.