How a Poetry Contest Brought Camden to the World
Zen & the Pandemic
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Photography: David Michael Howarth

In the thick of the 2020 Covid shutdown, a Camden writers’ group needed to figure out a way to survive the pandemic when it hit upon an idea that struck a poetic nerve. They launched a free weekly publishing contest on Instagram.

At a time when people were told to stay apart, “Haiku in Action” was a stab at connecting people through the power of mindfulness and the written word. It was sponsored by the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association (NVHA), named after a groundbreaking Camden poet credited with helping to popularize the Japanese style of poetry in the United States. To enter, all anyone had to do was compose a poem loosely following the rules of haiku. The first week’s writing prompt was: “How has the lockdown changed your summer?”

You’d think the winners were promised a lottery-sized pot of cash. Within hours, and throughout the week, submissions flooded in. Some came from South Jersey area writers, those familiar with the NVHA. But far more submissions were from across the nation and overseas – people who likely had not heard of Virgilio.

A week later, when the winning entries were published online (that was the prize!), the contest started up again. And nearly 2 years later – even as in-person programs are returning to the Writer’s House – “Haiku in Action” is still going strong. An anthology of the first year’s contest-winning haikus, entitled “Poems from the Pandemic Year,” is selling strongly.

“Our mission originally was to foster community and connection in Camden and South Jersey by leveraging the power of poetry,” says Robin Palley, NVHA president. “When we had to shut down the house, we didn’t know how we would continue doing it. Then we found a bigger mission.”

“We built this whole global following, including people from Australia, England, India, Pakistan, France, Germany, just about everywhere,” Palley adds. “That was quite an unexpected pivot. There’s a haiku community that is global. And they have found their way to us.”

While it’s thrilling that the association is now engaging an audience far beyond South Jersey, the sudden popularity poses new challenges, Palley says. Formed after Virgilio’s death in 1989, NVHA had a small but devoted following. For much of its existence, it focused efforts on securing a home for writers and programs that support literacy, creative writing and self-expression in Virgilio’s native Camden. Monsignor Michael Doyle, the retired pastor of Sacred Heart Church, was a founder of the association and among its most ardent supporters. He helped oranizers eventually acquire funding to buy and refurbish a rundown 19th-century red brick building on the corner of Broadway and Ferry Avenue.

The Writers House, which opened in 2018, was holding its own before the pandemic. It was home base for writers’ groups, literary classes, workshops and readings. Thanks to a partnership with the Mighty Writers, a non-profit group that provides free literacy and literary workshops and classes, student groups met there daily.

During the pandemic, a time when poetry would have helped people make sense of the times, all of those activities went dark, says Palley, but only in the most literal sense.

Mighty Writers in action

“Haiku in Action” dropped in late June in 2020, and it immediately caught on, says Sean Lynch, NVHA program director. “At the height of the pandemic, we received well over 100 haikus from 50 or so poets in a good week,” says Lynch, noting that other popular prompt topics included endangered species, climate change and Black Lives Matter.

The contests were not the only NVHA reinvention, says Palley. As the pandemic wore on, the Writers House became an even more vital part of its South Camden neighborhood, as Mighty Writers hosted frequent food, diaper and book giveaways – sustaining more than 200 families. Its cooking facilities became a test kitchen for “Art Unboxed,” instructional videos highlighting healthy recipes using ingredients provided to families.

“Monday Mindfulness” also drew participants far from Camden. The biweekly online workshops, led by a certified mindfulness instructor, focus on meditation and writing exercises. Palley notes that the audience is equally divided among local, national and international participants. For both the workshops and the contest, NVHA is now asking for voluntary contributions. That’s helping supplement the organization as it ponders post-Covid programming, she says.

“Although we all had to stay apart for so long, so many came together here to express their joy, sorrow and frustration about the trials of living through the pandemic,” says Palley, a poet herself. “It fed peoples’ souls.”

Camden’s other famous bard

An autumn evening…
counting feet and syllables
slipping off to sleep
-Nick Virgilio

Henry Brann first encountered Nick Virgilio while walking into mass at Sacred Heart Church in Camden. “There was this guy in the foyer standing on his head,” recalls Brann, a retired electrician and past president of the NVHA. “I thought that was interesting.”

After the service, they got to know each other better. “He came up behind me, put a hand on my shoulder and, as I turned, he hit me with a haiku. I didn’t know what that was at the time,” Brann says. “When he was done, he said, ‘what do you think?’ But before I could answer he said ‘needs more work.’”

Beyond Virgilio’s contagious passion for poetry, it was the subject matter that really struck people, says Brann. While classic Japanese haiku focuses on nature, Virgilio commented on the urban life he encountered every day. His topics included poverty, sex for hire and urban decay. Besides his beloved Camden, he often wrote about his younger brother, who was killed in the Vietnam war.

Although Virgilio wasn’t famous in South Jersey, he was well-known in the haiku community worldwide. The former Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, among Virgilio’s admirers, even translated one of his best-known haikus: “Lily: out of the water…out of itself.” That’s the poem that marks his grave in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery.

Virgilio kept a trove of correspondence with other poets that have been digitized, along with approximately 8,750 typed pages of unpublished poems as well as his 800 published works. The collection is housed in the Special Collections department of Robeson Library at Rutgers University–Camden.

While being interviewed about his writing in 1989 for the CBS television program “Nightwatch,” he had a heart attack that ended his life at age 60. Every year the NVHA stages poetry readings on his June 28 birthday at his graveside, which is not far from Walt Whitman’s.

April 2022
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