Brooklyn Poets salon and workshop comes to Brooklyn Heights

Group celebrates Brooklyn’s literary heritage

July 19, 2022 Mary Frost
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Brooklyn Heights, one of the most literary of New York City’s neighborhoods, is celebrating the arrival of a new poetry salon and workshop space on Montague Street. 

Brooklyn Poets, which has been in operation for ten years but never had its own space, provides classes, small workshops, readings and innovative open mic events called “Yawps” for poets and poetry lovers. The center is cutting the ribbon on its new storefront on Saturday, July 23 at 1 p.m. at 144 Montague St. (See below for full schedule of events.)

The nonprofit organization was founded by Executive Director Jason Koo in 2012. The mission of Brooklyn Poets “is to celebrate and cultivate the poets, poetry, and literary heritage of Brooklyn,”  Koo told the Brooklyn Eagle. 

On Saturday, more than 40 poets will be giving readings in the new space, including special guests like MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Edward Hirsch; former Brooklyn Poet Laureate D. Nurkse; and current Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang. “We’ll have catering plates, wine and music, too,” Koo said. 

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“It was really important for us to be on this street and this neighborhood in particular, to bring what we feel we bring to the poetry community — a real sense of openness and inclusivity. We’ve always been about featuring and including poets that have traditionally been marginalized or under-represented,” he said.

Poets attending a “Yawp” at 61 Local in Cobble Hill. Brooklyn Poets operated out of a space there before moving to Montague Street. Photo courtesy of Jason Koo

Koo, a second-generation Korean-American, was born in New York but grew up in the Cleveland area. He moved to Brooklyn in 2009.

“When I think of Brooklyn historically, it’s a place of diversity, inclusivity, a sort of gateway for immigrants,” Koo said. “When people come into our space they see many different kinds of people —  not just different races, but different genders, different sexualities, different ages — we see all kinds of identities in our spaces. That’s something I’m proudest of about Brooklyn Poets and I hope that now that we have our own physical space, we can root that down in the fabric of the city.”

Ocean Vuong reads during a “Yawp” at 61 Local in Cobble Hill. Brooklyn Poets operated out of a space there before moving to Montague Street. Photo courtesy of Jason Koo

The revival of Montague Street

Brooklyn Poets is part of the ongoing revival of Montague Street. Over the years, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare lost many of the businesses that attracted shoppers. By 2020, in the midst of the COVID outbreak, one fifth of the storefronts on Montague Street were empty. 

The Brooklyn Heights Association has been working with the Montague BID to help revive the local shopping street. Recent successes include the return of the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange to the street, and the successful opening of the popular French bakery L’Appartement 4F

Koo has been busy transforming the parlor floor (a former yoga studio) into a warm space with a large area for readings and events, featuring a stage and bar tables, and a cozy conference room where workshops can be held. Many of the original architectural details from 1900 remain.

“This is our first brick and mortar. Before, we partnered with different places,” including 61 Local in Cobble Hill, St. Ann’s Church and venues in Bushwick, Koo said. “When 61 Local closed during the pandemic we realized we wouldn’t be able to do our Yawp event anymore.” 

“So we started looking around and discovered there were so many places shuttered on Montague Street. And then we met Tony.” Tony Bates, the building’s owner, is the longtime operator of Bentley’s Shoes, which is on the ground floor of 144 Montague St.

“Isaac, our president, [Isaac Myers III] found this location and spoke to Tony, and Tony was a really reasonable guy and wasn’t looking to gouge us. I think he liked what we were doing and what we were about, so he gave us a good deal,” Koo said. “We have a five-year lease with a five-year option. So we could be here potentially 10 years, which would be great.”

Jason Koo, executive director of Brooklyn Poets. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Brooklyn Poets “did a good job” with the renovations, Bates told the Eagle. “I want someone in here that’s good, that can take care of the place and make some money. Because there’s enough for everybody, and I think he’s going to bring a lot to the street.” 

“The Brooklyn Heights Association has been helping since,” Koo said. “I didn’t know about them or the Montague Street BID until after we had already signed the lease and started working here, and then we met Cindy McLaughlin.”

Cindy McLaughlin is the chair of the Brooklyn Heights Association’s Public Realm Committee, which focuses on the economic development of the street.

“The leafy streets and iconic views of Brooklyn Heights have inspired artists and poets through the ages,” McLaughlin said. “The Brooklyn Heights Association is thrilled that Brooklyn Poets brings a 21st century twist on this heritage to Montague Street with their salon-style readings and poetry workshops. The community has been craving places to gather and share their creativity, and Brooklyn Poets delivers a gorgeous parlor-level space for just that,” she said.

Kate Chura, president of the Montague Business Improvement District (BID), said, “Having Brooklyn Poets join the Montague St. BID on their 10th anniversary is quite an honor. With a long history of sharing and educating on the spoken word, the Brooklyn Poets add yet another important cultural resource to Montague Street and the greater community. 

She added, “Come join us on Saturday, July 23 at 1 p.m. to welcome our new member.”

Poet Edward Hirsch reads at the Montauk Club during a Brooklyn Poets event. Photo courtesy of Renée Kay

Founded on the birthday of Walt Whitman

Koo founded Brooklyn Poets ten years ago on Walt Whitman’s birthday, May 31.

“I’m a big Walt Whitman fan and I had always thought that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, when he published in 1855, was the first truly distinctive American poetry,” Koo said. “Emerson wrote in an essay that he was looking for American poets to establish themselves as truly different and distinct American voices, rather than voices that were beholden to British traditions. When Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855, he had essentially filled that void that Emerson said was missing.”

The free verse of Leaves of Grass was completely unprecedented, Koo said. “The voice and style of that poem have reverberated all through American poetry up until the present day, whether people realize the influence or not.”

Additionally, Koo said, “He published it on July 4; he self-published it; he even oversaw the printing and the plates of the printing in the Rome Brothers print shop over by Cranberry Street. So all of that was native to what we think of as American self-reliance.” (We have to add that from 1846-1848, Whitman was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.)

Despite his admiration for Whitman, Koo’s favorite poet is actually another Brooklyn Heights wordsmith, Hart Crane. 

“I love Whitman but Hart Crane is my guy,” Koo said. “He lived in Brooklyn Heights but he grew up near where I grew up, in the Cleveland area … He dropped out of high school and moved to New York to become a poet.”

Crane “loved the Brooklyn Bridge, he loved Brooklyn, he loved Brooklyn Heights, he loved Whitman. When I think of Brooklyn, in particular this neighborhood, his spirit is still here,” he said. 

From his former home at 110 Columbia Heights (now gone), Crane had a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, Koo said. “He conceived of and started writing his long poem The Bridge while he was living here. So for me, opening this place is almost like a love letter to Hart Crane. Creating a space that he would have loved. He probably would have been here today.”

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass rests on the table on Brooklyn Poets’ new poetry salon and workshop space at 144 Montague St. in Brooklyn Heights. Photo courtesy of Jason Koo

Brooklyn Poets opening day events:

– Ribbon cutting, 1 p.m. at 144 Montague St.

– Free drop-in writing class, 1:30 p.m.

–  Poetry readings starting at 3 p.m, featuring more than 40 poets and special guests: MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Edward Hirsch; former Brooklyn Poet Laureate D. Nurkse; and current Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang

– Sale of books and T-shirts, including new tees honoring new Brooklyn Poets Hall of Fame members June Jordan and Richard Wright.  

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