The esteemed Camden poet Nick Virgilio enjoyed reciting his latest haikus to close friends and total strangers.
the cathedral bell/is shaking a few snowflakes/from the morning air
“He’d come into the rectory, wash the dishes, have tea, and hit me with two haikus. Five days a week,” said the Rev. Michael Doyle, whose Sacred Heart Church is across the street from the soon-to-open writer’s house that will bear Virgilio’s name.
“Nick would sit at the counter with his poems, a decaf coffee, and a bran muffin,” George Vallianos, whose family owned the city’s Elgin Diner for 43 years, recalled.
Where the battlefield/narrows to a cattle path:/the dew on the grass
A World War II veteran and radio DJ who embraced haiku in the early 1960s, Virgilio wrote about subjects personal, political, and painful — such as the 1967 death of his younger brother, Marine Cpl. Lawrence J. Virgilio, during the Vietnam War.
deep in rank grass,/ through a bullet-riddled helmet:/an unknown flower
The poet himself died in 1989. Some of his work was archived at Rutgers-Camden ; most of it has gone out of print.
But last year, 6,000 schoolchildren from around the country entered a Haiku Society of America contest named for Virgilio. Thousands of entries have been received in advance of the March 25 deadline for this year’s competition.
And on April 28, the Nick Virgilio Writer’s House will open in the Waterfront South section of the city he wrote about, loved and lived in for most of his life.
Virgilio was only 60 when he suffered a heart attack while taping a CBS-TV interview in Washington. At the time of his death he was an internationally recognized master of the exquisitely concise Japanese form of poetry.
Lily: /out of the water/ … out of itself.
“He established an American model of haiku … that conforms to natural speech,” said Geoffrey Sill, a retired Rutgers-Camden professor of English who is on the writer’s house board.
“In Japan, haiku is usually associated with nature. Nick wrote about urban streets, a different sort of nature.”
The Nick Virgilio Writer’s House will operate in a renovated, light-filled Victorian structure at Broadway and Jasper Street.
It will be the latest addition to the neighborhood’s emerging “So Bro” (for South Broadway) arts district, where the South Camden Theatre Company, Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, Camden FireWorks and other gallery and performance spaces have opened in recent years.
The Writer’s House also is the realization of a decades-long dream by those who knew and loved Virgilio and his work — or have more recently discovered it. Poetry workshops, readings and related events are among the planned programs.
“Our goal is to create a beautiful space for writing,” board member Robin Palley said. “Nick thought of poetry as a way for kids and adults to access their feelings. We will be reaching out to children and to the community.”
Said Ralph Roberts, a retired chief fire marshal of Camden who also serves on the board: “A lot of people know of Nick Virgilio. At the center, they can form a connection with his talent and his work.”
the flag’s shadow/creeps toward the crater:/footprints on the moon
I first met Virgilio during a writing workshop series at the old Walt Whitman Poetry Center, which he helped establish at Rutgers-Camden.
It was the early 1980s, before I finally came to the wise conclusion that my greatest contribution to the world of poetry would be as a reader, rather than writer.
I remember Virgilio as an avid Walt Whitman fan and a vivid, exuberant powerhouse of a man. He was eccentric, unusual, and wonderful: A genuine Camden original.
“Nick didn’t meet you. He wrestled with you,” Doyle said last Friday, as he and other board members took me on a preview tour of the Writer’s House.
Many rooms feature striking pieces of donated furniture. Photographs and other Virgilio memorabilia on display include the vintage Remington typewriter on which he did his work.
The building had been boarded up since the 1970s when Heart of Camden, the community development corporation founded by Sacred Heart, bought it from the city for $10,000 in 2010.
Plans to develop the writer’s house in partnership with Rutgers-Camden “fell through right after we bought the building,” said Helene Pierson, then Heart of Camden’s executive director. “I started planting seeds about putting the Nick Virgilio house there.”
Doyle and others credit Pierson with having obtained grants, including $600,000 from New Jersey American Water, as well as other financing for the $1 million renovation.
“I just hope it becomes another place in the life of the neighborhood,” she said.
The building also will become the second literary center to open in Camden: The Rutgers-Camden Writers House debuted in 2016, and the two aim to work together.
“We share a common commitment to bring writing programs to the larger Camden community,” said Leah Falk, program coordinator at the Rutgers house, which is located in a restored Cooper Street mansion.
I bet there will be plenty of room for both of these institutions to grow in the city, where a vibrant multicultural arts scene has taken root.
The Nick I knew would want to be in the thick of it. With the opening of the Nick Virgilio Writer’s House, he will be.