What is “Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman“?
2019 is the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth. Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman [Or Whitman 2019 or Whitman Bicentennial or What Is it Then Between Us] celebrates this important American poet by inviting people to participate throughout 2019 in a national public reading of his inspiring poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Walt Whitman scholars, poetry and literary clubs, and high school English teachers will be interested enough in the bicentennial to celebrate in some way and “What Is it Then Between Us?” provides an easy and fun way to do so. By participating in this project lovers of Whitman can both support and be guided by the national project.
Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman is envisioned as a simple idea with a potential for national interest. Participants are invited to read Crossing Brooklyn Ferry out loud, which might include: by themselves in the woods, to a friend or relative, in a poetry club, in a classroom, in public, or at an event organized by an arts organization. Participants are invited to inform us about their event in advance so we can put it on our calendar and to document the reading with a photo or video and upload the documentation to one of several social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube.
Project organizers would themselves plan a handful of high profile events throughout 2019 to broadcast our intentions and inspire others with ideas. Such events might incude an evening of readings at St Ann’s Warehouse on Whitman’s birthday, public readings of the poem by groups like Poet’s House at locations like Fulton Ferry Landing, and collaborations with high schools and colleges around the country. Partnerships with venues like Bargemusic, Barnes & Noble, the Brooklyn Library, or the Brooklyn Historical Society would add additional legitimacy to the project. Participants would be asked to envision and plan their own events; the project would essentially be formless and democratic and would run itself.
But let’s think about how else the project can conclude. A media piece? A book? A website? a movie?
Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman would begin with a handful of high-profile events. Once established these events would be used to promote the project to participants around the country, both by reaching out to specific organizations and schools but also by contacting media, poetry journals, and other cultural insitutions to help promote the event. A strong website that includes ABC would supply guidelines, suggestions, study questions, and so on to participants and would also incude a blog, which would be used both to gather contact information and to update interested parties on the project’s progress. The website would also help promote my own book by....
Why “Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman” can succeed.
- 2019 is the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth and fans will be looking for ways to celebrate. Joining with this project offers both an easy and fun way to do this and adds an important additional ingredient — the excitement of joining hands with a larger community that will have some national press.
- Crossing Brooklyn Ferry includes a number of basic attributes that make it ideal for attention and a national public reading and conversation. It’s a good length (a 15 minute read), is relatively accessible, is inspirational and ultimitely uplifting, and touches on large themes of time, the transcendent power of art, and our interconnectedness. It also speaks directly to readers (more below) and touches on our national history in its reference to Brooklyn (it is estimated that one in five Americans came through Brooklyn).
- The poem is timely. Today’s political climate is not unlike what Whitman experienced while writing the poem, with corruption, small-mindedness, and fearmongering all rampant. Whitman’s grand vision of an egalitarian, democratic America will resonate and provide fodder for an honest conversation among Americans about the path our country is taking.
- Throughout his writing but in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in particular, Whitman tried to connect with his readers, including those generations hence. He suggests, in the poem, that he might even be looking over our should as we read the poem — and enjoying it! The invitation to connect with him make reading the poem particularly fun, and contributes to a strong experience in reading.
What is the goal of the project?
The primary goal of Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman is to provide an easy and fun way for people to celebrate the bicentenial of Walt Whitman’s birth. For project organizers a successful outcome would:
- Help introduce a new generation of Americans to Whitman, public reading, and poetry in general
- Help connect poetry groups and Whitman fans around the country
- Help my book Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” find a publisher and increase sales. My hope is this could happen in a number of ways: by connecting with one or two celebrities who would be willing to contribute an essay to my book, thus making it more appealing to publishers; and by generating a built-in audience for the book, inclding possible contact information for many of them; potentially by initiating a crowdfunding effort for financial support that would generate an additional built-in audience for the book.
Who runs the project?
As much as possible the project would be set up to run itself. The initial work — establishing project guidelines and format, setting up a website, reaching out to potential participants and partners, would likely be done on a volunteer basis. But at a certain point the website and project would be maintained by myself and other project founders, as well as one or more paid or volunteer interns. Funding could come from grants or crowdfunding. I am looking into multiple crowdfunding options and grants to pay for some of my own time both on this project and my book.
The project concept, website, and a representative range of high-visibility events and participating groups and partners would be nailed down by May 30, 2018. At that point the website and project launch and we begin contacting additional schools, poetry groups, and Whitman organizations so that when the project starts on January 1, 2019 it has enough energy and legitimacy to make it attractive and easy for people to sign up. In early 2019 we would send out press releases to national media, poetry and literary journals, and online culture blogs. The project would run throughout 2019, with the website announcing events and updating participants and any interested public with a blog. Pages on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube would provide an easy way for particpants and the public to follow the project and upload documentation (photos and videos) of their events. 2019 should include two highlights: Whitman’s May 30 birthday, and a major September event to coincide with the Brooklyn Book Festival and publication of my book. Whether the entire year’s effort ultimately culminates in a larger document ( a video, article, or book?) is an open question.
Memorials, Locations, and venues:
Fulton Ferry Landing
Rockaways, Brooklyn (Patti Smith)
WW Housing Projects
Fort Greene Park
99 Ryerson Street
Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Partner)
WW Main Library (Partner)
Fulton Ferry Landing
St Ann’s Warehouse (Partner)
Brooklyn Historical Society (Partner)
Berl’s Poetry Shop (Partner)
Other Brooklyn Venues
New School neon installation
South Street Seaport Bowne & Co.
Walt Whitman Birthplace, Huntington, NY (Partner)
Walt Whitman House, Camden, NJ (Partner)
WW Bridge Philadelphia
WW Statue Philadelphia
WW Statue Bear Mountain
WW Statue Rutgers
WW Road Huntington
WW Shops Huntington
Camp WW New Hampshire
Monument Ontario, Canada
Moscow State University
Schools (English classes, poetry clubs)
WW Middle School, Brooklyn
WW Elementary School, Woodbury, NY
WW High School Huntington station NY
WW Junior High School Yonkers
WW school Milwaukee, WI
WW High School in Bethesda MD
WW Elementary Wheeling IL
WW Elementary Detroit MI
WW Elementary School Littleton CO
WW High School LA, CA
WW School Tulsa
WW School Pontiac
WW Community School, Dallas TX
WW Middle School Fairfax County, VA
WW Theatre at Brooklyn College
WW Writers Series at St. Francis College
The Transatlantic WW Association
The Walt Whitman Association (Camden)(has poetry contest)
Poets.org: Teach This Poem Project
Poetry Out Loud
The Poetry Hour
National Poetry Day
Poetry Society of America
National Poetry Month (April)
Nuyorican Poets Café
The Prison Arts Coalition
Bowery Poetry Club
etc —there are MANY
Barnes & Noble (Partner)
Greene Light Bookstore
Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop
etc —there are MANY
The Iowa Review
Poets & Writers
The American Poetry Review
The New Yorker
etc —there are MANY
Scholastic: Teachers (Partner)
Woody Guthrie Foundation
Emerson Thoreau Whitman foundations
The Beat Museum
American Writers Museum
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn
American Poetry Museum, DC
The Morgan Library