Writers house in Camden honors ‘haiku king’ Nick Virgilio

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The Nick Virgilio Writers House will open in Camden this weekend in honor of the city’s second best-known poet. Virgilio, born 36 years after Walt Whitman died, grew up in the city’s Fairview neighborhood where he spent much of his life.

In his day, Virgilio was one of America’s pre-eminent writers of haiku, known for his prolific work in the traditional Japanese short-poetry format and admired for upsetting its stringent rules.

Virgilio started out in radio, graduating from Temple University and landing a gig with Jerry “The Geator” Blavat as a sidekick called Nickaphonic Nick. He also worked as a sportscaster in Texas.

When he discovered haiku in 1962, it became his singular focus. Virgilio’s work was published widely, and he often appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition. He was known to “hit” strangers with a few lines to hear them out loud.

Lily
Out of the water
Out of itself.

“Nick always read these twice,” said longtime friend Henry Brann. “The reason is you spend a lot of time thinking about the words the first time you hear something, just to make sure you heard the words. The second time, you get a sense of the feel of it.”

Brann, the vice president of the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association, and other in the group have been trying for 15 years to establish a writers house in his name.

After a few failed attempts at partnering with Rutgers University, the association struck a deal with another longtime friend of Virgilio — Monsignor Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church, where the poet was a parishioner.

The church’s property development arm was able to acquire a derelict three-story townhouse at the corner of Broadway and Jasper in South Camden as a site for the writers house (it’s also on the same corner as the church).

The house— formerly a doctor’s office and residence — was gutted and renovated from top to bottom. It has a kitchenette for coffee and catering, a sitting area on the second floor for readings, and a large, round conference table.

“We’ve set it up so it’s comfortable for a few people, but there’s plenty of room for folding chairs,” said Brann. “It’s a writers house. We are entertaining all forms of literacy. That’s our project — to advance literacy among schoolchildren.”

A niche overlooking an outdoor flagstone plaza is outfitted like a museum with furniture and objects that belonged to Virgilio, including the Remington manual typewriter on which he wrote thousands of poems.

It was his partner over his entire writing career.

My spring love affair,
The upright Remington
Wears a new ribbon.

The third floor room is now crowded with plastic storage tubs full of items waiting to be sorted. The president of the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association, George Vallianos, recently poked through a few of those containers, pulling up books about Frank Sinatra and juice diets; correspondence with other poets; and hundreds of loose-leaf pages of typewritten poems that were never published.

Many were never finished to Virgilio’s liking. There are no pencil marks; rather, he would work out the wording by retyping the poems over and over again on the Remington. Vallianos, who once owned the now defunct Elgin Diner where Virgilio used to sit for hours working on poems, said the poet could keep reworking the same 17-syllable poem for 20 years.

He held up a random page from the tub of loose leaf papers. It has two columns of haiku, each with the same opening line: “The dark before the snow.”

“That was the beginning of a haiku,” said Vallianos. “This is an observation. Nick would call a finished haiku a ‘word painting.’ ”

Vallianos is looking to form partnerships with established poetry groups and writing programs in the region. Right now, the association offers infrequent writing events and an annual haiku contest. He would like to see the house used every day.

“Nick’s whole thrust with his poetry was to get everybody to write — adults and children,” he said. “We had workshops. We needed a place in order to promote literacy.”

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