Pittsburgh’s Acclaimed International Poetry Forum Returns

After a 14-year hiatus, the organization that brought 800 poets and performers to Pittsburgh relaunches with a modern twist.
Jake Grefenstette International Poetry Forum

JAKE GREFENSTETTE, A MT. LEBANON ACADEMIC, TAKES THE HELM OF THE RELAUNCHED INTERNATIONAL POETRY FORUM | PHOTO BY VIRGINIA LINN

There were the gifted performers: Anthony Hopkins, James Earl Jones, Gregory Peck, Ellen Burstyn, Michael York, Danny Glover and Jessica Tandy. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut and playwright Tennessee Williams. U.S. Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Gwendolyn Brooks. And cultural figures Queen Noor of Jordan, Princess Grace of Monaco and Brooke Shields. 

These were among the 800 poets and performers brought to Pittsburgh by the acclaimed International Poetry Forum over its 43- year history that ended in 2009. The forum, founded and directed by renowned poet and writer Samuel Hazo, aimed “to establish the Steel City as a cynosure of poetry and the arts.”

Now it’s coming back.

Hazo, 94, of Upper St. Clair, a former poet laureate of Pennsylvania, has passed the baton to Mt. Lebanon academic Jake Grefenstette, the forum’s new president and executive director who aims to host the first flagship forum in fall 2024. 

Grefenstette, 29, returned to Pittsburgh a year ago with his family after obtaining his Ph.D at the University of Cambridge in England. He also has a master of arts degree from the University of Chicago and master of philosophy from Peking University in Beijing.

Even though there’s been a 14-year hiatus, the forum still holds its nonprofit status, and Grefenstette said he is in the process of appointing a board of directors and creating a business plan. It already has a website.

He says he wants to make the forum more self-sustaining than in the past by creating an endowment fund, which he believes will attract a wider group of donors “who will be eager to protect Sam’s legacy.” 

During the original forum, fundraising was a yearly challenge; ticket sales covered only 25% of the operation costs and the forum depended heavily on foundation support and private donors.  After the financial crisis of 2008, foundation support dried up, leading to the forum’s demise.

Hazo says people over the years have continued to ask about the poetry forum, hoping it would return. In addition to the financial woes of 2009, Hazo says changes in communication also were impacting the viability of the forum.

“The whole circumstance of society was changing,” he says. “Newspapers were dying, our way of communicating information to the public was changing,” noting the growing use of online content.

“After I met Jake, I realized he had the personal and educational and also artistic background to do this,” he says. “He also had the knowledge of computers and could do social news. He had all that going for him. He also has some assets in terms of fundraising because his grandfather and father were involved in grant-making in Pittsburgh. He knows many of the foundation leaders. That, of course, is essential.”

In the forum’s new goals, Grefenstette hopes to create a regular podcast program instead of offering its previous press service that published books and materials.

And he wants to continue its mission for outreach; it hosted a Poets-in-Person program that sent writers to local middle and high schools in five counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.

 “Junior and high school is the perfect age for kids to engage in poetry,” Grefenstette says. “Our goal is to solicit advice from educators to find out what resources to bring into the classroom.”

Grefenstette is currently meeting with local community members to find out who people would like to see reading poetry at the forum.

In his queries to high school and college students, Taylor Swift, Wiz Khalifa and Common are at the top of the list.

Categories: The 412