Populist Poet with ties to Emerson

by Beacon Staff • December 5, 2007

Cambridge residents elected Payack, 57, the first Cambridge Poet Populist from among eight nominees for the position.,Peter Payack's poetry doesn't just appear in books and magazines; it's also been projected from planes, baked into cookies and engraved on the Davis Square platform in Cambridge.

Cambridge residents elected Payack, 57, the first Cambridge Poet Populist from among eight nominees for the position. The candidates performed at a public poetry reading in Harvard Square on Nov. 1, and Payack was declared the winner on Nov. 13. His job is to make scheduled public appearances and integrate poetry into the city.

The Cambridge Arts Council sponsored the election. Residents could nominate themselves or nominate somebody else, said Mara Littman, the council's marketing director.

The Cambridge Arts Council Advisory Committee considered the writing of the poets, as well as the work they had done in the city when selecting finalists, Littman said.

"I was thrilled to death because I always see myself as a populist, somebody who is part of the city," Payack said.

Phone-A-Poem was one of his earliest poetry popularizing projects, a program he started in 1976 that eventually became a staple of the Ploughshares organization, which publishes literary journal at Emerson.

Payack began bringing writers into his Cambridge living room to record their poems on cassettes, which he then loaded into a large answering machine that would replay the verses to callers. Once a month, Payack would host People's Poetry Day, a day people could call in and leave a poem on the machine.

"It was really a labor of love, so I was looking for a place to take it on and Emerson took it over," Pease said.

Ploughshares co-founder and co-editor DeWitt Henry said the program and the machine were retired in 1993.

Payack, however, said he would consider reviving Phone-A-Poem as Poet Populist.

Born in New Jersey, Payack moved to Cambridge at 22 after graduating from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.

Since then he has spread poetry in unconventional ways. He collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to project poems from the sky by attaching an electric grid to the wings of airplanes.

Between 1982 and 1988, Cambridge bookstores sold Payack's Edible Anthology of Poetry, a bag of fortune cookies with poems inside them, and a list of "ingredients" on the back of the bag which included the names of the writers featured in the cookies.

He's made poems written by children into buttons for them to wear, and his work once ran on a news ticker in Harvard Square.

Another poem, "No Free Will in Tomatoes," is sandblasted into the bricks on the Davis Square train platform.

"I was trying to put poems into public places," Payack said. "Usually poems are found in books or libraries, and they stay there. What I tried to do was take a poem, and put it out where people go, like how you find a statue. A statue would be in a public square, you don't have to go into a museum."

Payack's poems have also appeared in the, Paris Review, the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the Boston Globe.

He considers himself his own biggest fan as a poet.

"If you're a doctor you walk around with a stethoscope," Payack said. "When you're a writer, it's all in your head ... you have to appreciate your work the most, you have to get something in the New York Times, you have to buy like five of them and put them on your desk. You have to show people because there's no outward sign of those things, you know, they don't attach to your body."