‘Poetry is universal’: Carlow Event honors Samuel Hazo, the International Poetry Forum

By Tanya Babbar, Staff Writer

When Samuel Hazo, acclaimed writer and founder of the International Poetry Forum, stepped on the stage at Rosemary Heyl Theater, the 300-person audience rose in standing ovation. 

Carlow University hosted the Power of Poetry event on Saturday night to gather the community for a celebration of poetry, performance and the legacy of the work of Hazo, who founded the International Poetry Forum in 1966. 

Mercedes Hettich, an audience member who frequents writing events in Pittsburgh, said Hazo transformed Pittsburghers’ access to poetry and the world’s view of Pittsburgh as one of the principal spaces for poetry and the arts. 

“It feels like a big family reunion of a lot of writers who’ve known each other for a very long time are finally coming together,” Hettich said. 

During the event, notable speakers from Carlow University’s Creative Writing MFA program, the

Pittsburgh writing community and Hazo himself spoke about the history of Carlow University and the International Poetry Forum and thanked each other for their dedication to the community. 

Kathleen Humphrey, the president of Carlow University, commended the impact Hazo has had on Pittsburgh. 

“[Hazo] is a man whose roots in Pittsburgh are rich in cultural tradition, whose roots are rich in what we believe is best for our community,” Humphrey said.

In Hazo’s time with the IPF, he expanded the writing community in Pittsburgh by making poetry more accessible and building diverse relationships with poets outside of Pittsburgh. Through IPF performances, Hazo drew large crowds and notable people over the years, resulting today in a far-reaching community of Pittsburgh arts and poetry. 

The prolific record of Hazo’s work with the IPF boasts more than 800 established poets and performers from 38 different countries between 1966 to 2009, and drew in the likes of many Academy Award-winning actors, from Gregory Peck to Maureen Stapleton.

At Saturday’s event, esteemed poets Richard Blanco, the fifth inaugural poet of the U.S, Naomi Shihab Nye, acclaimed poet and writer, and Tracey K. Smith, a two-time U.S poet laureate and Pulitzer prize winner, performed their work and spoke about their gratitude to Hazo and the IPF. 

Nye discussed her relationship with Hazo as her mentor and friend before her performances.

“[Hazo] made a community to love poetry as much as Pittsburgh. He encouraged everyone to know poetry is for them,” Nye said. “He encouraged us all.” 

Although the community remains strong today, Hazo said many doubted that a poetry forum in Pittsburgh would be successful. But during the first International Poetry Forum Performance at Carnegie Hall in 1966, a crowd of 600 people attended 一 double the size of available seats. Hazo said the event’s turnout was a testament to Pittsburgh’s strong artistic community.

After the initial success, the numbers continued to grow as Hazo focused on expanding the reach of poetry to all types of people in a community. With the notion that poetry can provide meaning to anyone, Hazo’s set IPF on a path that would push poetry into the public eye. 

Hazo’s mindset, that poetry is for everyone, has led the arts and writing community in Pittsburgh to feel inviting and comfortable, Hettich said.

“Poetry is universal. I think that Pittsburgh, as a poetic city, it’s not presumptuous. It’s very down-to-earth,” Hettich said. “We have that Steel City miner mentality and the poetry is accessible. People can join in without judgment of what they like or don’t like.”

Hazo put the notion that “poetry is universal” into practice with his aim to create a diverse community of artists from around the world. Although the international reach of the IPF is a remarkable feat of its legacy, the choice was controversial at the time. The controversy, Hazo believed, arose from concerns of censorship and filtering. 

“One thing that makes a poet a good poet is he sees what’s going on right now,” Hazo said. Throughout the years, Hazo was met with pushback from politicians who were concerned that the open stage of the forum would encourage political unrest. 

Pushback against the forum’s focus on diversity continued throughout the years. In 2003, New Jersey state poet Amiri Baraka’s politically outspoken performances sparked controversy and unrest in New Jersey. Hazo said Edward Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, wanted to prevent any similar unrest from happening in Pennsylvania. Hazo said Rendell wrote to him “Your services are no longer needed,” in reference to the IPF. 

Hazo said he refused offers of a government salary because he does not believe in poetry funded by the government. While he believes poetry forums should not become political forums, political and social issues are inseparable from art, so Hazo stood his ground on the need for a state poet. 

“You know what [Rendell] said to me? ‘Every poet in PA is a state poet,’’” Hazo said. 

Hazo’s commitment to prioritizing international art in the IPF and resistance to pressures to filter performances led diversity to become a founding value of the arts community in Pittsburgh, as well as space for today’s poets to discuss issues important to them.

Beyond current poets and performances, Sydney Edwards, a writing student at Carlow who attended the Power of Poetry event, and worked in an archival study for IPF at school, feels that one of the most exciting and significant impacts of the IPF is its archival collection of art and writing over the years.

“It was insane,” Edwards said. “I felt like I was holding history.”

As an old-time friend of Hazo, Nye spoke of the memory of one of the first IPF performances Hazo hosted, in spite of a severe blizzard. 

“I remember telling Hazo, ‘No one is gonna come,’ and he said, ‘Oh, they’ll be here,’” Nye said.