CAMDEN, N.J. -- There are plenty of places where poets gather, but most aren't like this.
In the desolate-after-dark middle of one of the nation's poorest cities. Somewhere between what might have been and what surely can be.
At a pizza parlor called Slice of New York.
This is a place where about once a month for the past six years poetry becomes food for the soul.
Edward Runner joined a score of kindred spirits one night. He was there to share his works, steering clear of that fertile poetic ground of love, angst and sorrow.
Runner, a 91-year-old former state insurance commissioner who still works as a real estate appraiser, wrote his first poem four years ago at the behest of students in an elementary school where he was a volunteer.
He's written 222 more since.
''When I started writing for children, my poems were written so they were educational, but kept a high moral value,'' he said.
He has self-published a volume of his verses, on everything from little boys awaiting Christmas morning to the ingredients in canned chicken soup and the benefits of joining volunteer fire departments. A second volume is in the works.
Today to make chicken soup a cook may need a college degree
There are so many chemical ingredients that one may need a Ph.D.
Slice of New York is tucked inside a mid-19th century building that once was the headquarters for local ice cream vendors and at one time the center of a numbers-running operation. It is warmly inviting, even to the customer who gets an anti-drug lecture from shop owner and Bronx native Peter Toso.
The poets, among them a self-described ''social reflectionist'' and a family of curious onlookers, celebrated what would have been Emily Dickinson's 171st birthday one night in December.
They turned off some lights, lit some candles, ate pizelle -- a sort of Italian cookie -- read Dickinson poems and shared some of their own.
Some were as different from Runner's as Dickinson's were from those of Camden's best-known bard, Walt Whitman.
Lois Dill Winkler often writes about the tough city and tough times.
Her grown son was murdered 15 years ago in the city. Last year, a college student was gunned down in front of her house, not far from the pizza shop or the city's waterfront, which has been given a second chance.
What if we could take the whole world by eminent domain?
There would be no more body bags
Only shattered lives
BUT NOT OURS.
Many of the poets, like Winkler, are regulars. Most come from outside Camden, which sits just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
Every session has a theme -- usually the birthday of a poet.
December was for Dickinson and Robert Bly, who counts among his volumes of poetry ''The Man in the Black Coat Turns'' and ''Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.'' He turned 75 on Dec. 23.
January's session featured a stromboli (known for the evening as ''Italian-style haggis'') in honor of Robert Burns, the Bard of Scotland, and celebrated painter Jackson Pollock.
These get-togethers are organized by Rocky Wilson, a substitute teacher known to travel with a monkey puppet on his arm.
During the homage to Dickinson, the clean-shaven Wilson disappeared from the dining room and a bearded man of about his build emerged with a Dickinson puppet. He called himself Whitman.
The revelers sang ''Happy Birthday.''
In Camden, a city better known for political corruption that landed a sitting mayor in federal prison just over a year ago, the poetic tradition is strong.
Honoring any poet means honoring Dickinson's contemporary, Whitman, the wistful ex-journalist who lived here from the early 1870s until his death in 1892. The only house Whitman ever owned -- and where he entertained Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde -- is a few blocks from Slice of New York.
Nick Virgilio, a haiku master who died in 1989, lived and wrote here most of his life.
Both poets -- one whose words rambled freely and one who followed a precise formula -- are buried in the city, at Harleigh Cemetery. Wilson wants to keep their spirit alive. He visited their graves Sept. 12.
I came the snowy January morning
Nick Virgilio's heart broke
and no tinkering with haiku syllables
could fix it.
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