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New Jersey pizza place becomes food for the soul

On the menu: A slice, a steak, a verse

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

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.

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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.

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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.

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What if we could take the whole world by eminent domain?

There would be no more body bags

Only shattered lives

BUT NOT OURS.

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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.

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I came the snowy January morning

Nick Virgilio's heart broke

and no tinkering with haiku syllables

could fix it.



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