Catch Steve Abbott at Kafe Kerouac on Wednesday, Jan. 24
Today in Columbus you can find a poetry reading each day of the week — and sometimes two a day. But back in 1984, the Poetry Forum at campus bar Larry's on High Street was “the only game in town,” according to co-founder Steve Abbott.
“Larry's was a special place,” Abbott said in a mid-January interview at Kafe Keroauc, where he will read from his new poetry collection, “A Green Line Between Green Fields,” on Wednesday, Jan. 24. “I have an old T-shirt in my dresser that says ‘Larry's bar, grill and seminar' because the English, political science and philosophy grad students hung out there for decades. … It was that kind of a bar. It had poetry. It had jazz. It was an institution, but, like anything else, institutions have a lifespan.”
Even though Larry's closed in 2008, the Poetry Forum — the longest-running poetry series in the state — continues Monday nights at Bossy Grrl's Pinup Joint. The event, which includes featured readers and an open-mic segment, is just one of Abbott's accomplishments earning him the title of “godfather” among the poetry community.
He has organized poetry readings at ComFest; he edits the Ohio Poetry Association's annual member journal; and he helped select Ohio's first Poet Laureate in 2015.
“Steve developed every major public poetry opportunity from scratch in this city over the last 30 years,” said poet Scott Woods, who hosts the long-running Writers' Block Poetry Night. “Everywhere we casually assume poetry has always been had to be fought for, and Steve was on the front line of those fights with institutions for years.”
Abbott is more modest about the “godfather” label. “I just kind of outstayed everybody else,” he said.
Before galvanizing the poetry community in the '80s, Abbott worked as a reporter. He co-founded the Columbus Free Press in 1970 while he was studying journalism at Ohio State. “I finally got my degree December of 1971 and promptly … got arrested,” he said. “It was from a [Vietnam War] demonstration that was up on campus and people blocked the streets.”
The charges were eventually dropped, and Abbott went to work as a courtroom bailiff. “[It] was pretty strange because I was the guy who'd said all kinds of nasty things about police officers, and then there I was in court talking to them and swearing them in,” he said, chalking his choices up to the craziness of the time period: “It was the '70s.”
During that decade, Abbott also got a job teaching English composition at Columbus State — then Columbus Technical Institute — which he continued to do until 2012 when he retired. Though he has published several chapbooks, “A Green Line Between Green Fields”is his first full-length collection of poems.
“It's less important to me to be going around saying I have five books out, [though it] would be nice,” Abbott said. He is more concerned with providing opportunities for other poets, which that “godfather” title allows him to do. For instance, last year, he brought in poets for the “Sight of Music” exhibition, which he curated for the Columbus Cultural Arts Center.
“[I'm] in the position to be able to say, ‘Here, you deserve to get this and here's a way to do it,'” Abbott said. “And that's exciting.”