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In Brooklyn’s Park Slope, a local poet laureate reigns and rhymes

These days, Leon Freilich, the 75-year-old poet laureate of Park Slope, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t get paid to write verse. But he remembers one time in the ’50s, when he was in the Army, he sold a jingle to Lucky Strike for $25. Freilich says that anyone who loves language writes poetry at one time or another but, because there is no money in it, they go on to writing short stories or newspaper columns. He has tried his hand at both. In the ’60s, he wrote fiction on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where drugs were cheap and General Francisco Franco’s police turned a blind eye.

When that turned out to be unsuccessful, he came back New York and worked as a teacher until he grew tired of it. He had studied Latin and Greek at City College, which he said was good preparation for his next stint, as a journalist writing about scandal for the National Enquirer and Star magazine. But when Star moved its operations south to Florida, Freilich says he decided to do what he loved. So he loafed for a bit and when he, again, grew tired of that, he began writing a column for the local weekly, the Brooklyn Paper.

It was during this time that he was named poet laureate by the paper’s editor in chief, Gersh Kuntzman.

A few years ago, the paper cut Freilich’s column, so he retired from the newspaper business. But he held on to his title as the local bard and began posting light verse online, including on the New York Times blogs City Room and Paper Cuts, the media gossip site Gawker and the community forum Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. Even though it doesn’t pay the bills, Freilich’s position as poet laureate has given him an incentive to put his work out to the public. In a poem posted on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, Freilich versifies on life as a writer:

Dead Letters Dept. It’s bad enough when your hair’s falling out, Leading to middle-age rage, But if you’re a writer, how worse it is When your words fall off the page.

Most people associate the poet laureate title with the national position. But recently, states, counties, cities and neighborhoods have begun to appoint poet laureates of their own. One of the reasons government has sponsored poetry is that making a living as a poet is nearly impossible. The title of poet laureate gives people like Freilich a platform for pursuing an otherwise unprofitable art form.

In England, the poet laureate was a member of the king’s entourage. Geoffrey Chaucer, the first poet laureate, was appointed in 1389 and paid in spirits. Ever since then, it has been traditional to give the poet laureate liquor, although Freilich is still waiting for his bottle. The Library of Congress began appointing an established poet to compose verse for government events in 1937. For 2009, Kay Ryan, the current national poet laureate, receives a stipend of $35,000.

Doug Wilhide, poet laureate of Linden Hills, a neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis, receives $200 a year for his job. Fortunately he also runs a marketing consultancy. In his role as the neighborhood poet laureate, he organizes poetry readings and edits regional poets for a local biweekly newspaper called the Southwest Journal. He recently edited a book of poetry called “Between the Lakes,” which has broken even on the cost of publication and is beginning to make a little money. Wilhide says it is believed that the only poet in the United States to make an actual living from his poetry is the former national poet laureate Billy Collins.

“That guy has sold a lot of poetry books, more than some fiction writers, which is completely unheard of,” says Albert Flynn DeSilver, who receives a stipend of $2,000 for being the poet laureate of Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. This supplements the income he earns working as a teacher at local schools and community colleges. But according to DeSilver, there has been an increase in public art funding and private grants for poetry.

“You can almost make a living as a poet,” he says. “Anything’s possible.”

Freilich, on the other hand, is content to just write about what he sees. He describes his work as light verse about the stock market or New York governor David Paterson.

“It’s snark. I was doing snark before Gawker,” says Freilich. “I don’t pretend to be competing with Yeats or Pound or Stevens.”

As the poet laureate of Park Slope, he has written more than 20 poems about strollers. An excerpt from one:

Osmosis He Supposes Sunday on Seventh Avenue, Something that he thinks is new: Girl about three, and this is true, Pushing stroller built for two, Mini-stroller for a twinish crew, One seat pink, the other blue. Sight to charm or sight to rue? This he’s left squarely to you. Slopey thing, that’s all he knew.

Freilich says he writes light verse because he doesn’t have anything serious to say. He certainly doesn’t do it for the money.

“You can make more money writing girdle ads—and no one wears girdles anymore,” he says.