In the 1970s and 80s, Nick Virgilio was one of the most active haiku poets in the United States; poetry magazine editors across the country could recognize his voice on the phone. He was also a fierce advocate for the poetic form itself, and is credited with helping popularize haiku in America.
He remains a complicated and enigmatic figure. He fought to develop the literary and arts scene in Camden, and was known for his strident – at times abrasive – personality. He read his work to anyone who would listen, but was less an advocate for himself than he was an advocate of the Walt Whitman Arts Center in Camden, which he helped found, and for poetry in general. He held poetry readings in coffee shops and at the tomb of Walt Whitman. When he wasn’t at the Arts Center or his church, Sacred Heart, he was often in the basement of his family home on Niagara Road. There, he composed page after page of haiku on an upright Remington typewriter. He lived in that same house until the end of his life. He never married.
Virgilio’s work blurs the line between traditional nature-based haiku, and slice-of-life senryu. A major recurring theme of his was the death of his younger brother, Larry, in the Vietnam War. Some of his best-known haiku are about Larry’s death and its effect on the Virgilio family. Many other haiku are set in Camden and depict startling scenes of urban life amid the changing seasons.
Virgilio was tireless in submitting his work for publication. Scores of his poems were published in magazines and newspapers, as well as in two editions of his book, “Selected Haiku,” in 1985 and 1988. On January 3, 1989, he went to Washington D.C. to give an interview on “Nightline” – but died suddenly of a heart attack during the show’s taping. He was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, not far from Walt Whitman.
Because of his sudden and unexpected death, Virgilio left behind tens of thousands of pages of unpublished – and previously unseen – work. More than 20 years later, his estate entrusted these papers to Rutgers-Camden, along with a generous grant for their preservation. It was at this campus, in the Paul Robeson Library, that Virgilio first discovered haiku. (The book he found, Kenneth Yasuda’s “a pepper pod,” is still there.) The Nick Virgilio Poetry Project is working to make Virgilio’s unseen work available to scholars and the public, as well as to preserve the memory of the poet himself.