Nicco Mele: Why I Love Poetry
The Joy of Memorizing Poems

by Jacquelyn Malone
This is the second installment in our series “Why I Love Poetry.”

Nicco Mele, co-founder of Mass Poetry, estimates he can recite between 200 and 400 poems. “Closer to the 400, probably,” he says. And it all began in 2001 with a New York subway ad that displayed a poem by John Hollander. The subway was crowded, so crowded he couldn’t open a book. Day after day he was wedged in for a long ride. It was then he noticed the poem, “Summer Day,” and to relieve his boredom, he memorized it.

“The poem stayed in my head for days, and as I was waiting in front of a bookstore one day I saw a book that claimed to present the 100 best poems to memorize.” At that point, Nicco was hooked!

Now to appreciate his addiction you need to know that Nicco was not an English major. He was what we might term a technology geek. He had been webmaster for Governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid as Dean’s team popularized the use of technology and social media in a way that revolutionized political fundraising and reshaped American politics. Since his early days as one of Esquire Magazine’s  “Best and Brightest,” he has been a sought-after innovator, media commentator, speaker, and a co-founder of Echo & Co., a digital consulting firm with offices in Boston, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.   

But besides his love of memorizing poetry, he is an avid reader of poetry. How many of the readers of this column can claim to be reading five books of poetry right now? He is engaged with the following books: Small Gods of Summer by Gregory LeStage; Poverty Creek Journal by Thomas Gardner; Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil; Want for Lion by Paige Taggart; and Misery Islands by January Gill O'Neil.

The last poem he memorized was Robert Frost’s “To Earthward.”

How does a man who runs a nationwide company, teaches at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, serves on several boards, and is the father of three find the time to memorize poems? Nicco replies, “I find lots of down time, such as when I’m standing in line.”

When asked who are his favorite poets, he hesitates and says that it is hard to say, but if he had to, “I’d name the Irish poet Eamon Grennan and perhaps Elizabeth Bishop.” He’s also hesitant about why he chooses a particular poem to memorize. “I just have to like it,” he says finally.

Though Nicco didn’t grow up memorizing poems, he did memorize. “My parents were well-educated and well read. They were also Catholic and encouraged me to memorize Bible verses. So I was used to memorizing.” Born to Foreign Service parents, he spent his early years in Asia and Africa before graduating from the College of William and Mary in Virginia with a bachelor's degree in government. He then worked for several high-profile advocacy organizations where he pioneered the use of social media as a galvanizing force for fundraising.

In 2013, St. Martin’s Press published his first book: The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath. In it, he explores the consequences of living in a socially-connected society, drawing upon his years of experience as an innovator in politics and technology.

He will be using that expertise in a new way in January when he and his family move to Los Angeles where as an Internet strategist he will become the Deputy Publisher for the Los Angeles Times. Times Publisher Austin Beutner says, "With Nicco, we truly have a digital native to help us reimagine our business and develop new digital revenue streams."

But Nicco assures us that leaving Massachusetts doesn’t mean he will be leaving Mass Poetry. “Poetry is my great love. It sustains me. As Philip Levine says, it is bread for the soul. Starting Mass Poetry is one of the things I’m most proud of.” 

And if anything proves the value of our ads on the T, it’s Nicco’s story. What happened in New York 13 years ago could be happening right now in Boston – though the number of poems memorized may not reach 400!