Washington poet Alan Austin believed that poets, unlike children, should be heard and not seen. And so he packaged a handful of their readings in a black box, reached deep into his bag of metaphors and called it . . . Black Box, the world's first audiocassette literary magazine.

That was 10 years and 17 issues ago, and if Austin's fantasy didn't always break reader's block, it certainly helped many poets "spill their bright incalculable souls," as e.e. cummings used to say.

But Austin and friends have carried their little package--it's the size of a paperback book -- many cautious steps forward, challenged by Walt Whitman's admonition that "to have great poets, there must be great audiences, too."

They started with a product. To distribute it effectively, they developed the world's largest clearinghouse for poetry on tape (Poets' Audio Network). With a network established, they embarked on an ambitious program of single-author cassettes (Watershed Tapes). With a wealth of material on hand, they took to the airwaves, producing the first poem to be transmitted in space and a series carried by National Public Radio ("The Poem That Never Ends"). And with the interest provoked by reaching millions for whom poetry was a course, not a concern, they began a second radio series about the workings of small magazines and independent presses ("Our Kind of Hearth").

They established an umbrella organization, the Watershed Foundation, to contain all the energy.

"It grew crazily over 10 years," Austin says proudly, but the project was accompanied by a number of difficulties -- chronic underfunding, a mostly volunteer staff, borrowed offices (they are now scattered in three rooms of the downtown Atlantic Building) and a not-so-subtle American prejudice against poetry.

In the process of going mouth-to-ear, Watershed also has gone hand-to-mouth. Tonight, the group celebrates 10 years of Black Box and beyond with an 8 p.m. benefit reading and celebration at the Washington Project for the Arts.

The reading will feature Myra Sklarew, Josephine Jacobson, Connie Carter, E. Ethelbert Miller and Roberto Vargas, as well as tapes of several of the major poets the Watershed Foundation has recorded who have since died, including Muriel Rukeyser and Kenneth Rexroth.

The funding situation, says Austin, is "thin but not grim. Federal support, which has always been essential, is down about 40 percent. Offsetting that we now have 13 corporate contributors, none of them big, but it all helps. We just got our first major foundation grant -- $20,000. The benefit is the kickoff for some serious fund raising from individuals, which we've never done. In the whole nonprofit private sector, whether it's arts or social welfare, 80 percent of the money normally comes from individual contributors. With poetry, that's difficult because the people who care about it tend to be poets, or friends of poets, and they don't have a lot of money."

Watershed's battles for acceptance have been fought on several fronts, including the home front. "Where there's a real prejudice against granting an equal legitimacy to what we do, as opposed to 'publishing' a book, comes not in the general audience but in sophisticated literary people who collect books and say, 'Well, yes, nice . . . but I have to hold the book in my hand.' That's wacky or, worse, book fetishism," Austin says.

"My own view is that the poem lives best in the voice. We're reaching the point where books are useful to preserve the work of poets who have passed on and in classrooms and for scholars, but I'd rather listen. Some work is non-oral or anti-oral but that's a minority of what's being written."

In the beginning was the Black Box (the name, taken from an engineering term for a special interfacing device, suggests the Watershed Foundation's concerns -- "interarts, intermedia, multicultural commitment"). The foundation was organized in 1970 by 10 writers and social researchers at the Institute for Policy Studies; originally called the New Classroom, it was the spinoff of a group studying the sociology of art and assessing the impact of new developments in mass media. "Three years later, there was nobody left but me," says Austin. He has been executive director since 1974.

From the start, Austin established a national, rather than a local, base. In the '60s he was literary editor of Motive magazine, so he worked from his own mailing list, borrowing and buying others. The first three issues -- three hours logged on two cassettes housed in black boxes -- contained "carefully" solicited material (Pablo Neruda, Marge Piercy, Ishmael Reed, Erica Jong, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, among others). By issue No. 4 in early 1974, "all the work was being submitted on tape" and sold by subscription.

Anne Becker, who has been with Watershed since 1977, is the only full-time employe besides Austin. She is the coordinator of the Poets' Audio Center (begun in 1977, it currently handles more than 600 titles -- readings, radio theater, music/poetry collaborations -- and has sold more than 10,000 tapes). Becker is also the primary producer of Watershed Tapes, the largest producer of poetry on tape in the United States, close to 60 titles by prominent and emerging poets since 1977, with a half-dozen others in various stages of development. "We are the only ones who are really doing a lot of current production work," she says, pointing to economics as the new limiter.

Most of the Watershed poets are recorded when they come to Washington for readings, lectures or symposia. For Becker and others, there are surprises in hearing a poet read his or her own work. "Poets have different feelings about what a line break does. The way I think it would sound because of the way the line breaks when the poem is written is not the way it ends up sounding; it can vary from poet to poet, the weight they give punctuation, how long a pause for a comma, how long a pause for a colon or semicolon or period. That's another kind of variation with each poet, it's their notation. Each poet has a certain weight that they give; the pauses really do affect your understanding."

"Art hath an enemy called Ignorance," Ben Jonson wrote. So much of Watershed's energy in recent years has been spent on connecting its recordings with mass radio. The goal has been "to make literary programming a part of the station mix for every public radio station in America." The award-winning "The Poem That Never Ends," a 26-part series, is being re-funded for another 13 segments. Along with "Hearth," it has been in circulation on the public radio system for 2 1/2 years.

The Poets' Audio Center is different from all other poetry systems: It distributes not just to institutions (schools, libraries, stores) but to individuals as well. Distribution is Watershed's most solvent operation, and it will expand early next year through Radio Alpha, which will be the distributor of literature and drama programming for the entire public radio system.

Funding has just come from NPR's Satellite Program Development Fund for at least eight "New American Stories," dramatizations of current short fiction by known and unknown writers. David Ossman, Firesign Theatre alumnus and formerly producer of NPR's "Sunday Show," will coordinate that series.

"All the people who work here are poets," Becker points out. "Not only am I doing this for myself, but I feel like I'm doing something for poetry at large. It feels good to be promoting it and getting it out in a different way."