poetry quarterly

10th anniversary


The Capitol Hill Poetry Group:
A Bit of Early History from a Limited Perspective

by Gray Jacobik


According to my journal, on November 16, 1978, I attended a reading at the Martin Luther King Library. John Logan read, Ann Darr introduced him, later there was a reception at Betty Parry’s. In the audience, was the gracious and vibrant Hill poet, fiction writer, and teacher, Shirley Cochrane. Peter Petcoff accompanied Shirley and told me he had bought my book (a self-published chapbook), and read it! I was astounded that such an erudite and sophisticated humanist would actually admit this fact to me (Peter was a reference librarian at the Library of Congress). Somehow that conversation led Shirley to ask me if I’d like to come to their poetry critiquing group that was to meet the next evening at Jean Nordhaus’s home. I leapt at the chance.

I had met Shirley Cochrane before, most likely at one of the Friday late afternoon salons Robert Sargent held in his apartment on Arlington Boulevard. Here, at Bob’s, amid talk of novels and poems, poets, paintings, graphic art and jazz, I met many of the poets and designers who founded Washington Writers’ Publishing House (WWPH), as well as those who would later create and sustain WordWorks. There were always a few of Roland Flint’s Georgetown student-poets there (such as Patrick Clary). Here, besides Shirley Cochrane, I first met Eric Nelson, Karren Alenier, Jim Beall, Catherine O’Neill, Deidre Baldwin, Beth Joselow, Greg Hannan, Judith Harris, Beate Goldman, Ann Darr, May Miller, and the incomparable Grace Cavalieri (among others). In November of 1978, Shirley’s WWPH book, Burnsite, was about to be released, thus she knew me to speak to me the evening of Logan’s reading.

My memory of how I came to be a part of the Capitol Hill group is otherwise: I meet Jean Nordhaus at a workshop and reading at the MLK library, but it is Carolyn Kizer, not Logan, who is the well-known poet we’ve come to hear. Octave Stevenson, looking for the entire world to me like Ichobod Crane, is host and catalyst. It’s been a long Saturday afternoon. We are rising from the windowless lower floor to the main floor in an elevator as Jean invites me to visit the group she meets with. Yet another memory: The first time I attend, we meet in Mary Ann Larkin’s first floor, streetside apartment in SE. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ann moves to Glen Echo and I am never in that apartment again. Her laughter is infectious, elevating. I have never met such a self-delighting and other-delighting woman. I am mesmerized.

The Capitol Hill Poetry Group was comprised, at that time, of Shirley and Peter, of course, Jean Nordhaus, Pramod Lad, Mary Ann Larkin, Chris Llewellyn, Russell Spicer, Cary McKee and Hastings Wyman, Jr.

That is the group as it was essentially constituted during the five years of my participation. Early in January 1983, my husband and I moved to Massachusetts, and, for other reasons, the composition of the group altered again. Before I left for New England, Cary had moved to California, Hastings drifted off to other occupations as did Pramod and Russell; Chris Llewellyn had married and was busy with motherhood, and a few new permanent members had been added: Patric Pepper, Elizabeth Sullam and Robert Sargent. I believe by mid-1984 Keith Yancy and Edwin Zimmerman were regular members.

The group, given its name by Peter Petcoff (who, to the sorrow of all of us, died in 1982), had begun three years earlier, in 1975, when Jean Nordhaus, new to the practice of writing poems, sought a critiquing group through Sally Crowell, founder of the then-new Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Jean found Shirley in a carrel in the main reading room at the LoC: they talked and began meeting together, at first in a Sunday school room at a nearby Presbyterian church. According to the preface of the group’s second, twentieth-year anthology (The Other Side of the Hill: 1975-1995, Forest Woods Media Productions, Inc., Washington, DC), “The new members . . . squatted on pint-sized chairs by low tables” and felt “too nervous to share poems.”

I remember gales of laughter, extraordinary mutual kindness and support, delicate phrasings to avoid saying harsh things. One or two of us were particularly good at sarcasm. I enjoyed getting ready to go to group, racing down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from Laurel, where I lived, into the city, often to Jean’s or Shirley’s, but sometimes elsewhere. This was the one occasion in my week when I could dress with a slight, casually dramatic flare, fitting my idea of how a poet ought to dress when she was to be among other poets. With my costume I put on my persona, for inside I was not yet confident. We were feeling our way with one another. I was still a baby poet (as my flight of defensiveness in the quote below reveals). I am certain I brought some execrable poems. I was sometimes irritated and thought I would quit. One of my journal entries (November 1979) reads:

“Last night a poem I’d written ‘Party’ was severely criticized in my Capitol Hill group––primarily by Russell and Cary because of the tone of voice: that it seemed remote, authoritarian, arrogant, preachy. I was very defensive . . . out of the conviction that the tone . . . served to create exactly the distance that I, as the omniscient observer, wanted to create.”

I relished the gossip part of our evenings, the first twenty minutes or so: storytelling and peals of laughter as the birds we were flapped about not quite ready to settle down, awaiting last arrivals. Then, as if a meditation gong were struck, we hushed, began going round, kindly, firmly, sometimes letting each comment stand, but not always. In retrospect, I think we reached a harmony of views quickly when the work under consideration was strong, and we became a bevy of opining larks when the work was less than successful.

One particular moment returns to me often. It is summertime. Our group meets on the upstairs back covered porch of Shirley’s second floor apartment on A Street, near Eastern Market. The sun is setting. It is warm but there’s an evening breeze. Shirley has brought out a pitcher of lemonade and cheese and bread. There are locust trees, a few of the leaves already turning yellow. A dog barks, others answer, traffic purrs, and yet, suddenly a still world: politicians and lobbyists are off on vacation, bureaucrats and office workers have left the city for the day, and The Hill belongs to poetry and friendship, belongs to summer and sky and courtyards. Is it Shirley with her mild, genteel, subtly North Carolinian accent? Is it the delicate, serious voice of Jean? Mary Ann on a metaphysical rampage, burbling with lavish vivacité? Is Robert there that night? Or Russell, so suave and debonair, such a modest sophisticate? Hastings, grumblingly gracious, making humorous asides? I do not know. Only that my eyes brim with joy for here is the rarest of moments, a privileged communion. We are making poems to stay the chaos of our separate and collective existence, and we are loving and enjoying one another in the process.

The Capital Hill Poetry Group, circa 1982.  Back row, left to right: Shirley Cochrane, Margaritte Beckwith,
Gray Jacobik, and Mary Ann Larkin.  Front row: Chris Llewellyn, Jean Nordhaus, and Patric Pepper.

And oh the parties! Halloween parties at Mary Ann Larkin’s in Bethesda or at Jean’s on East Capitol Street when our children came, all of us in costume; receptions after a reading at the Folger or the LoC, or when we, as a group, gave a reading after our first anthology came out. Book parties, Christmas parties, parties for visiting poets, and once (and here is my most vivid memory) a hot tub party, but of this, I shall say no more. We were all serious poets, in the end, and loving friends. We could not discuss politics, for low-and-behold, there were actually two Republican poets among us. Therefore, we just liberated ourselves from that conversation.

There was the dreadful gloom of Peter’s dying, of his funeral and burial that bound us, and fears arose for this one or another of us or for a member’s child when in peril. We shared in the superb joy when two members, Mary Ann Larkin and Patric Pepper, fell in love and later married. I don’t remember the precise year, but there was another extraordinary gathering: a dinner celebration to honor the marriage of Robert Sargent and Mary Jane Barnett. Hastings Wyman and his then-wife, Mary, made Beef Wellington. It was a true banquet with members of the Capitol Hill Poetry Group and their companions toasting the bride and groom––a groom who had entered his eighth decade.

The Capital Hill Poetry Group at the wedding of Patric Pepper and Mary Ann Larkin, 1996. Back row: Keith Yancy,
Patric Pepper, Chris Llewellyn, Robert Sargent, and Irv Milowe. Front row: Gray Jacobik, Mary Ann Larkin,
Jean Nordhaus, Shirley Cochrane, and Elizabeth Sullam

Literary history? Or simply lives shared with the poem as the object before us, permitting so much to occur that otherwise would not have? From my current perspective in 2010, having left the DC poetry scene twenty-seven years ago, 1978 to 1982 seems a time of great literary fecundity, a time when a strong community began to cohere around The Folger’s Midday Muse series, William Meredith’s and Maxine Kumin’s consultancies at the Library of Congress, major conferences that brought Richard Howard, Harold Bloom, W. S. Merwin and other influential poets and critics to the city. Important readings where given by Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, Mona Van Duyn, Adrienne Rich and many other distinguished poets. Fine collections have been published comprised of poems first vetted at our meetings. A number of WWPH books were written by CHPG members (Cochrane’s Burnsite, Larkin’s The Coil of the Skin, Nordhaus’s A Bracelet of Lies, Pepper’s Temporary Apprehensions, Wyman’s Certain Patterns, and my Sandpaintings). I remember how we all sat in stunned silence when Chris Llewellyn first presented the dramatic monologues that would come to comprise her collection, Fragments From the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911, a collection that received the Walt Whitman Award.

One night Jean Nordhaus brought this poem to group (I am quoting only the first three stanzas, the whole is published in her chapbook, from SCOP Publications in College Park, MD, entitled A Language of Hands, 1982):


Kathryn Kuhlmann,
croons to
me alone
over night radio.

I hear her breath,
her teeth and tongue,
the shape and plan
in every syllable.
Christ wants to

give you a gift,
she cries, and she
gives me the word gift
all wrapped up
in a cribful of consonants.

Several Capitol Hill Poetry Group members from those early days (and later days) have continued writing, publishing, teaching and performing, and participate in both the solitary and community work that is literary life. All the members have published at least one collection, and some, several. The group has, of course, gone through the usual comings and goings that characterize any organized gathering of a period of thirty-five years. Remarkably the CHPG continues to meet most weeks. Jean Nordhaus, the founder, is there along with 70s member Mary Ann Larkin, and 80s members Patric Pepper and Ed Zimmerman. A few months ago I met Anne Woodworth, a current member, and Nan Meneely, a member from the 00s, who moved to Connecticut a couple of years ago, now lives near me and has become a friend.

These words from Jean’s poem sum up for me how I feel about the gift of words we gave one another in the years of our early poethoods. It wasn’t Christ or Kathryn Kuhlmann, but rather one another, our own vulnerabilities and experiments shared in a safe and yet rigorous place of mutual regard. The Capitol Hill Poetry Group gave me a place to stand among others who were as much in love with English as I was. It was a rare privilege.




Gray Jacobik lives in Deep River, Connecticut. Her collections include Brave Disguises (AWP Poetry Prize, Pittsburgh UP 2002), The Surface of Last Scattering (X. J. Kennedy Prize, Texas Review Press 1999) and The Double Task (Juniper Prize, University of Massachusettts Press, 1998). A memoir-in-verse, Little Boy Blue, is forthcoming from CavanKerry. Please visit Gray’s website and her Facebook page for additional information.



Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.