LITERARY ORGANIZATIONS ISSUE
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
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
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):
HOT MOTHER EVANGELIST
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.
in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.