poetry quarterly

10th anniversary

Current Newspapers
January 13, 2010

New collection puts D.C. in verse
by Linda Lombardi

When you think of poetry, you might conjure imagery of the glory of nature. Does it count if it's a full moon on K Street?

The new anthology edited by poet and playwright Kim Roberts answers that question with an emphatic yes. "Full Moon on K Street" is a collection of 101 poems that portray our city in many different ways, celebrating the built environment and how we live in it.

If you love D.C., even if you haven't read a poem since high school, you'll find that the book is full of intriguing persepectives on familiar places and events.

One poem is about the painting of Marilyn Monroe on the side of a building at Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue; another is set at a liquor store at the intersection of New York Avenue and North Capitol Sreet and asks, "Can you spare a quarter for a lucid moment?"

Everyday moments in the poems include recognizable details like getting on the Metro at the Van Ness station, and, in more than one, the sound of summer in sweltering D.C.: the humming and roaring of air conditioners small and large.

The poems were all written between 1950 and the present, but the history of the city is a constant presence. Roberts, who's lived in D.C. for almost 25 years, has done research and given tours about the homes of famous local writers, and says the city's past permeates her thinking.

"Driving down the street I think, that's where Zora Neale Hurston lived, that's where Walt Whitman's boarding house was," she said.

Many of the poems evoke what Roberts calls this "layered sense of place." One, called "Ode to the Black Nationalist Pharoah Head of Georgia Avenue," laments the loss of a decoration on a closed bookstore; it makes Roberts think of "the way locals give directions like, turn left where such-and-such used to be."

Another contribution that was written especially for the book tells of author Myra Sklarew's childhood home in a part of Southeast that was bulldozed for redevelopment. "There's no trace of it now except in communal memory," said Roberts. "I wanted to make sure I included poems that were about gentrification, what's torn down, what's built up."

Politics, of course, is also featured, both directly in subject matter and indirectly, such as the day jobs of some of the poets, like former congressman and five-time presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. And for newcomers—or those who want to send the book to folks back home
the introduction to each poem explains the local references.

But more generally, the book shows that even poetic metaphors can be based entirely in the urban experience. One example is the way Sterling A. Brown, first poet laureate of D.C., expressed the beauty of a woman in one poem:

"The last time I saw Annie on the avenue,
She held up traffic for an hour or two.
The green light refused, absolutely, to go off at all:
And the red light and the amber nearly popped the glass,
When Annie walked by, they came on so fast,
Then stayed on together for twenty minutes after she went past;
And it took three days for to get them duly timed again.
Even so, they palpitated every now and then."

"We have this sort of funny romantic ideal that poets are living these solitary lives out in the wilderness and writing about nature," said Roberts, who lives in the Park View neighborhood (two blocks from the Petworth Metro, but, she says, "every time I say I live in Petworth, Jim Graham yells at me"). "But statistically, most of us are urban, most of us are part of literary communities."

And in fact, the book celebrates this literary community as well as the city itself. Roberts compiled the anthology to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the online poetry journal that she edits, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, which featuers only poets who live or work inside the Beltway. She says she wondered at first if it was odd for a journal to be so narrowly focused, "but it's worked really well
it's helped people connect with one anther. We have an incredibly rich diverse literary community to draw on."

There are poetry anthologies about other cities, but Roberts found that there had never been one about D.C., which she said has been slighted in other ways as well. For instance, she bemoans the name of the "Harlem Renaissance""People think that it happened in New York, but the movement started in D.C."

Roberts hopes this anthology will help to change this one-sided view of the city. "We have more of a reputation as a political center than a literary center," she says, "but we are a major literary center, so we need to claim it."

Plan B Press released "Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC" on Monday. Readings will take place throughout 2010; see http://washingtonart.com/beltway/tenth.html for more information.