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
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
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
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
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.