Putting Poetry Readings Online
Web Journal Beltway Gives Voice to Washington Area Writers

By Anne Kenderdine
Special to The Washington Post

Thursday, March 22, 2001; Page DZ07

Ask Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht, 78, if he uses the Internet, and he'll admit that he doesn't own a computer and has never seen a Web site.

"I'm content to keep on the old way," said the former Georgetown University professor, a Washington resident.

Hecht's unfamiliarity with the medium didn't stop him from contributing six works to the first anniversary issue of Beltway, a free, online poetry journal of works by area writers. Kim Roberts, director of literary programs for Arlington's Cultural Affairs Division, created Beltway as a tool for local writers and a way to promote the varied voices of Washington's literary community.

"I believe strongly in sharing resources," Roberts said. She also brings poets to Arlington public schools and helps to place the works of Arlington poets on Metro buses in Northern Virginia. "I think the more writers are generous with each other, it benefits everyone."

A quarterly, publishing poets who live or work within the Capital Beltway, the journal has never featured a poet as widely published as Hecht. Now, it's the only way Hecht's fans can get a sneak preview of the poem "Saul and David" before it appears in his book, The Darkness and the Light, which Alfred A. Knopf Inc. expects to publish in June.

Hecht agreed to participate in Beltway even though the journal, funded by a $4,000 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, pays contributors only $150, far less than he earns when his works appear in publications such as the New Yorker magazine. Hecht has written seven books of poetry and received the Pulitzer in 1968 for his collection The Hard Hours.

"My publisher thought it was a good idea," Hecht said. "It broadens the audience's acquaintance with my works, and the more my audience broadens, the happier I will be."

Besides nabbing Hecht, Roberts has shaped a comfortable gathering place for such local poets as Alexandria resident Kwame Alexander and Arlington's Hilary Tham, who are featured in the current issue of Beltway. All poets in the current issue have published works, but Roberts doesn't consider that a requirement when she selects poets for the journal.

"She has a really wide set of contacts in this area, so she's been able to draw in poets," site designer Kathy Keler said. Keler gave rise to Beltway when she asked Roberts to add a literary component to her site, Washingtonart.com. The site averages 70 daily visits but increases to 90 when Roberts sends e-mail announcing each new Beltway issue.

With Roberts's touch, Keler said, Beltway poetry news "is just very, very thorough. It's just not that frequent to find someone who has that raw energy and cares about the raw details."

The Internet, associated with the informal grammar and abbreviated language of e-mail and chat rooms, might be considered an odd medium for poetry, an art that Roberts said requires a serious investment from readers to understand. But she noted that the journal is using the best features of the Web -- making writing easy to reach, reducing publishing and distribution costs and endlessly archiving poems so they'll never go out of print.

For each issue, Roberts selects two to six works by four or five poets, aiming for styles and backgrounds that are diverse yet complementary. Monthly, she updates the local readings and poetry resources: grants, artist residency programs, local organizations, regional small presses, conferences and retreats. Archives of previous issues are available on the site, along with biographies and links for any poet remotely connected to Washington, including Ezra Pound, a mental patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital from 1946 to 1958.

Lacking a central gathering place in the early 1960s, Washington's poetry community now includes hundreds of published poets, a dozen small poetry presses and readings every night of the week. Still, writers cluster in somewhat separate enclaves characterized by geography, race or verse style, said Merrill Leffler, a founder of The Writer's Center in Bethesda and Dryad, a small press that began as a literary magazine. There are the university crowd, poetry slam competitors, folks who journey to the Writer's Center or regularly attend readings at Iota on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington.

Beltway is unique in the way it "is bringing together voices in one place that you might never see at any of these places," said Leffler, once a Beltway guest editor. Unlike many editors whose magazine publishes merely one or two poems, Roberts selects several that really give a sense of the writer's work, Leffler added.

Because the journal is free, is on the Internet and doesn't promote one style of verse over another, Beltway is more accessible, current and inclusive than some other poetry periodicals, said Grace Cavalieri. She is the currently featured poet who originated "The Poet and the Poem," WPFW-FM's nationally syndicated show from 1977-97.

Beltway "lets people know what you are doing," she said. "By the time you get in print and by the time it gets in people's houses, it's woefully -- well, your material, you hardly recognize it. But this feels very immediate to me."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company