The Washington Post Weekend Section
June 18, 2004


Ready for Rhyme Time

By Mary Quattlebaum

A packed slam. A rustic cabin. The Library of Congress.

All of these places host poetry in Washington.

Verse has long found a home here, even amongst political prosing. Our second president, John Adams, advocated carrying "a poet in your pocket." Walt Whitman wrote and nursed the Civil War wounded in the shadow of the Capitol. In early Washington, though, most poetry was found in books.

Not anymore. These days, poetry is on the streets, in the parks, in colleges, coffeehouses and embassies. You can hear it murmured, shouted and sung by professors, lawyers, ballplayers and teens.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, calls the current scene exciting. Across the country and locally, "multiple types of poetry are being written, from the highly literate to forms of popular entertainment," he said from his office in downtown Washington. "Many different styles coexist."

This was not always the case. In 1991, Gioia, an accomplished poet, literary critic and translator, set the poetry pot to bubbling nationwide with an essay, "Can Poetry Matter?," published in the Atlantic Monthly. He further explored the topic in a book by the same name the next year. In both, Gioia addressed what he perceived as poetry's increasing insulation in hundreds of university creative-writing programs. He called for its return to a broader audience through more public offerings, a mixing with other art forms and teaching -- especially at the high-school level -- that emphasized poetry performance as well as writing and analysis. This didn't mean wresting poetry from academe but making it more visible beyond those halls. (The Washington area itself harbors graduate programs at George Mason, George Washington and American universities, the University of Maryland and the  D.C. branch of the Johns Hopkins University.) "When I was a kid, my mother used to recite poems by Poe, Kipling and Longfellow all the time," Gioia said. "I grew up believing poetry was a common pleasure of humanity, not something highfalutin'."

Thirteen years after his essay, Gioia notices poetry available for more people. With the poet laureate based at the Library of Congress, Washington has been uniquely situated to help that happen. Recent laureates have embraced projects that connect poetry with folks from all walks of life. And at the grass-roots level, increasing numbers of readings at bookstores and cafes have joined long-running public programs at the Library of Congress (since the 1940s), the Folger Shakespeare Library (since 1970) and Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park (since 1976).

Why does poetry matter? What draws people to this word package of image, pattern and sound?

"People hunger for memorable language, especially in this technical age," Gioia said. "When we're in a serious personal or global situation, we often reach for the wisdom and consolation of poetry."

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.
-- William Carlos Williams, 1954

At Chapters, A Literary Bookstore, co-owner Terri Merz has seen that "hunger for memorable language" surface around world issues. "After 9/11, more people came in looking for poetry," she said. "They remembered how certain poems can speak to the heart."

For 19 years, poetry has been front and center at the cozy independent, now in its third downtown Washington location. Popular "touchstones" for people, Merz said, include Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop and W.B. Yeats. Homer's "Iliad" rested here long before inspiring this summer's hit movie "Troy." Chapters hosts readings by poets of national reputation, including locals Michael Collier and Anthony Hecht, and oversees a lively discussion group called the Variable Foot Poetry Salon.

Chapters also, quite literally, brings the world of poetry to Washington. Merz's belief that "poetry provides a glimpse into the soul of a country" sparked the first D.C. International Poetry Festival in November 2001, with poets participating from around the world. The readings and panels proved so well attended that Merz and fellow owner Steve Moyer started a foundation, Wordfest, to continue the two-day festival as an annual event. In these times of war and greater global connection, Merz sees Washingtonians' interest in international poetry as increasing since that first festival. (For details on this year's festival, check www.chaptersliterary.com in September.) The NEA, too, is creating cross-cultural bonds through poetry. With family ties to the Mexican American community, Gioia recognizes a "need for more literary programs for the Spanish-speaking community," he said. Partnering with Mexico and various embassies, the NEA plans both a bilingual poetry anthology and readings, the first of which featured Jose Emilio Pacheco, Pura Lopez Colome  and Tedi Lopez Mills here in April.

I sound my barbaric yawp . . .
-- Walt Whitman, 1855

Filled chairs, packed stairs. Applause, groans, boisterous cheers. The crowd of 500 was hot . . . for poetry.

And the eighth  annual D.C. slam party gave it to them. At the Borders Books & Music on L Street NW  last month, two teams faced off. Teenagers from the District and San Francisco vs. established poets.  Pushcart Prize-winner Toi Derricotte shared an homage to a fellow poet. Daisy Zuniga, 15, rapped a prayer. American University poetry professor Cornelius Eady played with the blues. Malcolm Shanks, 13, explored cause and effect. Washington Wizards basketball player Etan Thomas waded in with his poem about America. But it was Nathan Graber, 14, who brought down the house with a hilarious political rhyme.

Five judges rated each participant in this good-natured literary competition, a fundraiser for DC WritersCorps, which brings poetry programs to D.C. public middle schools. The winners? The young word Turks.

"It was great," said Malcolm, beaming. "At first I was really nervous, but then I heard everyone clapping."

"Those trophies go into school cases beside the basketball trophies," said Kenneth Carroll, director of DC WritersCorps.  "It's wonderful to see kids applauded for their poetry, for using words well."

Now in its 10th year, DC WritersCorps seeks "to connect young people to reading and writing in ways that are fun, that are not tied to grades and the curriculum," Carroll said. Sponsored by Borders, Freddie Mac and other corporations, the program places poet-teachers weekly in District classrooms, organizes regular slams (friendly poetry performance competitions) between schools and gives teenagers a chance to run their own radio show, "2kNation," Sunday evenings on WPFW (89.3 FM). "These kids are telling the stories of their communities," said Mary Ann Brownlow, marketing manager for Borders. And people are listening. Last year publishing giant HarperCollins released "Paint Me Like I Am," a collection of poems by WritersCorps teenagers. To date, the book has sold more than 10,000 copies, making it "something of a poetry bestseller," Brownlow said.

The woodsy setting for the Miller Cabin series begs for a few Whitmanesque yawps. Since 1976, evening readings have been held close to the small dwelling, donated to the National Park Service by Joaquin Miller, a late 19th-century poet and naturalist. Occasionally, poems may even be punctuated by bird twitter or the roar of a passing motorcycle, said Karren Alenier, president of Word Works, a Washington-based press that oversees both the Miller Cabin and Cafe Muse series.

Neither twitter nor roar mars a new anthology, "Cabin Fever" (Word Works), drawn from readings since 1984 and edited by longtime series director Jacklyn Potter, with Dwaine Rieves and Gary Stein. According to Potter, about 80 percent of the poems were penned by locals, thus providing a range of Washington's poetic styles and voices. The series celebrates the new volume Tuesday with readings by Michael Davis, Patricia Garfinkel and Howard Gofreed.

Operating since 1974, Word Works publishes poets from across the country but showcases locals such as Hilary Tham and Miles David Moore through its Capital Collection imprint. The press's biggest accomplishment, Alenier said, has been "the sense of community created [through the publications and reading series]. Poets really support one another in Washington."

Soul clap its hands and sing . . .
-- William Butler Yeats, 1928

In his groundbreaking essay, literary critic Gioia suggested enlivening the contemporary scene by mixing poetry with music, dance and drama.

Word Works president Alenier has been doing just that since the late 1970s through poems, evolving into an opera, on modernist master Gertrude Stein. Said Alenier, author of four poetry collections: "I love exploring the musicality of Stein, who was ahead of her time in experiments with language and sound." With music by William Banfield and directed by Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theatre, "Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On" may soon be ready for its world premiere, Alenier said.

Cornelius Eady, an associate literature professor, said he "strives for an element of singing" while carefully crafting for image and form. Informed by the African American musical tradition (blues, jazz), his award-winning poems range from a joyful homage to Thelonius Monk to a searing probe of a black criminal psyche. Eady also enjoys exploring the dramatic possibilities of verse with jazz artist Diedre Murray. Their musical theater pieces "Running Man" and "Brutal Imagination" were, respectively, short-listed for the Pulitzer in drama and garnered an Oppy Award for best first play by an American playwright.  "Theater is very collaborative," Eady said. "I've found that it opens up new ideas and enriches the poetry."

Theater also plays a part in the "spoken word" type of poetry reading, according to DC WritersCorps' Carroll. "Spoken word involves working on your verbal presentation of a poem, to lift it above a regular reading," Carroll said. "It's not quite performance but definitely more polished than mumbling your poems."  Said Carroll: "These readings are fun, energetic, often political. They attract big crowds. But it's still important to start with a strong poem, one that works well on the page." Members of the DC/Baltimore Slam Team, which competes nationally, often appear at weekly slams at Teaism in Penn Quarter. 

 . . . poetry = the best words in their best order.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1827

A simple definition, a monumental task. Folks eager to pen poems can learn more about that "best order" from classes through area arts and adult education programs as well as pricier university courses. The Writer's Center offers numerous workshops for all ages and writing levels at its Bethesda headquarters; locations in Arlington, Leesburg and Queen Anne's County, Md.; and even through the Internet. In 28 years, the center has grown from a small group of founders to 2,800 members attracted by the book gallery, workshops, readings -- and fellowship with other writers.

"Growing up in Washington, I didn't know any poets," said Carroll, who teaches regularly at the center. "As a kid I used to tape my stories to the wall, where my family would read them -- but I never thought of becoming a writer." Now this widely published poet encourages his students to revise stringently and read widely as ways of "becoming the best writers they can be."

Merz, at Chapters, credits poet laureates with helping to educate the public about poetry. While National Poetry Month, established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, has certainly increased poetry's visibility in April, she believes the laureate has a profound national impact throughout the year. In addition to organizing Library of Congress readings, many have spearheaded wide-reaching programs -- Robert Hass  with his "River of Words" competitions, Robert Pinsky with a "favorite poems" Web site -- that remain ongoing. (The laureate's term runs from October to May; a new one will be announced this summer.)

There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
-- Mark Strand, 1968

These days a tasty verse morsel is just a mouse click away, thanks to Beltway, an online journal founded four years ago by Washington poet Kim Roberts. The journal offers new work by area poets, a voluminous section on local readings and extensive information on grants, awards and regional "pobiz" resources. (Access through www.washingtonart.com, click on "Beltway.") Editing a cyberjournal gives her amazing freedom, Roberts said. "Because I'm not limited by space, funding and distribution issues, I can add and update relatively easily and make the whole thing available widely -- globally! -- for free," she said. Roberts also had the flexibility to solicit essays on prominent poets of the past: Whitman, Sterling Brown, Roland Flint. "I wanted to help preserve Washington's poetry history, even in a small way, and open it to others," she said.

For verse on the page, readers can turn to Edward Hirsch's weekly column in The Washington Post's Book World. And the semiannual Poet Lore, based at the Writer's Center, publishes poetry, reviews and essays. At 115 years, it is the country's oldest ongoing literary magazine. But oldest doesn't mean old-fashioned, cautioned co-editor E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet and director of Howard University's African American Resource Center. "We recently redid the cover design," he said, "and started a new feature" whereby an established poet introduces a talented newcomer. Miller also guest-curated "All the Stories Are True," an exhibit on display through Dec. 31 at the Anacostia Museum in Southeast Washington. Through books, drafts, videotaped interviews and memorabilia, visitors can glimpse the writing process and personalities of nine prominent African American writers, including locals Carroll, Eloise Greenfield, a children's poet, and Dolores Kendrick, the District's poet laureate.

What makes the Washington poetry scene unique? "It's surprising and ever changing," said editor Roberts. "This is a very literate and verbal city, with numerous writers from strikingly different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, races and sexual orientations. I love being connected to that through Beltway. I suppose it's why so many [local poets] teach, give readings, organize programs -- we want to contribute to the world of poetry."

 

Mary Quattlebaum writes frequently for Weekend. "Family Reunion," her children's book of poems, was published this year for National Poetry Month.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company