poetry quarterly

10th anniversary

"Full Moon on K Street," An Anthology of Poetry About DC, is Published

by Dan Zak
Washington Post
Sunday, February 7, 2010

 


Chicago has Carl Sandburg's fog, coming on little cat feet. Los Angeles has Bukowski's drunks, sleeves soaking up spilt booze. New York has as many poets as rats. Washington has . . . what, exactly? Its reputation in popular poetry is that of a way station for gestating genius, a quarry of one-liners chipped into monuments, the coronation spot of a poet laureate who lives elsewhere.

Quote a line from a poem that captures the capital as a place to live.

Can't.

Couldn't, until now.

Full Moon on K Street—the first anthology of modern poetry to be wholly for, about and by current and former Washington residents—teems with poets who've distilled the region's lifeblood into verse over the past 50 years. The piece on Page 4 is by Eugene J. McCarthy, who managed to find poetry in one of the region's least poetic landmarks:


Detached by Saarinen or God
from all coordinates,
it sits like a gull upon water
defying the subtle Archimedean rule.


It's a chilly rhapsody on Dulles International Airport, written by the late senator from Minnesota. McCarthy's four stanzas are the first steps on a 101-poem walking tour of Washington in verse form, guided by a woman who lives in a blond-brick rowhouse on a serene side street in Petworth.

Kim Roberts makes the 10-foot commute from her bedroom to her office and, enclosed by walls painted bubble-gum pink and thatched with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, she edits the Beltway Poetry Quarterly, an online journal she created a decade ago to plumb the city's rich literary history and showcase its established and emerging poets. She has put together Full Moon on K Street, Beltway's first venture onto the printed page, a celebration of its 10th anniversary, and an emblem of Roberts's passion for her city—borne out by locals like Essex Hemphill, the cultural activist who was raised in Southeast, died in 1995 from complications of AIDS and calls out from the grave on Page 72:


I live in a town
where pretense and structure
are devices of cruelty.
A town bewitched
by mirrors, horoscopes
and blood.


* * *

"D.C. does a bad job of claiming what our stories are," says Roberts, 48, sitting barefoot on an oriental rug, silver bangles clinking around her wrist, the morning sunshine bouncing off the walls of her bedroom. "So we end up retelling the story of our central identity as a political city and the seat of the federal government, over and over again, and that's what people see."

A native of Charlotte, Roberts moved to the District in 1987 to be a part-time adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. She fell in love with the city by digging through its layers of literary history, founding the quarterly, chasing grants to keep it alive, designing walking tours that resurrect the Washington of writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and coordinating the citywide Walt Whitman festival in 2005.

Roberts has a reputation for being animated, orderly and exacting, and these traits lurk between the lines in Full Moon on K Street, which involved a year and a half of pruning the number of poems, of scrambling to obtain permission to print the more obscure, orphaned works.

"Her contributions are vast," says Dupont Circle resident Richard McCann, an area native, professor, prize-winning writer and board member of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. "No one has been quite as devoted to discerning and then establishing the literary history of Washington."

Roberts has published her own poetry in 46 states and six countries. She co-edits the Delaware Poetry Review, writes freelance and teaches memoir classes to senior women in Bethesda. She spirits herself to artist colonies for month-long writing stints. She collects antique eyewash cups, arranged on a shelf in her bathroom, and musty stereographs, which are wedged into a box on the bookshelves. She has an interest in the sundry, the particulate, the odd and the Internet, which she views as a tillable terrain on which poetry thrives. There is something sweet, though, about having a physical book that people can keep, that can accumulate dust, that can testify to the grit and pulse of a metropolis over 50 years.

"We have this romantic ideal throughout America of poets writing about nature, poets going off by themselves in a pastoral setting," Roberts says. "But it's actually not true of most American poets' real lives. And what I tried to do is capture poets responding to an urban setting, to being in community, all of us pushed together in a city."


* * *

The poets in Full Moon on K Street sniff the dread in the jungle of medical offices at 18th and K. They listen for murmurs of the past along storied Fourth Street SW. They notice the crouch of the old Universal Artificial Limb Co. in Silver Spring. They feel the itinerant ache at the Greyhound bus station in Northeast.

"I was just starting to get a sense of different quadrants of the city, especially in this place where people depart from," says writer-professor Kyle Dargan, 29, who penned "Boarding Points: Bus Station, NE DC" soon after he moved here four years ago. "There's different textures to different kinds of travel, a tension between quadrants of the city that's layered at the station."

A year ago he bought a home in the Fort Dupont Park neighborhood of Southeast, which has inspired him to write a series of poems about riding the U8 bus to Minnesota Avenue.

Last month, in the wood-paneled exhibition hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Dargan gabs with fellow poets and readers during a joint anniversary party for Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the Bethesda-based journal Poet Lore, which turned 120 this past year. People chatter in the dimness, clutching Moleskines and nibbling on brownies. At least a dozen poets circulate, signing one another's copies. One is Roberts's housemate, Regie Cabico, a champion slam poet.

"I keep joking that the house will be a historical literary site years from now, where people will stop and say, 'Kim Roberts and Regie Cabico resided here,' " says Cabico, whose poem in the anthology describes the P Street bar Halo (now called Mova) as "lit like the inside of a Xerox machine."

Washington has seen its small-press and self-publication movements, its spoken-word renaissance, its uniting of activist poets in the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, and the anchoring of reliable venues like Busboys and Poets and Beltway Poetry Quarterly—these separate communities, the old and young, the living and the dead, the scholarly and the streetwise, have a place in the anthology.

"We're living in a historical place in historical times in a city that monumentalizes itself," says District writer-editor Dan Vera, 44, as the reception wanes and poets wrap themselves in scarves. "Sometimes you feel trapped in amber, but you try to catch the normal in poetry."

As she ties up small talk with guests, Roberts has other projects on her mind, like putting down a literary history of Washington in book form in a couple years. But first, 1,500 copies of Full Moon on K Street will go out, perhaps answering for some people the question "Washington has . . . what, exactly?"

It has Reed Whittemore's "gray facades/Of pillar and portal."

It has Sterling A. Brown's swarmed alleys and deserted pool rooms along Florida Avenue.

It has May Miller's "Cool magnificence of space."

It has Betty Parry's red and yellow roses in a back yard in Brookland.

 

Copyright, Washington Post, 2010