Washington, DC | 31 October 2008
"That Harried Air: Poetry in Washington, D.C."
“So strange, reading poetry in D.C. I just come here to get arrested.”
—Nick Flynn at the Folger Poetry Series, September 2008
Washington, D.C. has almost 600,000 residents, a population that jumps to one million on a busy commuter workday. It should come as no surprise that such a big pond has an abiding poetic heritage. Walt Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington and took a job in the Army Paymaster’s Office, tending to Civil War soldiers and publishing his elegies to Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Langston Hughes, working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel, was discovered by Vachel Lindsay after slipping “The Weary Blues” under the poet’s dinner plate. Sterling Brown’s future as a professor of poetry seems predestined from his birth on the campus of Howard University. Our nation’s capital houses the Poet Laureate—a conspicuous title if ever there was one—drawing scribes such as Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Randall Jarrell, who later immortalized the diplomacies and tensions of his temporary home in “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.”
These anecdotes share the thread of great talent both nourished and tempered by labor. The poet as nurse; the poet as waiter; the poet as bureaucrat (consider the dowdy roots of the “Poet Laureate” title, which was originally “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”). The Washington poet is a working poet. The writers I know struggle and juggle artistic calling with the demands of parenting, lawyering, Department of Whatever-ing, bartending, and teaching. A friend often taxis from his work on the Hill to catch a Folger reading, knowing he’ll have to taxi straight back again as Congress marches steadily on towards midnight. On a good day, our insistence on making time for poetry demonstrates fierce, inspiring devotion. On a bad day we are an exhausted lot, cursing the delays of the Red Line and straggling in just as the reading ends.
Still, we keep the creative fires burning, maintain roofs over our heads, and put that pen to the page. We scrunch down in one of the old, smoky couches at Tryst with the latest Poet Lore, or we draft over a pot of “World Peace” at Teaism, or we debate what makes good spoken word at Busboys & Poets. We keep going. When shaping criteria to winnow down the large number of people eligible for inclusion, I decided to honor poets using three principles. One, the poet has volunteered significant service to the D.C. arts scene. Two, the poet has a physical presence in the community—each has a face I see at readings (and usually, a city proper address), and a long-term commitment to Washington. Three, the poet writes good work, work that I am excited to curate and present to the LOCUSPOINT audience. At the end of the day, that’s what matters the most. Though I’m thrilled with the final result, I confess agony at some of the de facto omissions. I repeat, 600,000 residents. Forgive me.
The odds of ever finding all of these poets in same room room? Minimal. That is a practical outcome of capturing the diversity of Washington’s literati. Plus, the truth is that fragmentation is a core aspect of our literary scene. Vivid fragments, to be sure, a veritable stained glass window’s worth. Richard Peabody—a wonderful poet, editor, and anthologizer—once told me about the days when poets from different stylistic circles would meet a few times each year to iron out a universal and un-conflicted event schedule. That’s Beltway culture for you: even the reading calendar requires a caucus. Perhaps our split personality results from the fact that so many of our institutions double as national hubs. “Local” events this year ranged from the 2008 National Book Festival (about as official as official gets) to the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, a grassroots effort organized by D.C. Poets Against the War. Our museums are the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art, not only local but free—take that, New York City.
Ah, my hometown pride begins to shine through. I complain about Washington: our swampy weather, our political wonkiness, our penchant for the question “What do you do?” (followed, if you answer “I’m a poet,” by “So what do you actually do?”) But this is my city. It was my city when I was a kid trying to climb the uneven-brick walls of my father’s Georgetown law office, and it was my city when I was a poor MFA student, living in a fishbowl studio overlooking a gas station. It’s a city I’m proud to share with E. Ethelbert Miller, Rod Smith, Maureen Thorson, Michael Gushue, Derrick Weston Brown, Rosemary Winslow, Natalie E. Illum, and now you. Get to reading.
SANDRA BEASLEY won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for her book Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe. Her poems have also been featured in Verse Daily, SLATE, The Believer, AGNI online, 32 Poems, Blackbird, and the Black Warrior Review Chapbook Series. Awards for her work include the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and fellowships to Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony and VCCA. She lives in Washington, DC, where she is an editor for The American Scholar and a contributor to the Washington Post Sunday Magazine.