During the last ten years Beltway Poetry Quarterly edited by Kim Roberts has shown a passion for the history of DC poets, and its latest Langston Hughes Tribute is a good case in point. On Saturday February 5 at the AWP Conference and Book Fair Beltway Poetry Quarterly will be presenting a session called “Four by Four: Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City,” where Roberts in a panel with four others discuss four poets, pairing four contemporary poets with four historical ones. The AWP Conference and Book Fair traditionally holds sessions about contemporary poets, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly has a passion for history, so it came up with this intriguing topic for its panel.
glowbass.com asked Roberts, who will also be signing books at the Vrzhu Press table in the bookfair on Thursday at 1:00 pm, a few questions about DC poetic history and AWP.
glowbass.com: What intrigues you about DC poetic history?
Roberts: Since the city’s founding in 1800, DC has drawn poets whose personal writing issues have mirrored national concerns, making our literary community unusually engaged with politics and current events. DC poets have been diplomats (such as Joel Barlow and John Hay), lawyers (Francis Scott Key), journalists (Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce). They have had jobs in government agencies (John James Piatt) or at the Library of Congress (Paul Laurence Dunbar, Archibald MacLeish, Saint-John Perse). We also have a wide range of institutions that hire writers (museums, schools, national associations), and the range of US Poets Laureate, as well as our own city Laureate. The Harlem Renaissance got its start in DC (not in New York–despite the name that movement now goes by), which brought to our city Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and others.
glowbass.com: What makes contemporary poets different from their historical counterparts? How do the simlarities go beyond a sense of place?
Roberts: Like our forebears, DC poets use the backdrop of a major urban center to find ways to group together, to build circles of influence. Contemporary DC poets range widely in writing styles and influences. We have a healthy academic poetry scene, spurred by the presence of George Washington University, Georgetown, American, Catholic, UDC, the University of Maryland, and George Mason–but also by such institutions as the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library. We also have an active experimental poetry scene, building upon the Language Poets who were drawn to the city in the 70s, and the Dupont Circle School poets. Our spoken word poets are known across the US for innovations made in hip hop and slam poetry.
We are, in general, a very genial community–we support one another, come out to readings and performances, buy each other’s books. This is an exciting place to be a writer. And there are a range of wonderful small literary presses and journals located here.
glowbass.com: You’ve paired four contemporary DC area poets with four historical poets for your session on Saturday. What drew you to these particular poets and pairings?
Roberts: I selected four African American poets whose influence is still felt in DC, who deserve to be more widely known. Each represents a different time period. I will be presenting on Georgia Douglas Johnson, who ran a weekly writing salon in her home during the Harlem Renaissance period and afterwards (1920s-30s). Dan Vera will talk about Sterling A. Brown, a long-time Howard University professor and the first DC Poet Laureate (active in the 40s and 50s). Brian Gilmore will talk about May Miller, a teacher who helped to found the DC Commission on the Arts (60s and 70s). And Regie Cabico will present Essex Hemphill, a gay rights activist and performance poet (70s and 80s). Holly Bass will moderate.
Each contemporary poet will give biographical information and talk about how their historic poet has influenced the development of modern and contemporary poetry at large, and helped to sustain the local literary community. We will also talk about how these poets continue to provide models to us personally.
It should be an interesting discussion! I continue to read all these poets, and learn from them. All four contemporary poets have been published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, have contributed to our bi-annual literary history issues, and have guest edited special issues. These are some of my favorite contemporary writers.
glowbass.com: When you think of historical DC poets, who other than the four you will be discussing stands out and why?
Roberts: I read pretty widely, but I always seem to come back to Walt Whitman. He lived in DC for ten years, during and after the Civil War. I recently started re-reading Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. There are so many others who should be mentioned: Angelina Weld Grimke, Jean Toomer, Elinor Wylie, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Lee Lally, Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos, Anthony Hecht, Hilary Tham, Roland Flint, Gaston Neal, Larry Neal, Liam Rector. It’s such a rich history–it is both humbling and inspiring to read. Knowing these poets helps me feel I know my city more deeply.
For more information on Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Kim Roberts, or the AWP Conference and Book Fair, visit www.washingtonart.com/beltway/contents.html, www.kimroberts.org/ or www.awpwriter.org/ respectively.