Splendid Wakeup for Poetry in Washington DC
Washington, DC, and its suburbs have always been an active literary community. Among the many literary events that took place in September 2013--George Mason University's 15th annual Fall for the Book, the 13th annual National Book Festival on the National Mall, the first District of Literature sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress, the Dresser will discuss the kickoff event of a massive archival project at The George Washington University Special Collections of the Gelman Library called Splendid Wake. The goal of the project is to collect information about poets and poetry in the greater Washington, DC area from 1900 forward. GWU is hosting the Splendid Wake wiki.
Calling the event "A Splendid Wake," three panels of sixteen prominent DC area poets convened September 25 to recount a partial history of poets, publishing, and literary happenings. Full disclosure: the Dresser was on the steering committee with Myra Sklarew and Jean Nordhaus as well as one of the panels. Myra Sklarew and Elisavietta Ritchie were the catalysts for the project, which began June 27, 2012.
In truth, the program was a chaotic assembly of literary people--some historians like Christopher Sten, Kim Roberts, E. Ethelbert Miller, Rick Peabody, some poetry entrepreneurs (all risk, no money) like Kim Roberts, E. Ethelbert Miller, Rick Peabody, Grace Cavalieri, Karren Alenier, Merrill Leffler, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Sarah Browning, Teri Cross Davis, some poets from specific communities like Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Dolores Kendrick, Brian Gilmore, Terence Winch. As seen from the repetition of names, the panelists did not neatly fit any one category and neither did the three panels.
Did the panelists represent everyone in the Washington, DC area from 1900 forward? Hardly. The event was barely the tip of the iceberg. Did the panels have one common theme? Not even close. The format for the evening was that each panel was chaired by one of the participating panelists who has acumen in leading live literary programs.
Each panelist was asked to write out a five-minute statement that was loosely based on a list assigned by Myra Sklarew to that specific panelist. In any case, panelists were told to stick to five minutes. Grace Cavalieri, who chaired the second panel, the panel in which the Dresser participated, sent out an email to her panel telling them she was bringing her lobster hammer which she would use if anyone exceeded the five minutes. Cavalieri, who is the host of "The Poet and the Poem," which ran for 20 years on Pacifica Radio WPFW in Washington, DC, and now is often uploaded to National Public Radio from the Library of Congress, is radio impresario nonpareil. Her programs are a showcase of witty conversations that she steers adeptly.
Did the panelists write their five-minute statements? Did they stick to the five-minute limitation? Did Grace Cavalieri bring her lobster gavel? Well no, but in spite of the chaos, the evening was a tremendous success. Word got around, including a blog post by Ron Charles of the Washington Post, accruing a standing room only audience. In spite of some panelists running over their time with their captivating anecdotes and details about the DC literary scene, the entire event scheduled for 90 minutes only kept the hard-working Special Collections librarian Jennifer King for an extra half hour beyond closing time of her part of the library.
An enthusiastic Washington, DC government counsel member the Honorable Jim Graham participated and read a brief excerpt from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, pointing out that Whitman spent years in the Nation's Capital as a Civil War nurse. What a breath of fresh air to have an elected official who was whole-heartedly supporting the cause of the evening instead of stumping.
The handsome twelve-page brochure shepherded by poet Anne Becker through her residency at Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center was not only graphically impressive with its stylized rooster crowing the name of the event but also an informative keepsake. Besides an explanation about what the project covers, the URL for the wiki, the outline of what the panelists might discuss, and the panelist bios, the booklet tied with a string (no staples if you please) contained four pages of dead poets associated with the greater Washington, DC area. The names of the dead poets with their birth and death years were grouped by ten-years periods. For example, the list began with 1870 to 1879 and included: James Weldon Johnson (b. 1871), Paul Lawrence Dunbar (b. 1872), Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (b. 1875), Isabel Weld Perkins-Anderson (b. 1876), Natalie Clifford Barney (b. 1876), and Don Marquis (b. 1878). The list concluded with Brendan Ogg (1989-2010). It's undoubtedly an incomplete list but it is a start.