Rick Peabody and Life in the Trenches
If you read the profile of Richard Peabody in today's Washington Post Sunday Magazine, you read the story of someone who has given far more to the Washington literary scene and its denizens than they can ever repay. (The article also contains a cameo appearance by Kim Roberts, of whom the same is true.) The most striking (and galling) portion of the profile, however, is at the beginning, when Rick is at the 15th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, waiting to hand out the awards to the short story contest winners, listening to the keynote speech by Jonathan Yardley, the longtime literary editor of The Washington Post.
"The fact of the matter is that the number of respected, certifiably serious novelists now at work within the District of Columbia is embarrassingly small," Yardley is quoted as saying. He then goes on to mock his city as a stagnant literary backwater, before ending with praise of a few "new" Washington writers. The punch line is that Rick Peabody has served as mentor to a good portion of those writers for decades, either as teacher, or publisher, or both.
Lora Engdahl, author of the profile, later quotes Rick as saying he and Kim "were just marveling at that disconnect between life as we see it in the trenches and lit life as Yardley sees it." To that I can only add, "Amen."
I'm no expert on Jonathan Yardley and his views on the Washington literary community, but I can assure him there is an enormous amount of extremely serious literary activity going on in DC and its suburbs. It does not normally reach the attention of the major media, because almost all of it occurs under the aegis of small presses and home-grown reading series. A great deal of it, pace Yardley, deals with everyday life in the nation's capital and its surrounding areas. I can't speak to fiction--like Kim Roberts, I work the poetry side of the street--but as the host of a reading series at IOTA Club and Cafe in Arlington for the past 17 years, I can attest to the existence of hundreds of accomplished poets in the DC area, Occasionally (and always deservedly) a Henry Taylor, a Jean Nordhaus or a Sandra Beasley might break through to a national audience, or an already established poet such as Lyn Lifshin might move here. But most are in the same trenches with Rick Peabody and Kim Roberts, forming small presses, organizing reading series and workshops, supporting each other's efforts, and writing largely because they can't NOT write. They'd love to break through the regional barrier, but for them the work--actually getting the words right on the page, and crafting something that someone, somewhere, might find resonant or memorable--is the true goal.
There are far too many of them for me to name here. I can only point to the IOTA reading last December, in which Kim Roberts hosted a reading for her "Full Moon on K Street" anthology of Washington, D.C.-based poems, at which the readers were Rick Peabody, Robert L. Giron, Francisco Aragon, Jose Padua and Kathi Morrison-Taylor. Two months before, Grace Cavalieri--who has mentored more poets and writers in the D.C. area than Rick Peabody and Kim Roberts combined--hosted an anthology reading at IOTA that included Karren Alenier, Cicely Angleton, Christina Daub, Nan Fry, Barbara Goldberg, Patricia Gray, Katherine J. Williams and Ernie Wormwood. Anne Caston was forced to bow out in October, and Kwame Alexander in December. What these people have done for poetry and fiction in Washington, both individually and taken as a whole, is incalculable. And I could name a hundred more off the top of my head.
I have nothing more to say, except that in a just world, Jonathan Yardley would be Rick Peabody's limo driver. Or maybe Kim Roberts', or Grace Cavalieri's.