Thursday, November 6, 2014
The Unlikely History of Poetry at Noon at the Library of Congress, (1994-2011)
You might think that the Poetry at Noon (PAN) reading series that ran for nearly 18 years at the Library of Congress came about as a way to accomplish the following goals, in effect, to:
Bring nationally known poets to read in Washington at noon.
Introduce not as widely known poets to the public, including those from other parts of the nation and abroad.
Provide a daytime event for those who could not come downtown in for evening readings at the Library.
Allow excellent poets who hadn’t had the luck or opportunity to publish a book, to have a chance to read at the Library of Congress.
Provide access to poetry for daytime workers in metro DC.
Entice people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a poetry reading to attend PAN because its theme intrigued them.
Offer a brief lunchtime respite from fast-breaking events in Washington, D.C.
Allow the Library setting to provide a serene place in which art and scholarship could combine to enhance human understanding.
Contribute to literary art and creativity in the nation’s capital.
Give tourists and visitors a preview of what the Poetry and Literature Center has to offer the nation.
Give poetry a presence in the midst of daily politics.
Well, not exactly. All that would come later. Here is what actually happened.
Also, at about that time to meet other poets, I was taking a free Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop at night. The workshop, taught by visiting writer Linda McCarriston, was at George Washington University. Nineteen ninety-three was coming to an end very soon, and Valentine’s Day 1994 might offer a perfect time to have a reading of love poems. Who wouldn’t want to hear some love poems, and who had better love poems to read than Linda McCarriston and a few other poets I knew or had heard of.
I checked this pie-in-the-sky idea with the Poetry Office and the head of Scholarly Programs under whose aegis the Poetry Office resided. So, before you could say Thomas Sterns Eliot, I was distributing flyers for a noontime reading featuring McCarriston, Nan Fry and Martin Galvin. The turnout was astonishing because the audience was virtually ready made and included: the Jenny Moore workshoppers, Nan Fry’s fellow poets, colleagues and students from the Corcoran, and Martin Galvin’s broad coterie of people who knew and loved him from his English classes at Walt Whitman High School and his published poetry. An additional few people who had seen the flyer or read about the event in the newspaper and were curious and were present. Good. The reading was a success. Now I could move on to other things—except that people kept asking when the next reading would be. The last thing I wanted to do was add a reading series to all the other things I had to do, but the questions kept coming and I decided, oh, what the heck, another reading or two before summer might be fun. How about one for the Vernal Equinox?
Judith McCombs, Miles Moore and James Hopkins agreed to read poems about “Renewal” on March 21, 1994 in celebration of the equinox and the coming of spring.
The next idea for a reading came from curator David Kresh in the Main Reading Room,
because people often asked him how to find things they could read at weddings. In the poetry world, that type of poem is called an epithalamium. However, for general clarity, “Readings for Weddings” became the theme of the next noontime event. Guest poets Geraldine Connolly and Sydney March read their selections on June 1, 1994.
(One of the guidelines for PAN from the very beginning was that guest poets should read not just their own poems, but also poems by others, living or dead, classic to contemporary, on the specified theme.)
After these first three readings, I gave in to the idea of a series and so found myself designing it along the lines of the ideas listed at the beginning of this article. Soon, I issued guidelines and a call for manuscripts to find poets who wished to read on the specified and varied themes for the coming year, i.e., fall and spring of different years.
In 1994-95, the first PAN reading of the fall occurred in September and had a back-to-work theme, or to broaden it, a “Work” theme. Chris Llewellyn, Davi Walders and Celia Brown were the guest poets. Continuing with the idea of seasonal themes, the next reading, “Halloween,” was presented by Barbara Lefcowitz, Stacy Tuthill and Sunil Freeman. December featured a “Family Gatherings” theme for the holidays. Grace Cavalieri, Sarah Cotterill and Tod Ibrahim brought that first calendar year of PAN to a resounding and cheerful close with the family get-together theme.
During this time, PAN had fully established itself, and when fall came, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Henry Taylor read with Dan Johnson for the “Seasonal Change” September 1995 event. Upon opening the “Discovery and Imagination” reading that fall, I chose a quotation from Mary Oliver: “The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese--harsh and exciting....” and introduced guest readers Rod Jellema, Tina Daub, and Joe Davis. Of Davis I remember saying, “…a graduate of Harvard with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan, he has been a journalist for 20 years--8 years with the Congressional Quarterly--now with the Environmental Health Center--where he is a senior writer. Although his articles have been published in 110 newspapers, his poems have not been published.”
I felt at the time and still feel that there are poets out there busy with keeping a roof over their head and doing worthwhile remunerative work but who inevitably haven’t enough time to market their poetry, though they produce excellent poems. To give the public a chance to meet and hear those poets was one of the reasons that PAN existed. As Halloween approached, Maya Peretz, James Griffin and Claudia Annis read poems about “Spirits Beyond This Realm.”
In 1996-97, PAN returned in February with “Love Poems” read by Gregory Orr and John Lee, followed by “Humor” with Reuben Jackson and Laurie Stroblas, then “Blossoms and Sensory Delights” with Laura Fargas, Martha Sanchez-Lowery, and Natasha Saje. Also, in the spring, Poet Laureate Robert Hass held the Watershed: Writers, Nature and Community conference, April 15-20, and I was able to snag Pattiann Rogers and other poets for PAN readings that week. In the fall, 1996, Robert Lauder, Tom Layesman and Michelle Arku read poems about “School Days and Childhood,” Myra Sklarew, Maxine Combs and Terry Winch courageously took on “Fear” for a near-Halloween reading on October 29, and Hilary Tham, Elisavietta Ritchie and Richard Peabody brought “Reconciliations” home for the holidays in their performance.
As 1997 began the fin de siècle was upon us. Though not especially decadent, “Love Poems” fit the bill. Lori Sang, Kenneth Carroll and Gretchen Colligan read a sexy and rewarding Valentine’s group of poems. Later that spring, Hiram Larew, Elisabeth Murawski and Sharon Negri brought “Poetry of Place” alive, and the whole idea of “Flight” lifted off with poems and selections about that subject from pilot and poet, Ann Darr, plus Mary Ann Daly, and, also Angelin Donohue (whose Dad was a pilot).
In September, the “Poems for Children” reading was opened by 12-year-old Elizabeth Logan, followed by children’s book writer, Mary Quattlebaum, and poet Belle Waring. In October, “Dante and Longfellow” made an interesting subject for a reading by then-Laureate Robert Pinsky who had published his translation of The Inferno. As Thanksgiving approached, “Giving” was the theme of the reading by Donald Everett Axinn of New York and Michael Brosnan.
“Love Poems”presented by Myra Shapiro, Matthew Lippman and Diana Timblin launched 1998 PAN. “Frost and Fire” on March 4, featured Shirley Cochrane, Joanna C. Scott, and Lisa Russ Spaar in a passionate reading. That spring “Gardens and Gardening” thrived presented by Jacklyn Potter, Heddy Reid and Elizabeth Stevens.
James S. Taylor read from and talked about his book Poetic Knowledge on May 26, a different but important departure from the usual all-poetry format. Taylor’s premise is that when poetry was taught as a regular part of the curriculum by colleges and universities years ago, it bred a particularly rich and desirable kind of knowledge that could bear fruit throughout one’s life, and that universities are much the poorer for its absence.
In June 1998 just two years before the turn of the century, the idea of “Voyaging” was was needed. Michael Collier, Judith Dollenmayer and R.T. Smith navigated a superb reading. Also in June, Ruth Boorstin and Philip K. Jason tickled the Library audience with “Humor,” and that fall, on September 15, Merrill Leffler, Robert Sargent and Carolyne Wright were featured poets for the “Returning/Coming Back” theme. “Safe Harbors/Dangerous Seas” brought PAN’s calendar year to a close with poems presented by Anne Caston and Lisa Parker.
In the last year of the 20th century some fantastic readings took place. Needless to say, in February 1999, love bloomed again in the reading by Barri Armitage, Ramola D and Jonathan Vaile. On March 4, Rumi translator Coleman Barks read with Barbara Hurd, exploring “Longing and the Thirst for Ultimate Water.” In April “Renewal” was revised as a theme at the end of the century in the presentation of Stephen Cushman, Catherine Harnett Shaw and Marcella Wolfe.
On the Bard’s birthday, April 23, John Bartoli and James Gregorio gave the “Shakespeare’s Birthday” reading, but in late May, Martin G. Murray and Alice Birney brought scholarly information to PAN’s “Celebrating Whitman” program, along with librarian David Kresh on May 31, Walt Whitman’s birthday anniversary. To celebrate the final Father’s Day of the 20th century, Sid Gold and Lee Briccetti read poems about “Dads.”
In September, 1999 “Favorite Fall Poems” were read by Nancy Naomi Carlson, Wendell Hawken, and Craig C. Smith; “Gratitude” was the near-Thanksgiving theme presented by William F. Claire, Lane Jennings and Raymond Lovett, and the final PAN reading of the century, “Centuries’ End and Millennium,” and was given by Kim Roberts and Karen Thompson.
As the century ended I was facing a dilemma as director. During these first years of PAN, in order to provide more poets with a chance to read I had discouraged poets from applying more than once, but considering that a poet’s work evolves and changes over time, that policy seemed too limiting, so I instituted a two-to-three-year interlude before a reader would be considered again. As it turned out a few poets read a second or third time if they sent in excellent poems on the requisite theme. I also asked some poets and writers and later interns to serve as first readers, so that my poetic sensibility didn’t override other excellent choices.
Poetry at Noon in the 21st century began January 28 with two widely known poets, Marie Howe and Tom Sleigh, followed by the traditional “Love Poems” reading in February by Mel Belin, Jean Kalmanoff, Mary Ann Larkin and Patric Pepper. In March, 2000, “Fun Poems for Children” were delivered by Nancy Allison, Cicely Angleton and Jill Williams. John Bartoli, who could be mistaken for the Bard if this were the 17th century, read on April 25 for a post-“Shakespeare’s Birthday”program. The idea of “Growing Older” was tackled successfully on May 30 by Joseph Awad, Laureen McHenry and Victoria Wyatt.
That fall, the lens of “Hindsight” offered an interesting filter for selections by Jill Ann Mortell and Rhonda Williford. “Obsessions/Addictions” were wrestled with in poems read by John Clarke, Bernadette Geyer and Kwelismith, and “Transformations” ended PAN’s first year of the new century performed by Lynda Malavanya, Gareth Philips and Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli.
For PAN’s second year of the century, or 2001, “Love Poems” arrived again presented by Kwame Alexander, Grant La Rouche and Ann Silsbee. Two thousand and one was an auspicious year for PAN, for that spring PAN began its 10-year association with Michael Kahn and The George Washington University Academy of Classical Acting. The ACA kindly lent its professional actors to read for our “Shakespeare’s Birthday” program. This first year, actors Steve Martin, Ashley Strand, Peggy Scott and Susan Wilder gave stunning readings. In particular, I remember Susan Wilder’s insightful interpretations of dialog from the plays. The May reading in 2001 showcased poems about “Animals” offered by Andrea Grill, Jean Johnson and Nan Fry.
As you know, 2001 was to become an annus horribilis for the country, and reverberations were felt throughout the Nation’s Capital, but particularly on Capitol Hill. I remember standing on the 5th floor of the Adams Building and catching sight of a section of the Pentagon in flames. Needless to say, I left as government buildings were closing and headed out-of-town. No public programs would be held for quite some time, and even if they had, few people would have come.
In light of all this, a “Harvest” reading was held after the Library reopened, but not until November 20. Even then, a trio of in-house poets read to a handful of mostly staff members who were brave enough to attend. The poets were: John Clarke, David Kresh, and Patricia Gray.
Poetry at Noon timidly began again in January 2002 with “Winter’s Tales” and guests Dan Johnson, Colette Thomas, and Martin Galvin, followed by “Urban Life” at the end of that month with Tonya Maria Matthews, Davi Walders, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. We began to feel truly back in the groove with “Love Poems” landing exactly on Valentine’s Day in 2002. Miles David Moore, Anne Marie Macari and Benjamin Hicks read. And again, the soothing repetition of themes continued in April with “Shakespeare’s Birthday” delivered by the Academy of Classical Acting. A “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” ended the spring season on May 4, with Dan Cuddy, Heddy Reid and Yvette Neisser.
“Poetry on the Mountaintops” opened the fall season in September featuring Martha Sanchez-Lowery and Ramola D. “Mystery and Exoticism” seemed to warm the spirits on October 29 when Padmini Mongia and David Keibel read. “Home and Hearth” further warmed us when Miranda Field, George Bilgere, and Geraldine Connolly read. (Am unsure whether all three poets read—or perhaps just two—but which two?)
On February 11, 2003 the sonorous voice of radio and TV personality Robert Aubry Davis
could be heard in the Pickford Theatre reading “Love” poems that had been published through the ages. Later that spring poems about “Power and Peace” and “Healing” could be heard in the Pickford Theater.
In November 2002, Kate Gale, Debra Nystrom and Dennis Loney rendered “Other Lives: Persona Poems” to an attentive audience. And on December 9, PAN broadened the number of poets who could read at one time to feature a sampling of DC Poets to be followed in future years with a sampling of poets from other states. District of Columbia Poets reading were Sarah Browning, Michael Gushue, Erich Hintz, Carol Jennings, Joy Kraus, Gregory Orfalea and J.D. Smith.
Two-thousand four was a leap year, and in early February Hiram Larew, Meredith Holmes and Dan Maguire considered its implications with verse. For Valentine’s Day, Marilyn Taylor read “Love Poems,” followed on March 4 with an early St. Patrick’s Day program of poems presented by Robert Aubry Davis. In April ACA actors Robert Leembruggen and Ian Gould read poems by, and excerpts from, Shakespeare. Earthly Delights crowded our senses with the offerings of Lucille Lang Day and Nan Fry.
On September 30, 2004 the formidable subject of “Men and Women” was broached in poetry performed by Shayla Hawkins, Myong Hee Kim, Ann Silsbee, Ernie Wormwood and Dwaine Rieves. Late October featured “Poems for Children” from Sheree Fitch, Laura Krauss Melmed and Mary Quattlebaum. “Things My Parents Told Me” were revealed in November by Abby Wilkerson, Christina Wos’ Donnelly and Judith Harris, and ending the calendar year, “A Sampling of Maryland Poets” took the stage in December, with the spotlight on John Carter, Charles E. Wright, Sauci Churchill, Carol Conover, Joanne Rocky Delaplaine, Gary Stein and Patricia Valdata.
February 1, 2005 signaled Black History Month and Kenneth Carroll brought four young, gifted poets from the DC Writer’s Corps to read. They were: Anoa Hunter, Adell Coleman, Tina Pryce and Carenda Tillery. Picking up the “Love Poems” theme that year were: Karen Benke, Moira Egan and David Dalton, while Robert Leembruggen returned bringing Teresa Castracane for the “Shakespeare’s Birthday” presentation. On May 31, Robert Aubry Davis returned on the actual month and day of Walt Whitman’s birthday to give the “Leaves of Grass” reading in the 150th year after its first publication. June 7, looking forward to summer temperatures, George Bilgere and Marilyn Bates brought a warm feeling to the “Humid Nights” reading.
Furthering the Whitman anniversary theme in September, Kwame Alexander, Patricia Clark and Kim Roberts read both their own and Whitman’s poems in “Singing the Body Electric.” October brought “Saints and Sinners” to the fore, featuring Kathi Wolfe and Michael Mack, and in December a “Sampling of Virginia Poets” starred Karen Kevorkian, Katherine E. Young, Sandra Beasley, Lin Lifshin, Cliff Bernier and Mary-Sherman Willis.
Love in 2006 landed on Valentine’s Day with appearances by Marjory Wentworth, Rosemary Winslow, Marcella Wolfe-Gervais and Dominic W. Holt. In March, “Trust/Mistrust” was explored by Grace Cavalieri, Kathleen O’Toole and Susan Thomas. The “Shakespeare’s Birthday” reading tradition was upheld by actors Anna Kepe and Tjana Valentiner. Then “Imaginary Places” took shape on May 23 with Richard Hedderman, Elaine Terranova and Terri Witek reading. That October 10, “Ancient History” was the theme of a reading by Larry Johnson, John O’Dell, Kay Lindsay and Michael Davis. Finally, the mouthwateringly “Delicious Poems about Food” had to wait until November. That theme was prepared by Bernadette Geyer, Carly Sachs and Marcela Sulak. In December “A Sampling of Poets from Florida” were embodied by Kay Day, Roselyn Y. Cole and Dorothy Fletcher.
“Love Poems” in 2007 was the province of Greg McBride, Mary Ann Larkin and Patric Pepper, and on March 13, the rather fraught subject of “Forgiveness” was lovingly presented by Linda Annas Ferguson and Jeanne Murray Walker. In May that year, “Innocence and Experience” took center stage in a reading by Joy Gonsalves, Mary Elizabeth Murphy and Jean Nordhaus. Next, “Shakespeare’s Birthday” got an extra burst of enthusiasm from the ACA and featured 6 actors: Dan Crane, Melora Kordos, Stephen Martin, James Ricks, Bob Rogerson and Erin Sloan.
When the leaves fell in 2007, Indian Summer brought “Magic and Magicians.” Adele Steiner, Nin Andrews and Willa Schneberg pulled that reading out of the hat nicely, without having to saw anyone in half. On December 7, “A Sampling of South Carolina Poets” brought Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth with three more excellent poets from the state: Kwame Dawes, Carol Ann Davis and Susan Meyers.
“Love Poems” in 2008 gave the stage to E. Ethelbert Miller (possibly the most popular poet on the subject), Sally Bliumis-Dunn and Benjamin Morris. In March, “Fathers and Daughters” captured the imagination of presenters Preston Pulliam, Jody Bolz and Dan Logan and of the audience. Also that month, "Family Names and Nicknames" proved amusing and intriguing in readings by Mary Buchinger, James L. Foy and Sheppard Ranborn. In April we joined the Academy of American Poets to encourage everyone to carry a “Poem in Your Pocket.” Those who did were given a shot at the PAN open mic. “Shakespeare’s Birthday” was held a day before the Bard’s putative birthday and featured again the wonderful ACA graduate students.
In the fall of 2008, the PAN podium was given over to a sampling of poets from two states, Kentucky and Indianna. Kentucky Poet Laureate Jane Gentry Vance brought three poets from her state who had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets series (each on a different year, of course). The Commission on the Arts in Kentucky helped fund the trip and even provided funds for a light lunch after the program! Appearing with Vance were Tony Crunk, Maurice Manning and Davis McCombs.
In December 2008, “Indiana’s Air Poets” arrived. No, they weren’t flighty. Their poems had been chosen to be incorporated into stained-glass murals in the new Indianapolis International Airport and they read those poems for PAN. Former Indiana Poet Laureate Joyce Brinkman introduced current state Laureate Norbert Krapf, along with Ruthelen Burns and Joseph Heithaus, all of whom had an opportunity to read.
Fall 2009 brought a September “Life is Beautiful” theme that was celebrated in the selections of Sue Ellen Thompson, Barbara Crooker and Joseph Ross, but I’m not sure the reading scheduled for December 8, 2009—ever came about. It was to be “New to the World”—Poems about Babies. Not sure what happened, but the winter of 2009-10 was a doozy.
The “Love Poems” reading set for Febrary 9, 2010 was canceled because the Library was closed all week. That was the “Snowmageddon" year in which snow was piled as high a car roof. Sadly, we had set up one of the most interesting of all the PAN programs to be followed by a screening of “Bright Star” the Sony movie about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Heddy Reid and Margaret Mackinnon had agreed to read classic and contemporary love poems and Kate Harding of Nantucket was to read the short composition that won her a diamond ring as the grand prize in a national love-letter-writing contest. But you know the bad news. It couldn’t happen; however, Reid and Mackinnon were rescheduled for a March 12 “It’s Never too Late for Love” reading, and on March 23, several DC poets whose work appeared in the Full Moon on K Street were introduced by that anthology’s editor.
Twenty-ten was a splendid year for the “Shakespeare’s Birthday” event. Gary Logan, director of the Academy for Classical Acting, had gradually ramped up the actors’ presentations at PAN, and this wasn’t the first year that props for fight scenes were disallowed by the LOC security, but for several years the actors had been playing scenes rather than just reading lines. This was a standing-room only presentation in the Whittall Pavilion and indicated that the “show” would have to be moved to the larger Coolidge Auditorium in the future.
In October 2010, a “Rhode Island Sampler” of poets was lead by RI Poet Laureate Lisa Starr, accompanied by Charles “Chachi” Carvalho, former RI Poet Laureate Tom Chandler and special guest Amber Rose Johnson, the national champion of the Poetry Out Loud competition for high school students, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. “Decade One of the 21st Century” was celebrated on December 7 by Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, Mary-Sherman Willis and Lucille Lang Day.
Before the next PAN event I would say a loving goodbye to the program I had designed and directed and to the Library of Congress itself, for I left the PLC at the end of October in 2010, but not without setting the schedule for the 2010-2011 PAN readings. November 16, 2010 featured David Gewanter, Carol V. Davis and Joseph Ross in the “Insider/Outsider Experiences”reading.
In 2011, my plan to showcase the state Laureates continued with Alabama Poet Laureate Sue Brannan Walker, Michael Salcman and Michele Wolf. March 15 gave the spotlight to Janee Baugher, Sarah Crossland and Elisavietta Ritchie, who addressed “Reversals of Fortune.” “Shakespeare’s Birthday with ACA’s performance continued to be a huge success, and May 24, 2011 brought my influence to an end. Jody Bolz, Tom Healy and Anne Harding Woodworth read on the theme of “Away from Home.”
A number of Poetry at Noon participants are no longer with us and are truly part of The Splendid Wake. Those I know of are: Hilary Tham, Jacklyn Potter, Ann Silsbee, Cicely Angelton, Robert Sargent, David Kresh, Donald Everett Axinn, and Edwin Zimmerman.
Throughout these years, PAN was carried out without a budget, through the good graces of the Library of Congress. A special thanks goes to the then-head of Scholarly Programs, Prosser Gifford, who personally bought lunch for the guest readers, and to all the poets and guests who gave up their lunch hours to attend!
Please Note: I regret that there were one or two of Poetry at Noon programs for which I could not locate a file and would appreciate hearing about. If you notice any omissions or errors, please email Patricia Gray at pythiabeeATyahoo.com. Also, the poetry readings now held occasionally at mid-day at the Library of Congress are no longer in the PAN format.