Saturday, December 6, 2014

Small Presses I Have Known and Loved (a personal account) The Bunny and the Crocodile Press & The Washington Writers’ Publishing House

The Bunny and the Crocodile Press was started in 1976, by Grace Cavalieri and daughter Cindy Flynn; and then that same year I joined our friend John McNally in establishing the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

The name
"Bunny & Crocodile" came from a New Yorker cartoon David Bristol sent me with a huge crocodile mouth and two bunnies inside the open jaws, hugging, unaware of any danger. This surely was poetry in the world. People always attributed the Press’s name to Ken and me but truly it was just an imprint we thought perfect.

The small press movement is time-honored in America. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the movement gained momentum, taking on the mission of publishing good poets who the big houses ignored. Big publishers were owned by ATT and Westinghouse, corporate American. But small presses did not have a bottom line, or even a line, and all kinds of books were produced – sometimes even mimeographs were published in poets’ basement.  

The Bunny/Crocodile depended on an established poet finding his/her own grant to sustain publication. Most of our poets were in academia and at that time, their colleges supported and subsidized publications.  Of course my household had to provide more funding than anticipated because of incidentals that we—an illusioned entity— could not foresee. When it came to finances, “The Bunny” was always outside chewing grass and “The Crocodile” sleeping in the sun.  Also we did not have the strength to do bookkeeping so the authors received 100% of their books and sales money. What did we have? We had the great good pleasure of making a book, making something that did not exist before— call it collaboration with God, but there was something wonderful about packaging a poet’s words and sending them out into the world like a letter of love.

The reason our press was not a vanity press (i.e. writers pay to be printed) is because of one word:  selection. We received many manuscripts, and we chose carefully among those poets who were excellent, who had tried traditional houses first, were deserving in the community and— and, well, sometimes were our friends.

My daughter Cindy was with me from the beginning of production with “The Bunny.” She was in college (studying with Michael Glaser) when we began, and Cindy was an accomplished artist who designed the books and created the covers. We found a printer in southern Maryland who made books that were reasonably priced with good textbook paper. The largest portion of our publishing lives was helped along by George Klear’s Printing Press, Leonardtown Maryland. After he died, his son Kerry worked for us. George was an angel in the rough, and was amazed at the idea that anyone would print poetry instead of VFW news or fishing calendars. He always gave a great price and once, when covers for the WPFW anthology were injured, George reprinted 500 books free – without us even asking (“that’s what giving is,“ my husband always said).

From 1976 to 2014 we did books sporadically, one or two a year. We had other interests, and publishing was on the margin of our lives. During the last 10 active years of publishing we accepted novels and finally we decided to close the press in 2013. Thirty six years of work with no revenue was a drain. The energy we received from shining light on other writers called for more batteries than we had left.

The most sweeping success of any of our books was The WPFW Anthology where the Bunny and Crocodile published the first 300 poets to appear on my radio series “The Poet and the Poem from WPFW-FM.” Some poets had never been in print. Others were Poets Laureate, some had never been on radio before, and everyone gave us the beauty of a poem. We were able - I cannot believe the 100s of grants I’d written - we were able to distribute the anthology to every library and every public school in the District of Columbia.

These were the books George Klear replaced because someone in his shop moved the covers before he varnish was dry. So I still have a box of extras in my closet, and I am saving them for the most special of all occasions, although I cannot imagine what day that will be. I hope I am in it, at any rate.
In 1986, Robert Sargent, my constant friend and companion and Bunny Board member had just retired his career from the Pentagon, and he put his clerical skills to work by helping me file for an IRS tax free status, incorporated in the District of Columbia. Now we could do more work. An entity can be incorporated in every state so when I moved to West Virginia in 1988, I added Forest Woods Media as a moniker as we were doing more poetry distribution in media than in print.

At the time of the Bunny’s inception, I met John McNally. He was a wonderful energetic person, who worked with my husband in the Bureau of Naval Personnel in DC. Ken was his “superior officer,” Commander, and John was a Lieutenant so when Ken brought him home, John was naturally called Ken’s inferior officer. He’d seen horrible action in Vet Nam in a river boat with dead bodies falling on him. But he never spoke of it. He was sweet and handsome and on his way to Law School and he loved poetry and was an excellent poet.

It was John’s idea to start a publishing House that was not quite as jejune as The Bunny and Crocodile and he had a grand vision. This was the time of cooperatives and collectives.  John thought we should start a collective because he knew a great graphics artist in DC who would design elegant small chapbooks. The idea was to start with three poets, then those published poets would become workers for the press, selecting three more, then we’d have six and it was an inverted pyramid which would become a small press empire.

The first three books were slender, about 26 pages: Deirdra Baldwin, (I think Terence Winch) and my own. Nice satiny covers and good paper. Not like paper in other books at the time. E Ethelbert Miller was among our next three, and John McNally’s idea flourished.

The Washington Writers’ Publishing House is still thriving today with hundreds of titles to its credit. John moved on to study law, I was President of the Washington Writers Publishing House the first two years, Robert Sargent for several years (poor Robert, I left cardboard boxes filled with unfiled papers for him to sort). Jean Nordhaus shouldered the press for many years after that. She’d been Poetry Coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library. We were poets publishing poets. Elisavietta Ritchie is the responsible one now in 2014 and there are bounties of books on shelves with the WWPH imprimatur.

Robert Sargent, my buddy, helped me with poetry distribution for The Bunny books and WWPH books. I was somewhat of a poetry guerrilla in those days employing underground tactics to get poetry out into the world. I would run into a bookstore and place books on the shelves and dash out. Robert would be double parked and we would speed away like Bonnie and Clyde. We got no money from those sales but poetry books were sold and our distribution system worked just fine. Give everything and ask for nothing and you’ll have success. Those are the economics of the arts

An aside about Robert Sargent:
Robert drove me everywhere to do Bunny business and later WPFW business. Also, he took me to my poetry gigs during the day at various colleges. He died at age 94 and was my best friend for 40 years. The Bunny published five of his collections.  When I had 9am-5pm jobs in DC, at PBS and NEH, we met every single Wednesday for lunch. I would come outside my building to find him sitting on a bench in the sun reading a book. He always carried a yellow memo pad, from Pentagon Days, with an agenda of what we’d talk about. As we gossiped or shared poetry acceptances and rejections, telling our secrets, he would cross off the topic with pencil.

Born in Mississippi, Robert was courtly, a southern gentleman and had a deep drawl but he was a devil. He kept a fake journal for Chris his wife to read, and although he adored her, he wanted his other women kept to himself. He sometimes wrote innocent dalliances in his fake journal so she’d believe them true.  

Robert and I had our arguments and they were fierce. He is the only person who could rouse my fury. Politically, we were opposite, and this was a point of contention. But he was my poetry valet. And a loyal partner in poetry crime.

The Bunny and the Crocodile Press Booklist 
(aka Forest Woods Media) 1976- to 2013

Blue denotes poets who are no longer with us

British GI Warbrides  Among The Alien Corn by Joyce Varney Thompson
Do Unto Others by Robert.C.Varney
Looking For Don by Dai Sil Kim Gibson
Schaeffer Brown’s Detective Observations by Candace Katz
My Emerald Green Dress by Alistaire Ramirez-Marquez   (in English and Spanish)
Dandelion Greens by Jane Flanders (Post Humous) edited by Steven Flanders
Dream Catcher by Lynn Kernan 
Schaeffer Brown’s Detective Fundamentals by Candace Katz
Manifesto d’Amore’: Uncollected Poems (1940-2001)  by Jane Flanders (posthumous pub)
Orpheus in the Park by Rose Solari
Being A Father by Michael Glaser
Beached in the Hourglass by Ethan Fischer
Sudden Plenty by Jane Flanders (posthumous pub)      

99 Past 80 by Robert Sargent
The Tao of Mrs. Wei  by Hilary Tham
Epitaph  by Yoko Danna
Break by Ilona Popper
Toad and Other Poems by David Bristol
Fiddledeedee by Shelby Stephenson
Altered in the Telling by Robert Sargent
Rap Goes Deutsch, the Poet and the Poem Special, CD (Goethe International)
Weavings 2000, A Maryland Anthology for Young People edited by Michael Glaser
The Maryland Millennium Anthology edited by Michael Glaser
Baiting the Hook by Sonja James
Looking for Divine Transportation by Karren Alenier
Pinecrest Rest Haven book-on-tape by Grace Cavalieri
Gift of Jade by  Margaret Ward Morland
The Stealthy Days by Robert Sargent
WPFW 89.3 Anthology edited by Grace Cavalieri
The Other Side of the Hill, Capitol Hill Writers Group Anthology edited by Jean Nordhaus
Cycles of the Moonvine by Jean Emerson
House of Change by Stacy Tuthill
Voice As A Bridge, edited by William Gilcher
Tales Too, an Anthology edited by Jeanne Mozier
The Corner Ain’t No Place For Hiding by Jonettta rose Barras

The Transmutation Notebooks by Anne Becker
So What! by Kenneth Carroll
The Cartographer by Robert Sargent
Flying the Zuni Mountains by Ann Darr
Tales from the Springs, an Anthology edited by Jeanne Mozier
Remember Me by Avideh Shashaani
Confessions of a Skewed Romantic by Ann Darr
Fish Galore by Robert Sargent
A Lover’s Eye by Michael Glaser
Paradise and Cash by David Bristol
The Thoughts of Giants by Shirley Scott
The Monk That Made His Momma Happy by David Bristol
Solid Gold by Devy Bendit
Selling Parsley by Devy Bendit 
Body Fluids by Grace Cavalieri  (1976)

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. 

After getting a graduate degree in creative writing/poetry at the University of Virginia and becoming a writer-editor at the Library of Congress, I noticed one day in 1993 that there were a few empty rooms at lunchtime in the Madison Building.  As a lark, I began imagining a poetry reading for the public filling one of those rooms to overflowing and adding a little literary libation to what was otherwise an ordinary workday for most people.  Could that really happen? 
            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.
In 1995-96, a number of things happened.  “Love Poems” had been such a popular theme that another one by that name was set for 1995 and, in fact, it was reinstated every year thereafter.  E. Ethelbert Miller, Jean Nordhaus and Beth Joselow drew an enthusiastic crowd to the “Love” reading, and in March, Colette Thomas, Michael Davis and Karren Alenier tackled the “Rebirth and Renewal” theme to vigorous advantage.  When May arrived inching toward vacation, Jean Johnson, David McAleavey and Anne Sheldon read poems about “Journey and Travel.”
            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.
            The 2009 season began as usual, but with a packed house in the Whittall Pavilion for the “Love Poems” reading by Edwin Zimmerman, Kristi Berkey-Abbott and Judith Offer.  Because Ed Zimmerman was a highly respected jurist as well as a poet, lawyers and others in the legal profession swelled the audience to hear their colleague.  All three poets enjoyed their enthusiastic reception.  Then, in March, because the Library of Congress had mounted an exhibition on Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln scholar and poet Daniel Mark Epstein read and talked about the 16th President.  Occasionally, Lincoln had written poems himself, and he often enjoyed reading poetry.
  In April 2009, PAN celebrated its 15th anniversary by bringing back as many poets as could be fitted into the allotted time.  At least twenty-five returned.  They were: Karren Alenier, Nancy Arbuthnot, Cliff Bernier, George Bilgere, Jody Bolz, Kenny Carroll, John Clarke, Grace Cavalieri, Nan Fry, David Gewanter, Barbara Goldberg, Erich Hintz, Reuben Jackson, Hiram Larew, Lin Lifshin, Judith McCombs, Miles Moore, Yvette Moreno, Jean Nordhaus, Linda Pastan, Heddy Reid, Kim Roberts, Rosemary Winslow, Kathi Wolfe and Edwin Zimmerman.
            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  Also, the poetry readings now held occasionally at mid-day at the Library of Congress are no longer in the PAN format.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Poetry Clearinghouse

Long, long ago, in the mid-1980’s, before the Internet and email and Facebook and Twitter had gained hold, in the days when stamps and envelopes were still in evidence and the arrival of the postman created a flurry of daily excitement, a committee of local poets and poetry organizers used to meet at the Folger Shakespeare Library to exchange poetry news and information and generally support the cause of poetry in the Greater Washington area. By then, the number of presenting organizations had grown, poetry readings were proliferating, and it was getting harder and harder to keep track of the burgeoning poetry activity in the area. The Sunday “Book World” supplement of the Washington Post did print a one-page listing of the week’s upcoming literary events at the back of each issue, but this included fiction and non-fiction events as well as poetry, and was not sufficient to cover the profusion of poetry news. The poetry committee members determined that it would be useful to create our own newsletter, to be sent by mail to a list of local poets and poetry-followers with information about upcoming readings and events, submission opportunities, and announcements of prizes and publications. The newsletter was titled “Poetry Clearinghouse.” It came out every two months. And I, as then-Poetry Coordinator at the Folger, acquired the task of producing and mailing it.

Producing the document was not burdensome. People would call in their news and events, which I would compile and type into a single, two-or-three-page double-sided document every two months. This I would reproduce, collate (manually), fold and staple (manually), label with individual sticky labels, then bundle into packets separated by rubber bands according to zip code. I would then load the packets into two large canvas sacks, persuade some sturdy male employee to help me transfer the sacks to my car, and drive to the bulk mail center, a sprawling, rather dispiriting complex in the Brentwood area of northeast Washington.

The bulk mail center in that era resembled one of Inferno’s lower circles. It was, to my knowledge, the only processing facility in a city addicted to bulk mail. It was designed for much larger mailings than mine. Lines snaked and waits were long, the hallway dreary, hot and airless. (In my memory, it was always summer.) As I stood in line in the heat, inching forward with my dirt-encrusted canvas sacks, it occurred to me that there might be better ways to pass the time.

I don’t remember how long the Poetry Clearinghouse lasted, whether it outlived my tenure at the Folger and was taken over by my successor, Michael Collier, nor when and how it died. Soon after, computers, Internet, and email gradually entered our lives. For many years, the poet John Clarke, who worked in the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, sent out periodic emails listing poetry events and activities to a list of recipients who learned of his project by word-of-mouth. Kim Roberts’s splendid Beltway Quarterly website has taken up the mantle today with a comprehensive monthly catalogue of events, kudos, new publications, submission opportunities, and other poetry news. We’ve come a long way indeed from the bulk mail center!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"A Splendid Wake" Issue on Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Congratulations to Myra Sklarew, the heroic guest editor of the newest issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, whose issue, also called "A Splendid Wake," was published today.

This large special issue of the journal is available for free online.  It features 17 rich and fascinating essays by 14 authors on DC poets and poetry movements:

Regie Cabico, "DC Slam History"
Dan Vera, "Reinaldo Arenas and Roberto Valero: Friends and Exiles in Washington, DC"
Brian Gilmore, "Larry Neal: In Service of Art"
Patricia Gray, "Poetry Behind the Scenes at the Library of Congress"
Myra Sklarew, "William Stafford"
Kim Roberts and Dan Vera, "Remembered by Name"
Janet Hulstrand, "An Interview with James A. Emanuel"
Linda Pastan, "Roland Flint and Siv Cedering Fox"
Kenneth Carroll, "8-Rock Collective"
Julie R. Enszer, "'I'll Settle for a Moment of Glory': Lesbian Feminist Poetry in Washington"
Kim Roberts, "DC Poetry Anthologies"
Myra Sklarew, "The Howard Poets in Perspective"
Myra Sklarew, "Sam Allen, aka Paul Vesey"
Elisavietta Ritchie, "Macomb Street Workshops"
Philip K. Jason, "Monumental Merrill"
Grace Cavalieri, "Interview with May Miller"
Toni Asante Lightfoot, "From Friends to Griots: The Modern Urban Griots"

Links to these web pages will also be made on the "Splendid Wake" blog. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Love & Death in Demon City

I’ve always loved it, the title of Black Box 8 published in 1976, an all-Washington issue of the first poetry magazine in audiocassette tape format.  For me, these words, Love & Death in Demon City, speak of the heat and turmoil of the period; of possibility, ferment, passion in the face of danger.  This was a heady time to be young, it was easy to live on little money, undertake projects on a shoe-string and make them happen with hard work, the support of friends, little sleep and seemingly boundless energy.

Black Box was the brainchild of Alan Austin, poet, son of a Southern preacher, who in the late 1960’s was poetry editor for Motive magazine, a radical publication of the Methodist Church (this could happen in the ‘60’s).  He came to Washington, DC from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he was working on a graduate degree and became a fellow at the Institute for Policy Study (the left-wing think-tank) thinking about the uses of technology in democratizing education.  At some point, according to Alan, IPS wanted him gone (although the reason always remained vague) and he was given a small grant to start some enterprise of his own.  So, in 1970, he did what any true activist worthy of his salt would do—incorporate as a non-profit, educational foundation which he called first “The New Classroom,” and later changed the name to “The Watershed Foundation.”

Alan’s thinking, his visions, were always expansive and inclusive. His idea of using technology,
specifically technology to record and broadcast the human voice, in order to cross distances, to provoke thought, to inform debate, to evoke emotions, to promote deep understanding was at the core of all the projects he initiated. Alan was determined that they should all be multi-racial, multicultural and represent a balance between woman and men’s voices. Poetry seemed the natural vessel for these ventures. As his first co-editor. Alan enlisted Etheridge Knight who was followed by Ahmos Zu-Bolton III.  And most of the managing editors of Black Box, and producers of Watershed Tapes were women, notably Julie Huff, Elizabeth Wray, Katherine Mattern, and me

What Alan did best was articulate his ideas, create and maintain structures to embody them and attract other poets with lively, discerning minds, good humor, energy and love of the craft, who would transform his ideas and bring them to fruition. Black Box/Watershed became a hub, a node of poetry activity in the Washington area. 

Black Box 8 began as the Washington DC Poetry Tapes Documentation Project.  With a $5,000 grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Alan’s goal was to record “all of the working poets in the Washington, D.C., which we have tentatively estimated as being between two to three hundred people.”  In spring 1975, an invitation was sent out for opening recording sessions at the Black Box office, then at the Dupont Circle Building, on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings.  During a sixteen-month period, Julie Huff, then managing editor of the magazine, and Alan recorded over three hundred local poets.  Ahmos Zu Bolton, Co-editor for Blackpoetry, E. Ethelbert Miller, Mac Wellman and Robert Hinton assisted, identifying poets to be recorded, getting them into the studio, and then helping to make the selection of 37 poets whose work would be used in the issue. In addition, Alan recorded a number of reading series around town, and material from those readings was included.  Sterling Brown was recorded as part of the series Betty Parry organized at the Textile Museum in 1973. Others were recorded at the Martin Luther King Public Library, thanks to Octave Stevenson, at Columbia Station, a bar/coffeehouse, whose series was hosted by Ira Brukner, and at Ethelbert’s Ascension Series.

Highlights of “The Washington Sound: Love and Death in Demon City” are performances by Adesanya Alakoye, Jane Flanders, May Miller, Patricia Garfinkel, Ann Darr, Sterling Brown (who introduces his Slim Greer poems, “ I do not often read these to a mixed audience, but now that I am growing old I am less cautious and I do not think I will set back the cause of race relations by this tall tale . . .”), Myra Sklarew, sounding young and carefree at Columbia Station, reading “The Reason I Can’t Invite You in for a Drink” and “Walking into Fire,” and an always exuberant Grace Cavalieri ends the show with “The Good Life,”  “ . . .  a library card in bed with me in Washington D.C., the poetry capital of the world.”

Finding it difficult to distribute Black Box, Alan researched how other producers of “spoken word” recordings sold their cassettes.  Out of this research he identified most of the poetry recordings commercially available in the U.S. as well as number in Europe, and proceeded to develop The Poet’s Audio Center, with a comprehensive mail-order catalogue.  And, understanding that magazines are congenitally hard to sell, added Watershed Tapes, individual cassette albums of nationally and internationally known poets.  The first titles in this series came from the special issues of Black Box which presented two poets, with national reputations, each reading for an hour: Sonia Sanchez, Robert Bly, Julius Lester and Muriel Rukeyser. Finally, bringing in Louise Cleveland, an independent producer to supervise the project, we expanded into public radio as The North American Poetry Network, developing two literary series, “The Poem that Never Ends, using material from the Watershed archives, and “A Kind of Hearth,” featuring interviews with small press and magazine publishers, and readings by the poets they published.   The first program in TPTNE series, featuring William Meredith, Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, Lou Lipsitz, David Ignatow, Lucille Clifton, Siv Sedering Fox, and Charles Simic, was the first poetry to be broadcast by satellite, in 1980. 

During this period of expansion, Watershed staff included Elizabeth Wray, managing editor of Black Box and first producer of Watershed Tapes; Mary Ann Larkin, assisted by Chris Llewellyn, was our development director; Frank Bullard, engineer and producer; Liam Rector and Steve Waldhorn, sales reps concentrating on college and university libraries, book stores and other institutions; Steve also was program host for TPNE; Sheila Crider, production assistant; Elizabeth Brunazzi organized a series of summer workshops.  Heather Banks, Karen Greene contributed, and Sue Goodwin served as an intern.  In the early 1980’s Katherine Mattern started as an intern and later became production manager of Watershed Tapes.  Frances Lang and Verna Gillis produced some of the tapes, as well.


After graduating from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, in 1977, I began volunteering at Watershed while looking for a “real” writing job. When the CETA program Arts DC began subsidizing employment for artists, Alan was able to hire me as Director of the Poet’s Audio Center.  A good part of my time was spent as a mail clerk, packing and shipping the orders, or preparing mass mailings, sticking address labels on the catalogues, bundling them by zip code.  But I also had to listen to the tapes in order to write descriptions of new ones, and to be able to advise customers to make sure they got what they wanted.  “Poetry must be heard!” the catalogue exhorted.  I had grown up in a family where we all read out loud to each other; I was probably seven when my father decided to read the Bible (the King James version, of course) to my siblings and me—not as religious instruction but as great poetry; my brother and I taught our younger sister to recite Sara Teasdale’s “The Falling Star” so she wouldn’t embarrass the family when she went to kindergarten.  And had listened to the Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas, Gertrude Stein, Albert Camus—I’d listen over and over to particular lines that physically touched me. 

For a poem to be recited to a living audience is its big break in show business. A poem in the air is not the same poem as it was on the page—the drama and charm of its unfolding is completely, particularly alive and intimate as it passes from one body into another. ~Tony Hoagland

Some days I listened to poetry for 8 hours straight. This was my true education in poetry.  This was my dream job.  Alan was a difficult boss, but perhaps the best kind of teacher. With a minimum of guidance, which also allowed for a lot of freedom—the old “sink or swim” theory of pedagogy—I was given tasks and learned by doing. I progressed to producer of Watershed Tapes, then Associate Director of Watershed. 

The last issue of Black Box was released in 1978, but Alan had always wanted to do another all-Washington issue. So in the early 80’s we began planning a two-cassette anthology of area poets who had never been included in the magazine. Listening to “Natives, Tourists and other Mysteries” twenty years later, I am again moved by the voices of Marguerite Beck-Rex, Robert Sargent, Katharine Zadravec, Michelle Parkerson, Bill Holland, Jacklyn Potter, Kathy Elaine Anderson, Chris Lllewellyn reading from “Fragments from the Fire”, Ken Forde, Russell Spicer, Rhea Cohen, Essex Hemphill, Charlise Lyles, Jean Nordhaus, who reads from two haunting poems, “Under the Sign of the Palm” and “Peter Above the Mines,” David McAleavey, Garth Tate, Candida Fraze, Greg Orfalea, Rick Peabody, Barbara Lefcowitz, Jonetta Barras, Judith Hall, Joan Retallack, Sheila Crider, Michael Collier, Jim Beall.

Over a more than thirty-year period, Watershed released about fifteen issues of Black Box, approximately 130 Watershed Tapes, and two series of poetry programs broadcast on 250 public radio stations. Our cassettes were purchased by individuals and institutions all over the world. But, in the mid-1990’s, when a major portion of the archives was destroyed in a flood, Alan’s wonderful, stubborn, perseverance reach its limit. 

He did make sure, however, that the master recordings of Black Box, and all of the archive of Washington poets (1973-1986) found a secure home in the Special Collections division of Gelman Library at George Washington University. will take you to a finding aid to access this archive.  In addition, Jennifer King tells me that Special Collections has a complete set of masters and cassettes of all issues of Black Box, and that there are plans to digitize this material.  The masters of Watershed Tapes Alan deposited at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.  While there are no current plans, Sunil Freeman, the Associate Director there, would like to find the funds to digitize these recordings.

I have tried to acknowledge and honor the many people who contributed to this enterprise but I know I’ve left many out.  I want to prepare a comprehensive history of the Watershed Foundation, and would love to hear from those I missed in this preliminary essay.   If you have more information and anecdotes please contact me at

 Anne Becker, September 2014                                                                      

Friday, August 22, 2014

Introducing the New Splendid Wake-up Blog Master: Jacqueline Jules

August is ushering in leadership changes for the Splendid Wake Project and you will hear more about this soon.

I'm introducing Jacqueline Jules as our new go-to person who will assist contributors in getting their essays posted on this blog. Thank you Jacqueline for stepping forward to help. We are all going to enjoy working with you!

Jacqueline Jules is the author of the poetry chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum, published by Finishing Line Press, and Stronger Than Cleopatra, published by ELJ Publications. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications including The Potomac Review Sunstone, Minimus, Soundings Review, Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, Christian Science Monitor, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Red Booth Review, Gravel Magazine, OffCourse, Third Wednesday, Poetica, Imitation Fruit, Connecticut River Review, and Pirene's Fountain. She won the Arlington Arts Moving Words Competition in 2007 and was the first place winner of the Spirit First Contest in 2014. She is also the author of two dozen books for young readers including the Zapato Power series, No English, Sarah Laughs, and Never Say a Mean Word Again. You can visit her online at

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Slanting, Scattering, Squeezing Rhymes—and Historical Sequences

written by Judith McCombs

“Are you a formalist now?” asked my Writer’s Center boss, the poet Sunil Freeman, when he saw my "Slanting, Scattering, Squeezing Rhymes" workshop title.

“Semi-formalist,” I said.

“What’s that?"

“Sort of dressy casual,” I said. And so it is.

I came to rhyme early, middle and late. Early, as so many kids do, via nursery rhymes, Mother Goose, my young mother singing rhyming scat syllables to me. Then came Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses; and the child’s book of fishing verses that her tall brother, who was School Superintendent of Westermoreland, Kansas, gave his six- or seven-year old niece. Uncle Floyd’s gift led to this early perfect-rhyme couplet: “The short, stately grapevines stand in [something] rows / But where they are marching, nobody knows.” And to “Gibson Hanky George Mechanic, Turton Ahla-antic,” the forced-rhyme names of the summer lightkeepers on my father’s U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Party, whose vehicles followed behind ours as we went from place to place the summer that I was 6 ½.

Midway, as a college student at Ohio Wesleyan and Univ. Chicago, I tried to imitate Robert Frost’s rhymes & Shakespeare’s sonnets, won poetry and fiction prizes—and wrote my first published poem, in Fiddlehead! That followed W. D. Snodgrass’s visit to Chicago’s only creative writing workshop; he had recently won the Pulitzer for Heart’s Needle, despite his Iowa friends’ warnings that end rhymes were passé, dead & gone.

Later, in Detroit, Snodgrass—a master of rhyme and poetic form—had each of us in his Wayne State University workshop write one iambic pentameter line for a round-robin poem in class; he then pointed out that mine had way too many syllables—15 instead of 10. I’d automatically crammed my line with anapaests (short-short-long feet, as in “of the day”) not iambs (short-long, “of day”). Everyone knew English was basically an iambic language—but I’d gone with the older rhythms of the King James Bible, which is chock full of anapaests—and happened to be the most powerful language I’d ever heard, in church or anywhere.

Many have been taught that anapaests are for light, rollicking verse. But the King James Psalm imprinted most deeply in my mind and memory was crammed with anapaests: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me . . . .” The King James translation was made by a committee of 17 (!), who would say lines aloud to hear which version sounded best. The old border ballads, created by illiterate Anonymous, used anapaests freely and seriously. Coleridge followed their example in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,/ Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”)

Few poems in my first three poetry books are end-rhymed. Most have four strong beats,  held together by a net of internal slant-rhymes. Their form owes more to the older, out-loud traditions than do most poems written nowadays. Perhaps more to the right-brain music of remembered, echoing sound. Bit by bit, now and then, I was edging and leapfrogging away from free verse—and getting lost in time, while searching rhymes.

English is poor in rhymes, compared to Italian or Spanish—if by rhyme we mean only perfect rhyme. But English has a huge vocabulary—borrowed, pieced, stolen, invented, from many languages—and its slant rhymes are multitudinous. Yeats snuck slant rhymes in. Dickinson used them. So did the old ballads: and from them I learned to hear which were stronger (feet, keep); which good enough (feet, fight); which weak indeed (feet, fraught).

While belatedly moving back into slant rhymes, I was reading historical fiction, which, along with non-fiction social history, was gaining ground. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain I read more than five times; Alice Munro’s “Wilderness Station” and View from Castle Rock even more times, for teaching and articles; John Prebble’s Scots social histories showed ways to re-imagine lost lives. History was full of stories, conflicting and contradicting; as tangled and fascinating as memories, headlines, myths and lore.

After Roots, family histories and social histories, of ordinary, non-prominent people, proliferated. Why? the Web & spread family trees far and wide; people—mostly older people—went to Ellis Island, the National Archives, historical societies, clan societies, Family Research Centers. This had something to do with an aging but still alive and functioning generation; something to do with wanting a simpler, more understandable time; something, as Munro suggests, of a failure to imagine the lives of our descendants. Or of wistful thinking that somehow we, or they, may still survive, more simply, when our invulnerable technology implodes.

Lately I found myself writing family and clan narrative sequences, mostly in simple ballad or couplet form. The first sequence traced my father’s father, an adventurous farmer-carpenter who left home very early, going four states West when he was about five, to find a lifelong, loving family. The rhymes for him are mostly slant; perfect seemed too fancy. (That sequence won the Maryland State Arts Council’s one highest Individual Poetry Award in 2009.)

Now I’m writing slant-rhymed couplets in the voice of a real 1600s Scots sorcerer, one Patrick McKommie, who lived apart from my small, dispersed Highlands clan. Patrick was the one folk healer who the Kirk could not excommunicate for sorcery—as they did women and a few men—because the Presbitrie told Patrick’s minister he must first seek Bishop’s advice—but for decades no Bishop would answer. Patrick would have to be a maker—and a magnet--of stories. I’m also writing slant-and-perfectly rhymed ballads of the history and folklore of Patrick’s Chief, M’Comie Mor. (; and 62:2 (Graybeal-Gowen Prize 2012) and 62:3)

Rhymes—and voices--do come more easily now—or is it only that I go more readily to the places where they are?