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!

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