Thursday, December 31, 2015

20th Anniversary of Poetry Extravaganza

by Sylvia Dianne Beverly "Ladi Di"

It's that time of year for excitement, reflection and action, so  "Collective Voices" Poetry Ensemble is taking  time out to plan Poetry Extravaganza-2016. 

"Collective Voices" consist of founding members Sylvia Dianne Beverly, (Ladi Di), J. Joy Alford, (Sistah Joy) and more recently Andre Taylor, (Brenardo).  This will be the 20th year celebrating the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington, D.C., in partnership with CAAPA.

Date:  Saturday, January 16, 2016
Time:  12:30 pm - 4:30 pm
Place:  Great Hall

This year’s theme is "Bridging the Gap", and will be the main focus throughout the celebration.  We celebrate with Music, Dance, Song Prayer and Poetry.  The celebration will be hosted by WPFW's Radio Personality Josephine Reed and will start with drumming and dancing by The Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers, Ian Sydney Match, James Curly Robinson and Lorenzo Sands, along with others.  Our national anthem will be sung by soprano Pamela Simonson.  We must recognize the importance of filling the GAP between positive life sustaining entities such as our youth and elders, our people and our nation and various medias of Art and our artist.

Reflecting on Dr. King and his dedication, especially during times of challenge and controversy, we hope to attract the attention of our audience in order to form a better nation/world in which to live.  This is a family friendly event, free of charge and open to all.  We hope everyone will bring another, especially our youth and elders.

Along with "Collective Voices", there will be three featured adult poets, (CeLillianne Green, Charles Cary and Patrick Washington) and three youth presenters, Nathaniel Matthews (soloist), Antonio Hammett, (soloist) and Nehemiah Sellers, (orator).  Another highlight will be a presentation from Poet of Distinction Grace Caviler.  In addition there will be a special recitation of Dr King's speech by poet/orator Avery Tynes. 

Oh what a gloriously planned day of enlightenment, encouragement and entertainment this will be, just the kick-start we need to help fulfill our resolutions for the New Year.  It's a Family Affair so, we hope to see our youth and elders there.  Plan to attend.

For all poets and writers, keep writing, keep sharing, keep using your God-given talents.  For all who have thought about writing, go ahead, give it a try, you might like it. at very least, you will always have something meaningful to do.  Poetry is my Passion!  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Washington Writers’ Publishing House: Tireless Members Who’ve Passed Away

As I reflect on Washington Writers’ Publishing House (WWPH), the D.C. based cooperative press, which has published more than 100 books of poetry and fiction since 1975, it’s become clearer than ever to me that an organization is the people who breathe life into it with their time and energy. With that in mind, I would like to remember some of WWPH’s strong, working contributors who are eligible for a splendid wake, stalwart authors who contributed generously with their get-up-and-go to the inner workings of the press, and who have now passed away. 

I want to begin by mentioning Shirley Cochrane, who passed away on November 18, 2015. Shirley was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, under 24 hour care at the time of her death. She was the author of Burnsite, published in 1979. During the 80s and into the 90s, Shirley served as president, tirelessly checked the post office box, did order fulfillment, and attended press meetings until she moved away. Many thanks, Shirley; may you know our gratitude.

In 1979, WWPH published the anthology of D.C. Poets, The Poet Upstairs, edited by Octave Stevenson, longtime head of the Literature Division at the D.C. Public Library. In 1995, WWPH published another anthology titled Hungry As We Are, edited by Ann Darr, the author of Do You Take This Woman? I think it’s fair to say that anyone who volunteers to lead an effort to compile and edit an anthology, successfully seeing the project through to publication, has made a major contribution to Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

In the late 1980s into the 1990s, Barbara Lefcowitz, author of The Queen of Lost Baggage, coordinated manuscript reading for the poetry prize. Barbara, another member to recently pass away, having died on October 8, 2015, was very interested and energetic in her work for WWPH. 

Barbara was energetic in her work, as was Elaine Magarrell, author of On Hogback Mountain. During the 1990s Elaine helped with major press undertakings, as well as with WWPH minutiae, whenever needed by then president Jean Nordhaus. 

And here we ought to remember Ann Knox, author of Stonecrop, who managed production in the late 1980s on into the 1990s. Ann offered me sound advice on the subject when I came on board in 2004. 

On the subject of advice, Faith Reyher Jackson, author of the novel Meadow Fugue and Descant, published in 2002, remained active in the life of the press until the end of her life by speaking up at meetings. When she couldn’t make it to meetings anymore, Faith remained involved by offering feedback via e-mail. Other WWPH authors no longer with us include May Miller, Margaret Weaver, and Paul Estaver.

I hope I have not missed any steadfast WWPH author who has passed away. I will close by mentioning two more authors. First, I remember distinctly the book launch in 1992 for The Dark above Mad River, by Joe Thackery, who was in his late seventies at the time of publication. From the podium, Joe said of his book, “This just shows it’s never too late.” 

Lastly, I remember Robert Sargent, who early on served as president and for well over 10 years held the post of WWPH treasurer, thereby helping hold together a fledgling WWPH with his sage financial wisdom.

Remembering our friends from the past with all their contributions to our lives, I’d like to say how I take the title of Robert Sargent’s WWPH poetry book as another bit of his wisdom: Now Is Always the Miraculous Time. Many thanks to all of these folks (and those, too, still among us—working away) who helped get WWPH through all the years to this miraculous time.

Patric Pepper was President of WWPH from 2007 to 2013, and has continued volunteer service with the press. His poetry collection Temporary Apprehensions was a 2004 winner of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Poetry Prize.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Legacy, A Crystal Ball: Poetry in the DC Area - What’s Coming?

by Hiram Larew

A Splendid Wake (ASW) promotes a broad appreciation for the greater Washington, DC area's poetry legacy.  Bravo to ASW for doing so.  By recognizing the cumulative diversity of voices, efforts and ambitions that have built the region’s poetic presence, ASW provides evidence of our poetry’s regional, national and even international roots and impacts.  As our region’s interest in poetry grows, ASW tracks how local culture, politics and way of life have been both influenced by and affected by the poetry community.  ASW is all about being proud of our community’s poetic past. 

Looking back over our shoulders comes in tandem with a curiosity about what’s to come.  Or, said slightly differently, looking back powerfully elicits and compels a look ahead. 

And so, this blog leans out from the ASW-recorded historical platform to peer forward.  How might we expect the DC poetry community to change and evolve?  Based on our community’s culture and history, and considering current trends, what might we anticipate the Greater DC poetry community to look like in, say, 25-50 years?

Predictions are, of course, fraught with biases and blurry vision, and are humbled by frivolous chance.  But predictions, however far off-base, can be powerful tools for placing our current efforts in perspective.  They also are useful in shaping aspirations.   Surely, we become to some extent what we imagine.

So in that spirit, what follows are a couple of predicted features of our Future Poetry Community.  Your thoughts on these or suggestions of others are welcome.

Underlying the following ideas are notions of the DC area’s uniqueness.  Surely, the federal government’s footprint is large, and political drivers and mindsets motivate much of the area’s interests including its cultural expressions such as poetry.  Will such overlays continue to exert an influence on the area’s poetry, and if so, will the influence change over time?
Also, the IT revolution.  Wow.  As documented by A Splendid Wake, it has made and continues to make an incredible difference in the way that poetry is presented, delivered and shared both locally and beyond. This, coupled with an overall, ever-growing interest in poetry worldwide will undoubtedly affect the DC-area poetry community. 
Given such backdrops, let’s consider how the following may change in years to come. 
1)    The Network - At the heart of our community is the amazing diversity of voices that contribute to it.  That poetic range and network will only further flourish in the coming decades.  Yes, it may continue to specialize so as to provide resonance and needed recognition to each distinct groups’ voice.  But just as surely, such a variety of voices will influence each other as networks cross - as local readings and journals aggressively include and welcome a wide range of poets.  And, IT tools will tend to e-gather that diversity; readings will increasingly include virtual presenters from not only nearby neighborhoods but also poets from geographically and culturally distant points.  We will likely encounter IT- (robot-) generated poetry at future readings as well. In other words, the network will further mature to become amazingly rich.  We already see that range of offerings in online and print journals that receive and present a sweeping gamut of work. This trend won’t, of course, be unique to the DC area.  But it will be especially noteworthy here because of the many, many types of poets that thrive within the region.

2)    The Tone - We might also expect over the coming years that the tone of the DC area’s poetic voice will increasingly reflect its location.  For example, the proximity to and special relationship with the federal government will further mature.  This means that beyond the Inauguration, we should expect poetry to appear in a wide array of government’s hallowed halls – on the Hill, the Supreme Court, the Department of Defense, the Department of Labor, the National Science Foundation, etc.  (Note that the Hirshhorn has already opened its doors to poetry readings.)  Whether such venues will shape or require certain flavors of poetry or otherwise influence the community’s style remains to be seen.  But, it seems inevitable that more overlap will occur between those in our community who carry the muse and those who push forward the important business of government. 
Ditto the work already underway that promotes poetry awareness beyond cafes and college classrooms. Poetry will deeply infiltrate the community. For example, we’re likely to see more poetry in K-12 schools, assisted living communities, businesses, hospitals, food banks, places of worship, and sports arenas. Beyond posting at bus stops, poetry will start to pop up in all kinds of public and private venues. And while this tendency won’t be unique to the DC region, it will likely fledge fully here in our area.

And lastly on the tonal front, we should expect that poets will be courted to collaborate more and more by a much wider array of partners than we’ve seen heretofore. Beyond other artists such as musicians, sculptors, painters, dancers and the like, poets will find creative ways to learn from – and teach – lawyers, architects, doctors, business people, historians and on and on. The driver/motivator for such pairings is simple – it’s the sparks and insights gained. And while again, this trend will happen without regard to location, the DC area is ripe for such innovative intersections because of ever present turn overs and comings and goings.

Coda - Knowing how the DC poetry scene has changed in the last decades (thanks to A Splendid Wake and others groups that preserve that record), what do you think the future holds?  And finally, is there a role for organizations such as A Splendid Wake in recording the changes ahead and, perhaps, in promoting them?
BIO: Hiram Larew is an active poet in the greater DC area.  Recently retired from the federal government, he has published in several journals and books, and been awarded prizes including The Louisiana Poetry ribbon and Baltimore's ArtScape poetry award.  He lives in Upper Marlboro, MD and can be reached at hlarew AT

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Word Works Move from Regional to National

This year The Word Works Washington Prize submissions have come from 47 of the United States, a record for us, and it seemed like a good time to celebrate the steady progress of The Word Works from regional to national organization. In 1981, The Word Works led by Deirdra Baldwin, founding president, while intent on honoring our city of origin (Washington, DC), made a conscious decision to move from a regional to national literary organization.

This was done in 1981 through the establishment of an annual literary competition named The Washington Prize. Initially The Washington Prize operated for seven years as a single-poem contest with an award of $1,000 and publication of the winning poem in a full-page ad in the Poets & Writers newsletter (precursor to the Poets & Writers Magazine).

The first prize was fully funded by a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. When Word Works began planning for this competition, no other prizes offering such a substantial monetary award existed. However, much to Karren Alenier’s surprise was a call for the first Billee Murray Denny Award, which also offered $1,000 for a single poem but no promise of publication. Suffice it to say, Alenier entered the Denny Award and won that prize.

The list of poets (including the state where these poets lived at the time of the award) winning The Washington Prize as a single poem contest is:

1981 Barbara Goldberg, Maryland
1982 Susan Gubernat, New York
1983 Judith Steinbergh, Massachusetts
1984 Lindsay Knowlton, Massachusetts
1985 Enid Shomer, Florida
1986 Renée Ashley, New Jersey
1987 Lisa Ress, Virginia

In 1986, Alenier became the second president of The Word Works during a time when Word Works publications had slowed down. Calling a meeting of the Board of Directors and key volunteers, Alenier, along with J.H. Beall, Barbara Goldberg, Betty Parry, and Robert Sargent helped move The Washington Prize into its next phase. In 1987, Word Works began its Washington Prize imprint by inviting Enid Shomer to submit a book-length manuscript featuring her winning poem “Stalking the Florida Panther.” Also in 1987, we put out a call in Poets & Writers Magazine for book-length manuscripts that would win $1,000 and book publication. The Washington Prize imprint list at this time includes (with state where the poet lived at the time of the award):

1987 Enid Shomer of Florida for Stalking the Florida Panther
1987 Christopher Bursk of Pennsylvania for The Way Water Rubs Stone
1989 John Bradley of Illinois for Love-In-Idleness
1990 Barbara Moore of New York for Farewell to the Body
1991 Elaine Magarrell of Washington, DC for Blameless Lives
1992 Nancy White of New York for Sun, Moon, Salt
1993 Fred Marchant of Massachusetts for Tipping Point
1994 Jay Rogoff for of New York The Cutoff
1995 Linda Lee Harper of Georgia for Toward Desire
1996 George Young of Colorado for Spinoza's Mouse
1997 Ann Rae Jonas of Massachusetts for A Diamond Is Hard But Not Tough
1998 Nathalie F. Anderson of Pennsylvania for Following Fred Astaire
1999 Peter Blair of Virginia for Last Heat
2000 Charlotte Gould Warren of Washington for Gandhi's Lap
2001 Michael Atkinson of New York for One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train
2002 Miles Waggener of Arizona for Phoenix Suites
2003 Ron Mohring of Pennsylvania for Survivable World
2004 Carrie Bennett of Virginia for Biography of Water
2005 Richard Lyons of Tennessee for Fleur Carnivore
2006 John Surowiecki of Connecticut for The Hat City after Men Stopped Wearing Hats
2007 Prartho Sereno of California for Call from Paris
2008 Richard Carr of Minnesota for Ace
2009 Frannie Lindsay of Massachusetts for Mayweed
2010 Brad Richard of Louisiana for Motion Studies
2011 Mike White of Utah for How to Make a Bird with Two Hands
2012 B. K. Fischer of New York for St. Rage's Vault
2013 Molly Bashaw of Vermont/Germany for The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It
2014 Jamison Crabtree of Nevada for rel[am]ent
2015  Barbara Duffey of South Dakota for Simple Machines

Statistically in 35 years, The Washington Prize has been awarded to 35 poets (20 women and 15 men), living or based at the time of the award, in 21 states or the District of Columbia. This represents 44 percent of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia. States with more than one Washington Prize winner include New York (6), Massachusetts (5), Pennsylvania (3), and Virginia (3). We attribute this preponderance of East Coast winners to our advertising in Poets & Writers Magazine, but as we have expanded our base of operation (our current president Nancy White lives in upstate New York, vice-president Rebecca Kutzer-Rice lives in Brooklyn, other Board members live in Maryland and Virginia) and purview (annually since 2009 we have exhibited at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Book fair, we have been able to attract submissions from other regional areas of the US.

The Washington Prize is open to Canadian poets writing in English. To date, we have awarded one prize to Canadian Mike White who lives and teaches in Utah. The Prize has always been open to Americans living abroad. In 2013, we awarded Molly Bashaw, who maintains her American anchor in Vermont, but lives in Germany. Still, we urge our authors to stay connected to The Word Works by giving readings in our venues, report on their successes, and volunteer for our projects, which includes reading for The Washington Prize.

While we continue to work on reaching out to North American writers writing in English, we believe we have been faithful to our goal of publishing outstanding contemporary poetry while moving from a regional publishing house sponsoring public literary programs to one that is robustly national.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Performetry: Old Poems, New Poems, Your Poems

In the twenty-first century, reading series, open mics, and slams have been  integral to the poetry scene.  Although some poets prefer their work to be read on the page, most poetic rites of passage include reading one’s work aloud in public.  One welcoming place to read was R. Michael Oliver and Elizabeth Bruce’s Performetry, held once a month on Sunday nights at Columbia Heights’ BloomBars from 2012 to 2015.  The cozy storefront with its hand-painted signs and home-made vegan food was just large enough to provide a diverse audience but small enough not to intimidate.  Elizabeth, a native Texan, always greeted one warmly, and the event was an opportunity to catch up with friends and poets as well as to meet a variety of people over soup, bread and poetry. It is not surprising that both Michael and Elizabeth frequently spoke about their efforts to build community through Performetry and, even more importantly, bring together different communities and philosophies of poetry, if only for one evening each month.  Elizabeth, in particular, mentioned how compatible BloomBars’ mission was with Performetry’s.

            Performetry approached poetry from a different perspective, one grounded in Michael and Elizabeth’s background in the theater.  As Michael stated, “Performetry emphasized performance,” and his reflections on the series often touched on audience and community as much as on language and expression.  Indeed, the series could be considered very much a part of Michael and Elizabeth’s life together, which began, not with a poetry magazine or manuscript, but with Sanctuary Theater in the 1980s, a company that she characterized as “a marriage of art and politics.”  Based in Columbia Heights’ Calvary United Methodist Church, this company shared its space in the “desperately poor” church with refugees from the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Committee for Creative Non-Violence’s free food store with its “rotting lettuce” from supermarkets’ dumpsters, and even raucous parties that rented out the church hall.  In the meantime, as Elizabeth notes, Columbia Heights itself was experiencing both extreme poverty and the Crack Wars.  She recalled finding people sleeping in the church’s loft and even the sanctuary.  Michael and Elizabeth’s company emphasized international, politicized theater, not only following their own inclinations but also reflecting the community that they had chosen.  After a long hiatus, Sanctuary Theater continues today through Michael and Elizabeth’s involvement with DC’s Capital Fringe Festival, evolving to encompass his performance of classic literature.  This summer he will be performing both Embodying Poe: Poetry-in-Performance and Song of Myself: The Whitman Project at the Fringe.  All shows will be at Brookland’s Dance Place.
            Unsurprisingly, when I asked Michael and Elizabeth about the highlights of Performetry, they mentioned the moments when the community they built came together.  One such moment was a final performance of their Acting for Writers workshop in which poets presented their work.  In the seven weeks prior to this performance, local poets had learned about acting techniques and philosophy from Michael, a playwright and director whose Ph.D. is in Theater and Performance Studies; engaged in various exercises to become more comfortable with performance; and practiced the presentation of their work, turning their attention from the page to the stage.  Elizabeth emphasized the “tremendous leaps” that the poets had made over the course of seven weeks.  Later she reminisced about the connections that poets made with the audience as well as their “collective investment.”  Another moment that Michael mentioned was a reading from the anthology Before There is Nowhere to Stand, a reading that not only drew the audience’s attention to the Israeli and Palestinian experience but also featured a different group of readers who were new to Performetry.  They specifically mentioned Virginia author Mike Maggio and Montgomery College professor Stephen Bass.  Unfortunately, this reading was held on Father’s Day, which limited the audience.  The third moment mentioned was a very moving farewell party for D.C. Poetry Project member Akasha Wordsmith (Laneta J. Hill) who was moving to Newark, NJ.  Elizabeth praised the young poet for the polish and sophistication of her artistic presentation.  Jae October’s very powerful and personal work drew her attention as well.  She also remarked on how much Performetry complemented Sanctuary’s work with the Fringe Festival, since Michael’s one-man shows on Poe and Whitman were developed through Performetry.
            Despite these moments, as Michael observed, the audience was “never as full” as he had wanted it to be.  He compared the theater community and poetry community, noting that the former had a stronger grasp of its role in supporting its members.  Both Elizabeth and Michael also commented that the diversity of the styles in poetry community may have been a factor in this difficulty in generating an audience.   However, Michael also offered some ideas on how Performetry might be revived, potentially in the Brookland neighborhood where the husband and wife have lived and raised their family for many years. 
            Although Performetry’s run at BloomBars has only just ended and the forces behind it are currently  diverted by numerous other projects, the D.C.-area poetry scene could certainly use another open mic as friendly and welcoming as Performetry, especially for writers who may not fit into more established venues or more youth-oriented spaces.  Such a space is also essential  in highlighting the diversity of D.C. and perhaps even resisting the force of gentrification and homogenization. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Presidents Who Write Poetry?

When one thinks of poetry in Washington, DC, I suppose one of the least likely places one would turn to would be the White House. But surprisingly some of the residents of the White House dabbled in poetry at some point in their life.

George Washington wrote about the throes of love in his teenage years, but then many people attempt this during this period of their life. Fortunately for us the Library of Congress  has kept track of most of these endeavors.

Here  is the beginnings of an acrostic Washington might have written about Frances Alexander. But it’s important to note that some scholars believe Washington might have lifted it from an undetermined source.

From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you’l Find
Ah! woe’s me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish’d, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was’t free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.

I wasn’t surprised to read that Thomas Jefferson wrote some poetry; certainly he was well read. Here below is “A death-bed Adieu” which he wrote in bed during his final days of illness in 1826 for his daughter Martha Randolph.

“A death-bed Adieu. Th:J to MR.”

Life’s visions are vanished, it’s dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears?
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares.
Then farewell my dear, my lov’d daughter, Adieu!
The last pang in life is in parting from you.
Two Seraphs await me, long shrouded in death;
I will bear them your love on my last parting breath.

James Madison wrote political satire in poetic form while he was at the College of New Jersey which is currently Princeton University. Madison’s poems are recorded in William Bradford’s notebook for the American Whig Society.

John Quincy Adams wrote poetry throughout his life and stated: “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet.” Of course, this ambition escaped him, even though he attempted the art in different forms from  secular verse to hymns and adapted  the Psalms. After his death, Senators Thomas Hart Benton and John Davis, who served as editors, collected and published Adams’ poetry in a volume titled “Poems of Religion and Society” (1848). Even Ralph Waldo Emerson included a poem by Adams titled “The Wants of Man” in his collection of poetry titled “Parnassus.”

Poetry is for lovers. Perhaps? John Tyler who courted and eventually married Julia Gardiner wrote and refined a ballad titled “Sweet Lady, Awake! A Serenade.” Once married in the White House, his wife Julia set the ballad to music. During his lifetime, he shared his poetry with friends and family, and poetry served as a balm for difficult periods of his life.

Abraham Lincoln was also a serious reader of poetry and wrote poetry as a teenager, mostly between fifteen and seventeen. Between 1837-39, Lincoln participated in a group called “a Kind of Poetical Society” where he often submitted poems; however, none have survived. But James Matheny, Lincoln’s Springfield neighbor, recalls this off-color stanza:

Whatever Spiteful fools may Say—
Each jealous, ranting yelper—
No woman ever played the whore 
Unless She had a man to help her.

It appears that even during the Civil War, poetry kept Lincoln amused, as a verse which documents the North’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg was written on July 18, 1863 and is in the collection titled “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Supplement, 1832-1865 (Westport, Conn: Greeenwood Press, 1974).

Then it appears we have a long stretch without any poetry written by USA presidents until Jimmy Carter. President Carter is the first president to have written a novel titled “The Hornet’s Nest” (Simon & Schuster, 2003) as well as a collection of poetry titled “Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems” (New York: Times Books, 1995). However, Carter’s poetry is not well regarded and Yale Professor Harold Bloom stated that Carter is “literally the worst poet in the United States.”

Our current President Barack Obama has also dabbled in poetry while at Occidental College where he wrote two poems “Pop” and “Underground” in the 1982 issue of “Feast.” Though President Obama hasn’t kept up his poetry writing, he has incorporated poetry in presidential events such as his inaugurations as did President Kennedy, but President Obama has also had poetry events at the White House.

It’s fitting that President Obama stated on April 17, 2015:

“Poetry matters. Poetry, like all art, gives shape and texture and depth of meaning to our lives. It helps us know the world. It helps us understand ourselves. It helps us understand others, their struggles, their joys, the ways that they see the world. It helps us connect…

I think it’s fair to say that if we didn’t have poetry that this would be a pretty barren world. In fact, it’s not clear that we would survive without poetry.”

Now that is poetry to my ears!!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

The Writer’s Center’s Assistant Director Sunil Freeman interviews E. Ethelbert Miller about the journal, which was founded in 1889 and is now published by The Writer’s Center. Miller and Jody Bolz have been Executive Editors of Poet Lore since 2002. 

SF: You and Jody Bolz have co-edited Poet Lore for several years now. Have you seen any changes in the submissions you’re receiving, and the poems you are accepting for publication?
EM: I think we are seeing an increase in submissions. I believe the magazine is more “visible” to the literary community. One can find a Poet Lore table at the annual AWP conference. That was not the case several years ago. A number of submissions arrive because someone had a conversation with Jody at AWP. One thing I decided about two years ago was to actively seek the submission of work from many well known writers.
That’s how we obtained work from Arthur Sze, Colleen J. McElroy and Terence Winch, and published it in our last issue (Spring /Summer 2015); also in this issue one will find the poetry of Rira Abbasi translated by Maryam Ala Amjadi. Maryam and I were social media friends and I suggested her name to our translation editor Suzanne Zweizig.
In terms of themes, one can read the submissions and conclude that quality healthcare in America will continue to be a serious issue. There are many poems submitted about cancer and elderly parents suffering from dementia.

SF: Poet Lore has a long tradition of  publishing translations. How do you see the journal contributing to  international, global dialogue?

EM: There was a period where we were not publishing translations. As you can see from our masthead we now have a Translation editor: Suzanne Zweizig. Her work and contribution to Poet Lore’s success has been exceptional. One thing we all agree on is that we want to move beyond just having European languages represented in our journal. I think it’s important not to simply think of Poet Lore as the oldest poetry journal in America but also as an international publication bridging diverse cultural communities together. I think it’s important to have someone read the work of Rira Abbasi and not just think about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. The translation of poetry can be the key to opening someone’s heart. It builds the foundation for loving in a common language.

SF: Roughly how many poetry submissions do you receive, and what percentage of submissions are accepted?

EM: This is type of questions that now plagues baseball.  Everyone wants numbers and stats. How many African Americans play for the New York Yankees? If I gave you a percentage what would it mean? Would a person look at the number of submissions accepted and decide not to submit?  We encourage everyone to send poems. Jody and I read manuscripts without keeping score. I like how Jody will often send a nice note of encouragement to a writer asking for additional work.

SF: How quickly are poets notified if their poem(s) are accepted or rejected?

EM: This is a good question to ask Genevieve DeLeon our Managing Editor who runs the office located at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.* One thing Jody and I will do prior to meeting (in person) is share the names of writers whose work we read. If there is a match and we both like a poem, then we can get back to that writer much quicker than most magazines. What has quickened the time of notification is that Jody and I exchange a considerable amount of electronic communication these days.

 SF: Some literary journals are going entirely online, discontinuing their print editions. What are your thoughts on this, and do you ever see this happening with Poet Lore?

EM: I’ve always told people that Poet Lore represents tradition. I imagine somewhere there are people who never relinquish their fountain pens. As a baseball fan, I’m against the speeding up of the game and the instant replay. I want to be associated with a magazine that one can smell and touch. As the oldest poetry magazine in the U.S. we should uphold the printed page and respect it the way folks respect the documents created by our founders. For future scholars I think it’s important to have access to online magazines. But hey – I still would like to place Poet Lore magazines inside hotels and on airplanes. There will always be a difference between texting with one’s lover and actually sharing a hug or kiss.

SF: Poet Lore has been the first publication credit for some people who have submitted, and it also publishes well-established poets. Can you describe the selection process, 
Do you and Jody sometimes have disagreements about which poems to accept, and how do you resolve them?

EM: Jody and I have never had a major disagreement about a poem. We read aloud every poem that we are thinking about accepting. We often tinker with stuff and send work back that has been submitted asking for changes and even explanations. We also have the “passion rule” which gives one editor the power to overrule the other. This is like a presidential veto one hopes to never use.

SF: What advice would you give to a poet seeking to publish poems or book reviews in Poet Lore?

EM: Read and subscribe to the magazine. Join our community even if your work has yet to be included in our pages. I think it’s important for young writers to write reviews. This is another way of improving one’s craft and gaining a wider appreciation of published poetry. I remember when Jean Nordhaus (our book review editor) reviewed one of my early books of poems for the Washington Review. Her words were insightful and critical.
I was happy to get the feedback and ecstatic that someone had not only taken the time to read my work, but also write about it.

SF: Who are some of the poets you’ve been reading recently?

EM: Maybe I should just answer that by looking at the books near my desk. There is a big pile. Here are two names: Abdul Ali and Kyle Dargan. I will be giving a talk this summer on the life and work of June Jordan – so soon I will be doing nothing but reading June’s poems as well as her essays. Well, let me mention that I love the poems that regularly appear in Sun magazine better than the ones in The New Yorker.

SF: You’re well known as a poet, memoirist, editor, and activist. Could you talk a bit about these aspects, and how they may complement each other?

EM:  I guess this is what Audre Lorde might call – my many selves. I think what’s missing but is central to what I do is that I’m African American and take pride in the promotion and preservation of African American culture. I see blackness not as a problem but as a gift – one that I must everyday share with the world.

SF: The current issue of Poet Lore has a portfolio of poems selected by Letras Latinas “PINTURA : PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis.” Are there other collaborative projects planned in the future?

EM: Like Starbucks, Poet Lore will continue to surprise its readers…

SF: Are there current writing projects you’re working on that you’d like to mention?

EM: Right now I’m working with Kirsten Porter (Marymount University) who is editing my Collected Poems for Willow Books. This book will be published in spring 2016. A few months ago I started “The Aldon Nielsen Project 2015.” It’s similar to the E-Channel that I undertook back in 2011 with the novelist Charles Johnson. I interviewed him every day for an entire year. I encourage everyone to pick-up a copy of The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson. Nothing like this has been done with a living writer. A couple of years ago there was a panel to discuss the E-Channel at the American Literature Association.
I consider Aldon Nielsen one of the major critics of African American poetry. I was curious as to his development from poet to critic. I’m sending questions to Aldon on a monthly basis – so the project is not as ambitious as the one I undertook with Johnson.
Still, I find it amazing and Big Fun.

SF: Thank you!
*Managing Editor Genevieve DeLeon: We do our very best to turnaround submissions—whether they are rejected or accepted—within 3 months.

E. Ethelbert Miller  is a literary activist. He is the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and a board member of The Writer's Center. Miller and Jody Bolz are co-editors of Poet Lore magazine. He was director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University from 1974 to 2015. Mr. Miller is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He is editor of several anthologies, and author of several collections of poetry and prose, including Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer, The 5th Inning, and How We Sleep On The Nights We Don’t Make Love.