Beltways and Memes
Full Moon on K Street collects writings influenced by Baltimore-Washington's early '70s poetry community
The Baltimore-Washington poetry scene of the early 1970s was a community where the literary became the personal; the personal became the sexual, sex became performance, and performance became literature. Poet Michael Lally described it as "alternating friends, dressing rooms, cultures:/ those eruptions of intra-human functions--grab a root/ and growl, that's the seventies satisfaction." From the basement of Baltimore's Theatre Project to the aisles of Dupont Circle's second-hand bookstores, baby-boomer poets dissected their fledgling lives in voices that sounded almost conversational.
One has to say "almost conversational," because there was always a moment in the best poems when the monologue would skid past an ellipsis into reverie or alternate reality. It's like that skid from a narrative verse into a timeless chorus in a song or from dialogue to internal monologue in a play. No wonder so many poets from that era became singers (John Duchac--aka John Doe--of X, Chris Mason of the Tinklers, Terry Winch of Celtic Thunder) or actors (Lally became a TV actor and Kirby Malone co-founded the Impossible Industrial Action Theater).
There were other names worth remembering: Ellen Carter, David Beaudouin, Bernard Welt, Reuben Jackson, Clarinda Harriss Lott, Joe Cardarelli, Anselm Hollo, Sandie Castle, Daniel Mark Epstein, Devy Bendit, David Franks, Melvin Brown, E. Ethelbert Miller, Andrei Codrescu, Michael Weaver, Ed Cox, Beth Joselow, and Jean Emerson. But one of the community's key shapers was a poet from the previous generation, a naval pilot's short Italian wife who proved as hip as anyone. Grace Cavalieri taught Duchac, Malone, Carter, Bendit, and Emerson at Baltimore's Antioch College and then hosted most of the scene on her legendary Washington radio show, The Poet and the Poem, now in its 33rd consecutive year.
It was Cavalieri who found a way to steer local poets through the twin dangers of academic detachment and narcissistic autobiography by always preaching that poetry must be grounded in experience, but that experience always opens up into the unknown, and the unknown always leads to the universal. In her poem "What I Meant to Teach" from her 2009 book Sounds Like Something I Would Say, she writes: "The center of the story is a dream/ where all thought has become memory . . ./ Put in rhythm, of course,/ which turns it into a poem,/ but always keep your biography." Because her radio show--which mixes locals with national celebrities--emphasizes autobiographical poets who describe not only what happened but also what might have happened, she has nudged the regional poetry in that direction.
The above Lally quote comes from Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press), a new anthology edited by Kim Roberts. Many of the poems in the volume originally appeared in the terrific regional-poetry web site, beltwaypoetry.com, which Roberts has run since 2000. She posts four book-sized issues on the site each year. While all her writers live and/or work in Washington, this new hardcover book showcases 100 poets (29 of them Maryland residents) taking Washington as a subject--or at least a setting. Six of those poets, including Cavalieri, read at the Enoch Pratt Library May 12.
It's a challenge to turn something as amorphous as a city into poetry--especially a city dominated by bureaucrats, curators, and lobbyists. But the poets in Full Moon appear determined to prove, as Lally puts it in his poem "DC," that Washington "doesn't have to be a museum in the pits! Spies! Ritual catalogue of dates!" How do you find the poetry, though, amid all that marble and concrete? "Where did the earth go?" Cavalieri writes in "Mapping DC (1966-2007)," "Into Sterling Brown's voice . . . into the whine of the guitar of Bill Harris at the 'Pigfoot' club."
The poet Brown and the blues singer Harris were part of Washington's African-American majority, and it was black poetry and black music that gave the city's writing its funky feel. Brown appears early in the book's chronological running order with "Glory, Glory," a poem of pleasurable hyperbole about the havoc wrought by one Annie Mae Johnson just by walking down a D.C. street. Other African-American poets--such as A.B. Spellman, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Thulani Davis--supply some of the anthology's high points.
That same funk is echoed in the white poets of the early '70s, which grew out of the '60s multi-cultural bohemia. You can hear it when Ed Cox evokes a scene of people on the street drinking wine from brown-paper bags in "Evening News," when Beth Joselow describes the gold earrings, pink shirts, and orange nails of a curbside market in "Stands (Adams Morgan)," and when Tina Darragh finds her own life echoing that of black writer Jean Toomer in "cliché as place--rainbows." Best of all is Terence Winch's reflections on "Three Addresses" where he lived in Washington, including the one on S Street, where "If you opened the door without thinking,/ the entire neighborhood gushed into the apartment/ like an open hydrant."
Baltimore has had its own poetry anthologies, most notably 1986's Gathering Voices and 2006's Octopus Dreams: Poetry in Baltimore Anthology One. But there hasn't been a book of Baltimore poets writing about their hometown, and there should be, for this city, far funkier than Washington could ever hope to be, has inspired poets as much as it has inspired filmmakers such as John Waters, Barry Levinson, and David Simon. And how about an album of songs about the city?
The Call: An Anthology of Women’s Writers has just been published by California’s Dragonfly Press; it features mostly California writers edited by California’s Calder Lowe. Yet the uneven book is dominated by two Maryland women: Cavalieri and her former student Jean Emerson, who embarked on a long writing career while living in Catonsville, Ellicott City, and Sykesville in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Emerson, who went on to co-found the Bay Area’s Jacaranda Press, has won Dragonfly Press’s 2009 Award for Literary Achievement and is rewarded with eight poems in the new book.
Emerson has a rare ability to go from the familiar to the disorienting and from the mysterious to the mundane without ever grinding her gears. She can start talking about “Walking from the Coffee Shop” past the shadows of tree branches on the tiled storefronts and end up receiving a prophetic message from a complete stranger. She can start talking about “God Singing in the Trees” and end up listening to the rustle “of tall grass bending in a soft breeze/ that infinite point where light waves/ fuse into sound.”
Emerson’s poetry is leaner and quieter than her teacher’s, but it’s impossible to miss their parallel ability to straddle the boundaries of biography. The best poem in The Call is borrowed from Cavalieri’s Sounds Like Something I Would Say, a series of meditations on growing old. “The Morning Is Fair to Everyone” describes a woman dying in a hospital bed, slipping between clarity and hallucination, between the present and the past. It’s from those moments of slippage that the insights emerge. She remembers a long ago morning and “thinks it is fair,/ because morning comes to everyone, good and bad alike./ She wipes crumbs from the table of her childhood./ Putting things back, that’s all death is.”
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