August 29, 2014

In Praise of Organic Poetry Communities

Great crowd for Little Salon on Wednesday. I bought one of Fawna Xiao's beautiful screen prints and made the one pictured, using a stencil she designed. Samuel Prather and his bassist played a lovely version of "My Funny Valentine." Melissa Girard spoke about Georgia Douglas Johnson, a poet and hostess of salons for the Harlem Renaissance, who lived only a block away at at 1461 S Street NW. I found out that Lucas Southworth is also in the baby-tooth club, and I picked up his fiction collection Everyone Here Has a Gun. I debuted a selection from Count the Waves, a book that gets more real by the day. Thanks to Amy Morse for the snapshot below. 

August is a funny, often melancholy time for writers, especially in the age of social media. The need to go back to school looms for the many of us who teach. If you got to experience an immersive colony or conference--a low-res MFA residency, Sewanee, Bread Loaf, VCCA, Tin House Writers Workshop--you're mourning the distance from that community. If you didn't get to go, you might be quietly envying those who did, wondering what you missed. 

There's power to the bonds forged in the fire of such temporary tribes. All it takes is a few words to evoke the memory of a Famous Writer's presence, good or bad; the late nights, the fifth drink, the legendary readings. But let's not under-appreciate the bonds that form more slowly, as well: your organic poetry community. It's not the hotshot community that you choose, or that chooses you, for two adrenaline-laden weeks. It's the community that sneaks up on you through accretion of experience. One of my companions for the evening was writer and activist Natalie E. Illum, a good friend since we were both graduate students at American University in 2002. I can't count how many readings we have attended together. Watching a new series like Little Salon come to life before our eyes, I feel a bit…not-new. Not in a bad way; in a thoughtful way. 

Anyone with an organic poetry community will recognize the archetypal moments below. Some are bittersweet at best. Many of us in the DC writing community shared a wave of sadness with the recent news of Wendi Kaufman's passing; even though I never got to know her like some did, I certainly knew "The Happy Booker." She was part of the fabric of my experience here. Each signpost is reminder of your literary landscape, your shared history, your common vocabulary. There is value in that. People would miss you if you up and left tomorrow. Don't forget it. 


-You still stubbornly use and re-use bags from a bookstore that closed years ago. 

-You know the usual suspects: The gentle, slightly formal poet who speaks four languages. The grizzled, cynical editor who has published everybody under the sun. The novelist with the funky eyeglasses. The children's book writer who actually sells more books than any of us. The ones who always show up a half-hour early, and sit in a corner scribbling. The ones who always hover by the free wine. 

-You remember that time a Famous Writer visited town, for some weird reason nobody showed up, and you felt so bad that you bought two copies. In hardback. 

-Someone else's cool new venue is your favorite old dive bar. 

-You said Yes to visiting the high school class at 9 AM, and lived to tell the tale. 

-You said Yes to a reading with a line-up of over twenty people, and lived to tell the tale. 

-You said Yes to the reading at the senior citizens' home where they asked for "some Maya Angelou," and lived to tell the tale. 

-You've taken part in a debate over the hiring/election/portrayal of a local arts figure. 

-You've found yourself trying to sell books at the annual fair, one table over from the nice lady selling handcrafted yarn and soap. 

-You remember when those two people who now barely acknowledge each other were a literary super-couple. 

-You have taken part in a celebration for someone who passed away before his or her book made it to print.  

-You've met an up-and-coming writer with a familiar last name and, with a start, realized: This is [X]'s daughter! This is [Y]'s son!

-You have a go-to order at the local teahouse, the perfect amount to justify 90 minutes of camping out with a draft of a manuscript. 

-You remember when the semi-successful hometown musician used to show up at poetry open mics with a guitar and test out lyrics.

-When you meet a recent transplant who starts ragging on the arts scene, you give a tight smile and say "it's just a little fragmented." Because while it may have its problems and shortcomings, it's your scene, dammit. You dance with them that brung ya.

Like all writers, I have moments of feeling left out. Far away. But the organic poetry community in DC is pretty amazing. Richard Peabody took this photo in 2005, for the Gargoyle #50 reading at Lubber Run. I bought that skirt in high school. I got lost driving, the reading was long, we all got bitten by mosquitoes. Moira had not yet moved to Italy. Hilary was still with us. I'm lucky to have been here then, and to be here now. 


Lisa Schamess said...

I have a nearly identically posed photo of me reading at Lubber Run that night. That was a good night. Richard --and all of you--are good people to grow organically with.

Sandra said...

Thank you, Lisa! I feel like the AU program gave us a particularly strong foundation to be DC-area writers. I didn't even fully appreciate it at the time.