The Ubiquitous Poetry of Washington, D.C.
By Kenneth Carroll
Article excerpted from Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2000 Program Guide
The official history of poetry in Washington is told primarily by its
scholars and formal institutions. Since the 1800s the Library of
Congress has been a magnet pulling the great poets of the world to our
city. Universities like Howard, Georgetown, American, and George
Washington have also hosted their share of poets. But the true story
of Washington poetry is found in the neighborhoods where poets lived
and the everyday lives of people they witnessed. Poets like Georgia
Douglas Johnson, May Miller, Sterling Brown, and Jean Toomer all found
considerable inspiration in the neighborhoods and the people who
inhabited them. Johnson's weekly "S Street Salon" hosted the likes
of Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Angelina Grimke,
who often introduced new works there.
Today, in addition to its vibrant written literary tradition, D.C. has
become one of the most exciting cities for spoken-word poets and
performers. Why is understandable if we examine two important D.C.
community institutions that were born in the 1970s.
"It was when I began 'The Poet and the Poem' that I learned how
ubiquitous poetry was in Washington, D.C.," relates Grace Cavalieri,
founder and host of the ground-breaking radio program that has
captured the ears and hearts of Washington-area poetry lovers for
20 years on Pacifica outlet WPFW 89.3 FM. What Cavalieri discovered
when she opened the airwaves for poets to hear and be heard was that
a deep folk tradition existed in D.C. It manifested itself through
the barbers, grocery clerks, and church deacons who called in to be a
part of Cavalieri's "Dial-A-Poem" program. "The Poet and the Poem"
featured not only the literary greats who lived and performed in D.C.,
it also featured our neighbors in Anacostia and Brookland who wrote
poetry to raise the everydayness of their lives to art. Many
emerging poets have discovered themselves and been discovered as a
result of Cavalieri's program, which now reaches poetry fans across
the United States and around the world through its association with
the Library of Congress and public radio. "We announced our presence
to the world in 1977 by coming on the air with the music of Duke
Ellington and the poetry of Sterling Brown," says Cavalieri, who would
continue this rich mix of music and poetry with her annual poetry and
music celebrations at the famed DC Space nightclub.
Kenneth Carroll, a native Washingtonian, is a poet,
playwright, and a freelance features writer. His poetry, plays,
and essays have been widely published. He is Executive Director
of DC WritersCorps, an award-winning arts and community service