Search for next DC poet laureate brings calls for more public input

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Dolores Kendrick — hailed as Washington’s “first lady of poetry” and a “deeply revered figure in American literature” — served for nearly two decades as DC’s second poet laureate until her death last November at the age of 90. Now, a search is underway for her successor in the city post — and for local artists, the stakes are high.

The city initially hired Kendrick for a three-year term in 1999, but she continued to serve even though changes in mayoral administrations. Now some members of the local poetry community hope the District will allow more public input in the selection process and limit the successor’s term.

“The poet laureate is the voice of not just of the people, but of the poets,” said Regie Cabico, a poet educator at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “I think that when you are in a lifelong position it is hard to keep your ideas fresh.”

As DC’s poet laureate, Dolores Kendrick recited Walt Whitman’s poem “The Dresser” at the July 2007 dedication of an AIDS memorial at the Q Street entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station. (Photo by David via Flickr CC 2.0)

The application period for DC poet laureate officially closed Aug. 21, with the position description saying the mayoral appointee would work without a salary but with the possibility of an advance retainer or reimbursement for reasonable expenses “as a representative of the District of Columbia.”

What happens next is unclear, with DC officials not having publicly discussed how they will choose among the applicants.

In March, Cabico and 21 other poets, art administrators, professors and board members of literary organizations signed an open letter requesting a clear selection process, term limits and established expectations of the appointee.

“We ask, in the interest of transparency, that [the process] be made public,” the letter reads. “And if there is a panel to be formed, we strongly advocate that a significant portion of the panel, if not half of the members, be selected from the DC poetry community — fully utilizing the existing wealth of knowledge regarding the District’s poetry history.”

The city’s position description says the selected poet laureate would receive a three-year appointment, with no more than two consecutive terms permitted. Candidates were required to have lived in DC for at least the past 10 years, and to demonstrate at least 10 years’ professional experience in poetry as well as an “understanding and connections to the District of Columbia and its rich diversity in geography, communities and values.”

Among the duties listed are fostering the public’s appreciation of poetry, giving readings and presentations at District events at the mayor’s request, and promoting the field of poetry. The poet laureate would work with the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DC Public Schools and the Office of the Secretary.

Between the publication of the letter in March and the start of the application process on July 21, the search for the next poet laureate has involved the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the mayor’s office and more than a dozen activists within the DC art and poetry community.

As planners began crafting the position, confusion arose in the early stages.

In February, the director of the arts commission at the time, Arthur Espinoza, stated that the agency “has been researching other Poet Laureate programs” to develop a new framework for the city to adopt for the next appointee, according to the commission’s meeting minutes. Along with the external research, the arts commission formed a panel to make recommendations for Mayor Muriel Bowser.

But in April, Steven Walker, director of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, disbanded the committee, according to Ward 1 arts commissioner Josef Palermo, who received an email from Walker.

“My colleagues and I remain optimistic that you’ll share our commitment to transparency and actively engage us in shaping the selection process for the next poet laureate,” Palermo stated in the April meeting minutes. At that meeting, Palermo also said that commissioners had been excluded from the formation of the draft plan that Espinoza had sent to the mayor’s office.

This internal decision provoked responses from the activists within the DC poetry community.

One of the signees, Sandra Beasley — a literary programming coordinator at the Arts Club of Washington — attended meetings with other poets to hear about the new selection process, including the meeting in April.

“The mayor’s office took away the opportunity for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to help select the next poet laureate,” Beasley said. “I’m curious why they didn’t trust the [commission] to administer the process. We have a group that is regularly used to tapping into the local expertise. I have great faith in their potential possibilities of good process and oversight.”

When asked about that decision, arts commission chair Kay Kendall told The DC Line she thinks the mayor’s office will do a “good job” choosing the next poet laureate.

“It is appropriate that [Walker’s] office looks into this because they see it as something broader; it is something for the mayor,” Kendall said. “There is a lot of interest, and I am very happy that they are conducting this search because people are eager.”

Neither Walker nor the mayor’s press office provided comment in response to The DC Line’s requests.

Despite the shifting control of the selection process, many in DC’s poetry community see it as an opportunity to create new structure around the poet laureate position.

Kim Roberts, founder and editor of the publication Beltway Poetry Quarterly, has reached out to the Talent and Appointments Office numerous times to offer input. Roberts told The DC Line she asked for clarification on several points: whether people would be able to nominate others for the position, whether the city could at least provide a stipend for the poet laureate, and who would be evaluating the applications. She sees this ongoing dialogue as an opportunity for the city to align its process with the way that other jurisdictions select their appointees.

“Since we have such an eminent history with writers, poets in particular, and because we’ve been historically the home of poets from Walt Whitman to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, we need to take this role very seriously,” said Roberts, author of A Literary Guide to Washington, DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers From Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston. “DC has a made a national difference in America’s culture, so we need to do it right.”   

The rich history of DC poetry also includes Sterling Brown, the city’s first poet laureate who served from 1984 until his death in 1989. Brown was a poet and professor at Howard University who earned honorary degrees from Brown University, Boston University and Williams College, among others.

The position was left vacant amid the fiscal crises that beset the District throughout the 1990s. With the inauguration of Mayor Anthony Williams and promises of a more effective government, poet E. Ethelbert Miller in 1999 called for the position to be restored, recommending Dolores Kendrick, who after her appointment went on to create a poetry festival for high school students and programs for young poets of the city.

After Kendrick’s death last year, the arts commission’s Espinoza hailed her role as a “deeply revered figure in American literature.” The Washington Post’s obituary included Miller’s description of the writer, scholar and educator as “the first lady of poetry” in the District.

When it comes to filling the position, “you have to have somebody who has a distinguished career,” Miller told The DC Line.

Brown and Kendrick created an honorable legacy, Miller said. In line with the initiatives undertaken by many of the 43 state poet laureates across the country, some DC poets hope their successor will work closely with the DC community.

Beasley has specific ideas for the poet laureateship — increasing the presence of poetry in public schools, creating more poetry showcases, and fostering a partnership with the national poet laureate.

Beasley suggested that the DC poet laureate be encouraged to “engage with the national poet laureate” — currently Tracy K. Smith, appointed in 2017 by the librarian of Congress — as “an opportunity to amplify the impact.”

Roberts wants the next appointee to adopt a “community art project.”

“It is not just about appointing a poet who has been published and is well-known,” Roberts said. “Part of the expectation should be how this person raises the profile of poetry among residents of the city, and it should be tied to a community project.”

Despite having had only two poet laureates, the District has fostered a strong poetry scene over the last few decades. Cabico moved to the city 12 years ago and has watched the community grow and shift.

“Over the last 10 years, DC has been a mecca for political poetry and performance poetry,” Cabico said. “It is important to have a poet laureate that is fostering and developing the current poetry scene.”

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