Every once in awhile, my job offers me an opportunity to do something magical. For instance, last May I received an e-mail from Ken Bolinsky, the Mississippi state coordinator for the Poetry Out Loud Program—2012 winner Kristen Dupard had won the national poetry recitation contest by reciting, among other poems, Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.” Ken wrote to see if I could pass along a video of Kristen reciting the poem to Phil, but I decided to do one better. I called Ken, and Kristen’s mother, and I finally got Kristen on the phone. While she was a national champion with great poise, she was also a teenager, and I called her in the morning right after she had graduated from high school. I might be middle-aged, but I still remember what it was like to sleep in at the start of summer vacation! And I had clearly gotten Kristen up.
I explained to Kristen that I was from the Library of Congress and that I was calling her on conference call, and I even hung up on her by mistake once! She was patient but understandably annoyed as I told her I had a special guest on the line. But when Phil Levine, our 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, introduced himself, Kristen immediately turned into a giddy teenager at a loss for words! The two of them had a wonderful conversation—one that reminded me how powerful it can be to discover that the poets one admires can be as lovely and as generous as their poems.
Luckily, the conversation between Phil and Kristen didn’t end with that May call. Fast forward to September, when both came to the capital as participants in our National Book Festival. I was delighted to have them meet face-to-face on the eve of the fest, thanks to the help of Ken and both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. If you click here you can see Kristen read “What Work Is,” and her follow-up conversation with Phil, up in the Center’s Poetry Room in the Jefferson Building. Someone from the NEA dubbed it “The Summit in the Attic,” which I think is terrifically fun! But unlike the other summits that take place in Washington, which can involve tense political negotiations, this one was about two people connecting through their love for poetry.
It couldn’t have been a better experience. And it set the tone for the festival to come, which was full of moments when I and so many others celebrated and experienced great writing.