The following is an interview with Conor MacVarish, who recently completed a year-long internship at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.
Where and what do you study? How did you intend your internship to relate to your studies, college experience, or future plans?
I just graduated with a double major in literature and political science from American University. As such, I am fascinated by the intersection of literature and politics—the ways in which they complement and also put pressure on each other. I applied to the Library of Congress because it stands precisely at that intersection. In particular the Poetry and Literature Center shares my firm belief in literature as a public good, something to help define and unite us. I don’t know what my future holds, but wherever I go I know the lessons learned at the PLC will serve me well.
Tell us about your first day as an intern—what was it like?
My first day with the Poetry and Literature Center was one of the most challenging, but also the most exhilarating. I worked one of the biggest events of the season, a daylong symposium celebrating the Black Arts Movement and the Cave Canem poetry foundation. Over the course of the day, I found myself setting up strange, new sound equipment; running microphones for Q&A sessions; and escorting visiting poets around the Library while trying not to get lost myself! In a particularly surreal moment, I wound up chatting about the new Star Trek movie with one of my literary heroes, Nikki Giovanni. In all, it was a perfect introduction to the world of the PLC.
What did you learn about the Poetry and Literature Center and/or Library of Congress during your internship?
I think I learned the most from my work expanding the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (ARPL). ARPL contains audio recordings of every event, reading, and lecture sponsored by the Poetry and Literature Center since the 1940s, and my job was to organize unpublished recordings. As I trawled through excel sheet after excel sheet, I was struck by the sheer breadth and depth of the Library’s history of public programming. Readings by literary greats like W. H. Auden and Lucille Clifton stand alongside lectures on topics ranging from ballet to biology. I am particularly partial to the more idiosyncratic recordings, like a 1977 event commemorating Depression-era radio plays, or a 1961 event that featured horror movie icon Vincent Price reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh. It was such a delight to learn about these weird little moments in the Library’s history.
What was the highlight of your internship?
My favorite memory of the Library has to be Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s farewell celebration, “Speak the People/the Spark/el Poema.” The whole day was a blur, but highlights included a concert from the Fresno State Chamber Singers, a beautiful reception in the Library’s Great Hall, and a joyous performance by the Chicano LA rock band Quetzal. The event also doubled as my last day at the Library, so it was especially emotionally charged. I also got to spend time with some of the other interns including my replacement, Phebe Miner. I could not ask for (or even imagine) a better sendoff.
Do you have a funny anecdote about your time at the Poetry and Literature Center?
One night the whole staff went out to dinner with the Poet Laureate. Over the course of the dinner, we assembled an “exquisite corpse” poem together, each contributing a different line of poetry in sequence. At the end of the night, Juan Felipe Herrera stood up and performed a dramatic reading of the poem in front of the whole restaurant, to rapturous applause. It was so fun and so sweet, and I loved being a part of it.
What are your post-graduation plans?
I’m just starting the process to apply to grad school. I want to do my PhD in English literature, with a focus on Victorianism and early Modernism, so I’m looking at schools like Berkeley, Stanford, and UCLA. In the meantime, I’m excited to stay in DC, hopefully working in editing, publishing, or arts programming.