As I discussed in my last blog, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Natasha Trethewey began her residency by creating “Office Hours”—times when the public can visit her. The office has been busy scheduling the many requests she has already received, from poetry lovers of all ages. We have nailed down a schedule, and though many of the Office Hours time slots (on Monday and occasionally Tuesday afternoons) have been filled, there is still room—feel free to contact us at [email protected] or (202) 707-5394 if you are interested.
In addition to her Office Hours, the Poet Laureate is welcoming special guests. Last Monday, poet Mary Jo Bang—in town for a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library—came up to the Poetry Room for a visit. Mary Jo is one of my dear friends—we met shortly after I moved to New York City over a decade ago. My wife introduced me to Mary Jo as someone I would love talking to about poetry, and we’ve been doing so ever since. It was wonderful to see Natasha and Mary Jo meet for the first time—to see them begin the same meaningful conversation. I was especially happy to discuss their connection as ekphrastic poets—poets whose work often responds to visual art.
In addition to visiting, Mary Jo recorded a piece for the Poetry and Literature Center for our “Poetry of America” Web feature. This feature, set to launch shortly in honor of the Center’s 75th Anniversary, includes field recordings of contemporary poets reading and discussing poems they feel speak to American Identity. Mary Jo selected “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg—the book was just featured in the Library’s “Books That Shaped America” exhibit. The Library’s recording studio was booked on Monday, so I ended up searching for a quiet room that would work for the recording—I settled on a room in the Jefferson Building’s “Mahogany Row.” Mary Jo and I went through the rooms and found the room containing books from the Library’s Ralph Ellison Collection to be the quietest, and there we commenced with the recording.
Only as Mary Jo began to talk about “Howl”—about its critical role in a time of great social change—did I realize how fortuitous our choice was. Surrounding Mary Jo and me were the books of one of America’s greatest writers—a writer whose novel Invisible Man, also included in “Books that Shaped America,” has proved a touchstone for our national conversation on race since its publication over a half century ago. And I was with one of our award-winning poets, hearing her talk about a poem published shortly thereafter and with a similarly historic impact.
To work at the Library of Congress is, I have found, to discover and appreciate such connections—between writers contemporary and canonical, writers who use similar means to different ends as well as writers whose work speaks more directly and powerfully to each other with the passage of time. Of course, the Library also helps poetry lovers from across the country and around the world connect to great writers and writing—the Poetry and Literature Center, through our new Poet Laureate’s initiative, simply creates that connection in person.