The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference Specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room.
“Capitol Hill is not just a place of politics but of language.”—Emma Snyder, Executive Director, PEN/Faulkner Foundation
On September 30th—one day before the maelstrom of the federal government shutdown—our corner of Capitol Hill was the site of inspiring language, in poetry and prose, about the importance of literature to D.C. and D.C. to literature. With support from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities and Slate, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation collaborated to plan a full day and evening of readings and panel discussions featuring D.C. poets, fiction writers, and literary critics.
Contemporary poets A. B. Spellman, Tony Medina, Shakeema Smalls, Henri Cole, Camille T. Dungy, Terrance Hayes, and Marilyn Nelson explored the influences on their own work and read from selected works of the iconic poets of the 20th century: Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Sterling Brown, and Robert Hayden.
Such poets inspired the formation of Split This Rock, another partner of the day’s activities. Split This Rock “calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets” through poetry and slam festivals, poetry clubs in twenty high schools throughout D.C., and its new national award for poetry and activism.
With many jokes at the expense of Brooklyn and the seeming overabundance of writers in that location, panelists throughout the day discussed community and whether such exists for D.C. authors. Clearly Split the Rock provides this sense of community for its poets, as does The Writer’s Center headquartered in Bethesda. D.C. Writers’ Homes is literally putting our authors on the map through a blog and walking tours featuring a surprisingly large number of historical D.C. writers’ homes.
Day stretched into evening, and the final panelists—Elizabeth Alexander, Edward P. Jones, E. Ethelbert Miller, and George Pelecanos—read examples of their writings to show the importance of introducing our town to the world and to convey the message that D.C. is a home, not just a capital. Unlike films made here, writers are more interested in getting the details right—there is no Metro stop in Georgetown!
The District of Literature provided me with a wonderful occasion to step away from my everyday world of answering questions here at the Library of Congress—some even about literature!—to simply enjoy literary readings and discussion. I loved the conversations about long-ago authors living and writing in Washington, as well as the focus on contemporary writers. While I previously wrote about my Capitol Hill neighborhood as a fine district for literature, I’m delighted to know that writers are found in every corner of this city. D.C. is a paradise for us readers with endless chances to hear writers and interact with them. The annual National Book Festival provides an amazing opportunity to hear more than 100 writers gathered together, but I can also attend a literary reading just about every night of the week at such venues as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, the DC Arts Center, the Smithsonian, public libraries, area universities, Politics and Prose, Busboys and Poets—the list is overwhelming! Just as we keep reading about how the restaurant scene in this city keeps getting better and better, it’s wonderful to know that my hometown is providing an equally fine community for writers and their readers.