Walk out the front door of the Library’s Jefferson Building, take a left and then a short walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. About eight blocks down you’ll reach the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital. The building is extraordinary, a noble looking brick structure with tall ceilings and oak paneling. Built at the end of the Civil War as a naval hospital for the care of “seamen serving on the Potomac River and its tributaries,” the building was completed in 1866, a year after the war had ended.
The Hill Center now offers classes of all sorts, as well as exhibits and public programs including “The Life of a Poet,” a new series in conjunction with the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center. This series, which is advertised as offering “behind-the-scenes conversations with some of the country’s most important poets,” kicked off the spring season on February 6th with Carl Phillips.
I went to the event with two co-workers, Matt Blakley of the PLC and Catalina Gomez of the Hispanic Division. The room was packed, with well over 100 people. Phillips, the author of twelve books of poetry, talked for over an hour with Ron Charles, the fiction editor of The Washington Post. Their wide-ranging conversation began with Phillips’ childhood and covered the whole of his career. Phillips read a half-dozen poems on fundamental themes: life, death, sex, struggle, and attraction. Catalina and I were particularly moved by “Speak Low,” from his poetry collection of the same name—we remarked on the seemingly effortless connection it made with nature, desire, and our own mortality:
. . . so we believe, wishing
for what, by now, even we can’t put a name to, but feel certain
we’ll recognize, having done so before. It looked, didn’t it,
just like harmlessness. A small wind. Some light on water.
As a trained historian, I connected with the space; as a Washingtonian, I connected to the neighborhood; as a gay man, I connected with the poetry. All in all, it was a wonderful event, and I can’t wait for the next installment of this incredible series.