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Celebrating “The Life of a Poet” Online

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Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post Book World and host of “The Life of a Poet” series at the Hill Center. Photo by Shawn Miller.

National Poetry Month is a big deal here at the Poetry and Literature Center. While we always feature poetry programs in April (including our Bobbitt Prize reading and Poet Laureate Final Event, this week and next respectively), this year I’m happy to report we also have new online content. We’ve added to our wonderful “Poetry of America” series with new features, and we’ve also added 50 new recordings to our Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (launched this month last year).

I’d like to focus the blog on a four-year-old series, newly featured on our website. The series, “The Life of a Poet,” features The Washington Post Book World Editor Ron Charles in conversation with acclaimed poets.

The series was the brainchild of Mary Ann Brownlow and the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital (with special help from Nicky Cymrot, president emeritus of the Hill Center board and a Poet Laureate’s Circle Member of our Friends Group). In April of 2013, with Ron and the Washington Post on board, we launched the series at the Hill Center—a mere ten blocks from the Jefferson Building—with DC native Elizabeth Alexander.

What began as the “Hill Center Poetry Series” changed with Carl Phillips when we realized Ron’s long-form interviews needed a better name. Carl’s interview showed how Ron’s exhaustive approach, and the 75-minute format, gave the audience a powerfully rangy sense of a poet’s work. Ron came to the interview with copious notes/questions/quotes as well as a selection of poems for the interviewee to read—Carl found himself reading poems he hadn’t looked at, or even thought of, for years.

In the interviews to follow, I saw poets go beyond the usual back-and-forth, and have on-stage realizations that surprised them and wowed the audience. I also experienced the emotional weight of a few conversations, when both interviewer and interviewee were struggling for the right words—and even holding back tears. After some interviews, I’ve had to shake out all my excess energy; after others, I can barely get off my seat.

I hope you take the opportunity to peruse the “Life of a Poet” webpage and listen in on a few conversations. You’ll understand why it’s so easy to invite poets—I tell them it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.