The following is a guest post by Oona Intemann, who completed a spring semester internship at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center just this week.
I registered for a reader identification card for the Library of Congress almost immediately upon arriving in D.C. for my freshman year of college. Though that should not have come as a surprise for this English/creative writing major I, like many of my peers, was mesmerized by the prospect of spending time in the main reading room or strolling through the hallowed halls of the Jefferson building. It was the ultimate library card: it provided access to the reading rooms of the Library and to the research materials from the rich collections that make it one of the most significant cultural institutions in the world. Little did I know I would be back three years later, learning about a completely different side of the Library’s operations (this time with a staff ID card).
My internship at the Poetry and Literature Center began in January, but my introduction to the famous Poetry Room was delayed by some construction, so my first full view of the office in all its glory came in March. I would have been grateful even if I’d only had one day there—every time I walk in I find something else striking about this beautiful space which seems enchantingly frozen in time. Aside from the unparalleled views of the Capitol Building from the window, the office features shelves of books of poetry that date back to the early days of the laureateship, as well as the original furniture donated by Gertrude Clarke Whittall and a guest book which holds the signatures of countless famous poets and writers.
Much of my time at the PLC has been spent helping with the public events the office coordinates every year. I have pinched myself on numerous occasions—standing next to Jonathan Franzen in the Whittall Pavilion, seeing the amazing Tracy K. Smith in conversation with Ron Charles, or watching the inspiring Youth Poet Laureate finalists with the 2017 winner Amanda Gorman (all of whom are a couple of years my junior but lightyears ahead in eloquence, poise, and talent).
My primary project during my internship, however, was helping expand the database for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. There are thousands of entries for thousands of hours of recordings, each one different from the next, and many of them exist on the Library website for the public to listen to and enjoy. On the surface, the project seemed to be a straightforward data-and-spreadsheet undertaking, but it quickly became clear that the ARPL collection was a treasure trove of voices from over half a century of preserved poetry, literature, and lectures. It was all too easy to get distracted as I listened to the recordings, and to go in-depth to learn more about the writer whose work I was hearing as if I had been there to do so in person. I listened to each recording with a notebook open in front of me and a running list of poets whose work I wanted to read much more: Colette Inez, X. J. Kennedy, and Jane Kenyon, among dozens of others.
In taking the time to listen to these recordings—and in attending the PLC events throughout the season —it became clear to me that this was one of the best ways to be exposed to poetry: from the poet’s own voice. I also realized that listening to poetry was both an individual and communal experience—one I could share with the audience at a large public lecture or keep to myself as I listened on the computer to a reading from the Recording Laboratory. Perhaps this is much like the practice of poetry itself; as Tracy K. Smith said in her closing lecture this past April, the language of poetry “[guides] us toward the part of ourselves so deeply buried that it borders upon the collective.”
My final few days at the Poetry and Literature Center have coincided with the end of my undergraduate career, and while I am saddened to be closing both of these chapters of my life I am confident that I will always find a way to come back to the Library (and, of course, I can always listen to the ARPL recordings online).