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Poems for Transition: Goodbye to the PLC from Intern Maya Arthur

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Intern Maya Arthur in the Poetry Room

The following is a guest post by Maya Arthur, a summer 2018 intern in the Poetry and Literature Center.

One of my favorite things to look out for when reading and listening to poetry is the transition. Whether the line breaks with an em dash, or carries over as an enjambment, or there’s a pause (or maybe even no transition at all), I am always fascinated by that in-between space and how it can add and hold just as much depth, surprise and resonance as the words.

I remember very clearly in a meeting with my creative writing advisor in college the importance of the transition. While looking at a poem I had written, she emphasized how that small shift from one point to another in a poem could often enhance the message, the underlying narrative. She always reminded me to pay attention to the transitions that you give yourself, especially what they could hold, and what they can share.

I entered my summer internship at the Poetry and Literature Center in June as a newly-minted graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in my own sort of transition. I had just moved from Philadelphia to D.C. in a bare-bones room in my cousin’s house, my college friends who graduated alongside me were across the nation and globe on their own transitional journeys, and I had no idea what was next for me. I initially called the early summer my “post-grad angst” where the feeling of uneasiness was always present. I had no idea what the future held or even exactly what it could hold. I just knew I had the Library and the PLC to take advantage of.

And boy, I feel like I did. I have gone to some amazing events (from attending a conversation with a Cuban book artist to meeting the author of Call Me By Your Name) and have taken myself to see as many reading rooms as I possibly can. And on long days at the PLC, I would take breaks and look outside the office window to see the Capitol building and the Supreme Court and walk through the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson building, pretending to look at it all again for the first time. As the months flew by this summer at the Library of Congress, I have taken great refuge in the in-between, in the transition. The “post-grad angst” I first experienced shifted into rather a line break or a pause, becoming a chance to dig deep and find out what I want. And it has been absolutely exciting to transform among an amazing environment of poetry and writers and conversations about the impact of them both.

Much of my summer here at the PLC has been helping to expand the database for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, which ultimately means digging through the thousands of audio recordings at the Library. There are recordings from the likes of Anne Sexton, W. S. Merwin, Jane Kenyon, Derek Walcott, and my favorite poet, Lucille Clifton. My days have been spent listening to, researching and indexing the Archive. It has introduced me to a long list of new writers and new ideas, it has solidified my love for certain writers and my love of language, and throughout the process it has opened me to so many varied transitions and interludes. And being able to sit down and reflect and listen to their commentary, their long pauses for water, their ummms and hmmms and the rustling of paper as they find the next poem to read has relaxed me in this period. It has opened my eyes to the ways we shift in our writing, vocally and contextually. Having this time to sit down and listen to the poetry at my disposal has led me to larger reflections of transitions, not simply as a direct movement from one point to another, but rather ongoing processes that are simply part of life.

One of my favorite finds of the summer was a 1963 recording of the poet Jean Burden, someone I had never heard before, but I felt exhilarated by her remarks. In the beginning of her reading, she discusses the importance of poetry, what poetry can share and hold:

Poetry is many things to those of us who write it. It is an intensely subtle form of play. It is also a unique and peculiar way of coming to grips with life. Sometimes it is the only way we dare. It is a way of arresting, even if briefly, the swift movement of our confusion and imposing some order on it. And finally, for some of us, poetry is an instrument of knowledge. It is a kind of revelation.

Those words have stayed with me this summer, and I feel they will forever be in the back of my mind as I take in new poets and books over my lifetime.

Although my internship at the Poetry and Literature Center is coming to a close, I will remember this experience very fondly and deeply—I will always remember that it is good to take those breaks and those pauses and to carry our words onto the next line. I will miss the simple details, too, of the PLC—venturing down the tunnels to pick up event fliers, rustling through the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry submissions, and the small moments where I looked around and simply took in the beauty of the office. I can say with the most enthusiasm that the Poetry and Literature Center has been a great instrument of knowledge and revelation for me. I will miss it a lot!