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Poet-Critics at the People’s Library

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The following guest post is by poet and critic Matthew Zapruder, co-founder of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. Matthew Zapruder will join poet-critics Maureen McLane and Srikanth Reddy for a discussion on the role of criticism in contemporary American poetry next Tuesday, October 30, at 6:30 p.m. in the Mumford Room on the sixth floor of the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building. Learn more about the Bagley Wright Lecture Series by listening to episode 7 of the Poetry and Literature Center’s podcast series, From the Catbird Seat, on the Library’s podcast site or on iTunes.

Matthew Zapruder. Photo by B.A. Van Sise.

For me, Washington D.C. is and will always be home. I was born in the city, to parents who had moved to work in government (my father for the Justice Department as a lawyer; my mother for the Smithsonian, where she still works at the Museum of American Art). When I was six, my family relocated right outside the city to Maryland, but my personal, spiritual, cultural, musical, and artistic educations all took place in this odd capital city built on a swamp.

I left Washington D.C. when I graduated high school, and never lived there permanently again, though my mother and sister and her family are there, so I go back often. I didn’t start writing poetry until long after, so I don’t really have a direct literary connection with the city other than that Carla Cohen, the mother of my best friend in high school, was one of the founders of the great Politics and Prose Bookstore. The huge governmental buildings and the vast lawns and spaces among them always feel simultaneously familiar and scary to me. I remember roaming among them as a child, and then later as a teen with friends after hardcore shows in the 1980’s, and whenever I return, those memories come flooding back with undiluted intensity. The landscape of Washington D.C. haunts me, and I often find myself wandering it in my poems and dreams.

The Library of Congress is located, of course, across from the Capitol Building—which, if you think about it for a second, makes complete sense, since that is where Congress is, and they ought to be near their books. Congress is where the people are supposed to exert their most direct power on the government, and where the government in turn is supposed to be most directly responsible to the governed. Because it is a place for the people, it seems fitting that the Library of Congress would be a permanent host for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series—which is devoted to connecting not only academics or specialists or poets, but a wider, general audience, with the work and thinking of contemporary American poets.

In 2013, Charlie Wright (the publisher of Wave Books) and I had the idea to start a lecture series for mid-career poets. I was reading a lot of criticism about poetry for a prose book I would eventually publish in 2017 and was noticing that so much of the greatest and most lasting writing about poetry had been a) written by poets and b) delivered as public lectures. A short, highly incomplete list of such texts would include famous lectures by Lorca, Wallace Stevens, Paul Celan, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Jack Spicer, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and so many others.

What particularly interested us was that there were a lot of “essays” about poetry that had begun as lectures, even though we didn’t think of them that way anymore. Why was that the case? How did the orality of the lectures influence their lasting effect? Charlie and I talked a lot about this, and we began to be sure that the power of these works had to do with audience, and the physical presence of the poet standing before a group of listeners, often those who were not necessarily specialists in poetry.

There were several famous lecture series, such as the Norton lectures at Harvard, that supported the work of the lecturer over a sustained period of time and then published the results. We liked that idea a lot, but wanted the lecturers to be able to travel and deliver their lectures to a wide variety of audiences. We also wanted them to do it over a period of time, so they could continue to revise their thoughts based on the reaction from audiences, and then, eventually, publish the end results, after a lot of interaction with different groups of people.

The Library of Congress has been a host for the series from the beginning, and it will be good to come back there to talk with Maureen McLane and Srikanth Reddy in a conversation moderated by Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library. Through our various experiences, what we all share is an interest in the role of the poet as critic. Why have poets written about poetry, and what effect does that have on their own writing and sense of audience? What do poets bring to criticism that academics and others do not? What can poet-critics do for the state of poetry today, and its ever-tenuous, ever-evolving relationship to a general audience? What might we be missing if only poets write criticism? And so on. I look forward to a lively discussion about these and other irresolvable issues, in the library of the people.