The following is a guest post by Rachel Habtemariam, who completed a 2018-19 academic year internship at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center last week.
The Poetry and Literature Center came into my life at a time when I had been feeling a bit lost. I was coming close to the start of my senior year of college at the University of Maryland and I hadn’t had much of a chance to explore the professional literary world, or figure out what I wanted to do with my degree after graduation. I was a poet—that much, I was sure of—but what could I do with this love for words? What was out there for people like me in the “real” world? In other words—what could I say to appease nosy relatives who’d inevitably ask what I wanted to be when I grew up while sitting around the Thanksgiving table?
One August afternoon, I decided to channel all of this melodrama into productivity. I sat down at my desk and forced myself to really do a deep dive into literature-related internship opportunities in the area, and apply for whatever felt right. Stumbling upon the Poetry and Literature Center listing felt like a bit of a dream—and getting an email back, even more so. Part of me just couldn’t believe it. Before applying for this internship, I had never even stepped foot in the Library of Congress. It felt like this ridiculously prestigious, distant place where I would be beyond lucky to work.
Once I found out that I got the position, I spent an afternoon looking through photos of the Library online, and finding out exactly which building to report to a few weeks later to get my badge made. From the pictures, I knew that I would be floored by the architectural beauty of the space, but I was nowhere near ready for what I walked into that Friday morning.
I could have spent hours roaming the Great Hall, examining each floor tile pattern and painted ceiling piece, each carving on each archway, and I’d have been entirely content with that. The building was even more hauntingly charming at night—I discovered this as a result of working quite a few late evening events, finding myself entranced by the empty corridors, the moonlight peeking in through blue tinted mosaic.
And, of course, this experience was enhanced by more than just the Library’s grandeur—that was only the start. My time with the Poetry and Literature Center introduced me to so many writers I either hadn’t heard of yet or hadn’t had much of a chance to engage with in my undergraduate career. I’d found myself faced with a whole new world of literary opportunity, covering both contemporary writers through their events, and more historic writers through my work with the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (otherwise affectionately referred to around the office as ARPL).
Helping out with the office’s public programs gave me a newfound appreciation for similar events and the people who work behind the scenes to make them happen. My favorite event of the 2018-2019 season would have to be Tracy K. Smith’s closing, followed very closely by the National Youth Poet Laureate Commencement.
At the former, I was excited to see such a diverse panel of Poets Laureate from around the country on our very own Coolidge Auditorium stage. This was, by far, the biggest event that I worked during my time here, and seeing such a large, enthusiastic crowd gathered to share this experience was incredibly moving.
At the latter, I was stunned by just how talented all of the youth poets were. With each performance, the Mumford Room erupted with the applause of supportive family members and other poetry lovers, and goose bumps lined my forearms. Their words were stronger than I ever remembered being at that age, and filled me with hope for a bright poetic future.
While working the events introduced me to a long list of contemporary writers whose performances motivated and inspired me, working with ARPL was a wonderful chance to explore live readings that I never would’ve been able to attend in my lifetime. I felt moved by some of the older recordings, especially by those that featured women and people of color, all those years ago—Lucille Clifton, Maxine Kumin, Sandra Cisneros, just to name a few that struck me the most. Not to mention the fact that it’s all publicly available for everyone’s consumption—that’s something that I never would have known if it weren’t for this internship.
Interning in an office where everyone is so clearly passionate about literature was a wonderful experience. And when I miss it, I’ll always have ARPL, my own copy of Tracy K. Smith’s American Journal anthology, and an abundance of archived Instagram posts from the last several months of the Library’s various wonders.