Recognizing the Power of Words

The following is a guest post by Brooke Biastock, who just completed a month-long internship at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center over the Hollins University January Term.

Intern Brooke Biastock in the Poetry Room.

Since beginning my internship at the Library of Congress in the Poetry and Literature Center, I have been recording daily fun facts in my journal to mark the days with newfound knowledge. I don’t know when I’ll need to know that George Washington was a cartographer in his teen years, that the cherubs lining the staircases in the Jefferson building are depicted laboring rather than frolicking, or that Aram Saroyan was awarded $750 for his one word poem “Lighght” to the great dismay of former Congressman Scherle, but their significance remains. For the fun fact of the day, I will let you know that the average length of time someone is employed at the Library of Congress is 26 years. This remarkable fact is not hard to understand after spending a month in the Jefferson building. Within the Library of Congress one cannot go long without hearing the phrase ‘lifelong learning,’ an idea embodied by everyone in the Library from interns to the Librarian of Congress herself.

This month I have researched dozens of poets, listened to powerful archival recordings of poetry readings, and spent nearly every day in the most beautiful building in Washington. I could not have imagined the impact that these experiences would have upon me, but what I have found most resonant during my time here has been working in such a passionate environment.

National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds. Photo by James J. Reddington.

During my second week here, I had the great pleasure of attending the inauguration of Jason Reynolds as the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. In the crowd of the Coolidge Auditorium sat members of Jason’s family, his former peers, his high school teacher, and his mother, witnesses of Jason’s lifelong learning. His speech included dozens of profound moments showcasing his genuine belief in the power of words. Two of these moments have particularly stuck with me: when Jason said, “There’s nothing special about me; I just knew early on in life that my story mattered,” and when he remarked,

Young people honestly just don’t know yet what it feels like to know that their voices have power, that their voices can move and change a room, can shift the temperature and climate of a country and can literally knock the world off its axis.

Jason’s words reminded me of all of the poets and authors who helped foster my belief that voices have power.

One such person is Marge Piercy, a poet whose work I was introduced to in my 12th grade literature class. I read and analyzed her poems “A Work of Artifice” and “Barbie Doll” for class, amazed by the staying power of her words. A year later, I recited “Barbie Doll” in front of my first-ever creative writing class after being asked to share my favorite poem with my peers.

[Marge Piercy, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front], 1979 or 1980. Prints & Photographs Division.

In a very fortunate act of fate, Marge Piercy was one of the 40 poets I was able to research and write about during my internship. The power of voices, so eloquently described in Jason Reynolds’ speech, reverberated through Marge Piercy’s work and history. Learning about her relationship with her mother, her activism, and her deep love for her many cats enriched my appreciation and understanding of her work. A few days after writing her biography, I had the opportunity to listen to an archival recording of Marge Piercy reading her work alongside Audre Lorde. I have listened to it at least 10 times since. Her voice and the applause of the audience blend, marking the recording with proof of the power of words, of poems.

When I was asked if I was interested in writing a blog post about a recording in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, I knew I wanted to record and share my appreciation for the readings of Audre Lorde and Marge Piercy, which will be added to the archive’s streaming digital collection in April. I hadn’t known that the information I passively absorbed with every listening and re-listening would be preparation for sharing its beauty with other readers through a blog post. Each time I revisited the recording, I found new threads woven through the readings and anecdotes shared. While listening to Marge Piercy’s reading of her poem “Crescent Moon like a Canoe,” I kept recalling her words in interviews and her biography discussing her fraught relationship with her mother. Ideas about motherhood also shone through nearly all of Audre Lorde’s poems during her reading. After writing about what histories and legacies get inherited through maternal lines in my own work, I was excited to examine how both of these remarkable poets addressed such a subject. This blog post (which will be published later this spring) felt like a culmination of all of the things I had learned or was learning at the Library. It was a chance for me to leave my mark on the Library and share some of the information and opportunities it had given me.

In a poem called “For the young who want to,” Piercy reads, “The real writer is one / who really writes … Work is its own cure. You have to / like it better than being loved.” She and Jason Reynolds are certainly real writers and inspirations to those who wish to follow in their footsteps. I wish to be a real writer, to hold onto the power of words and put them on a page, or perform them hearing them ring out into a crowd.

[Edith Wharton, 1862-1937, half, seated at desk, left profile]. Prints & Photographs Division.

Before my internship concluded, I spent an afternoon in the Main Reading Room combing through collections of letters and journals from some of my favorite women authors from the 18th and 19th centuries. For a moment it felt as if I were having a conversation with these authors right in the Library, and in a way, I was. The Main Reading Room, and many adjacent reading rooms, are filled with books and voices begging to be opened up and listened to. In one of Edith Wharton’s letters to Anna Bahlmann, she expresses her excitement at an upcoming trip in 1880, remarking, “Think of reading Shelley’s ‘Evening’ at Pisa where it was written—think of seeing the Campo Santo, and the pine woods where Byron rode near Ravenna.” Wharton was visiting these touchstones, places marked with literary history, and I have shared her excitement in such an experience during my time in the Library of Congress, surrounded by so many literary touchstones.

In a StoryCorps video shown during his inauguration, Jason Reynolds said, “I really believe everybody walking this earth has a story. Everybody has a story that could change the outlook of life for somebody else.” It has been transformative to spend this month within an institution and an office dedicated to preserving and telling those stories. It has been a constant reminder of why I write, and what I find immensely important about sharing poetry and literature. I hope that my work has made an impact continuing that mission during my time here; I know that it has made a profound impact on me.

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