Perseverance of Poetry: A Farewell from Intern Megan Jenkins

The following is a guest post by Megan Jenkins, who completed a 2019-20 academic year internship at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center last month.

Megan Jenkins, 2019-2020 Poetry and Literature Center intern.

When I applied for the academic-year internship position at the Poetry and Literature Center during the summertime of 2019, I honestly did not believe I would be accepted. I had found the posting back in March 2019 while on spring break with a friend—when she and her mom had noticed I was stuck between pursuing my passion for literature and poetry, and caving to societal expectations with fears of my degree not carrying any meaning in the “real” world.

My decision to apply was out of the feeling that I simply had nothing to lose—the worst thing they could say is no, right? I had just started my senior year at American Military University, and I had no professional knowledge about the literary world. No experiences, accolades, or connections to showcase on a resumé, just two part-time jobs that had nothing to do with any career or industry I was aspiring to pursue. My only “experience” was my passion for learning about literature, and volunteering at my local library. I didn’t have a solid plan for what the next chapter of my life was going to be, and I just felt stagnant in a time when I needed to move.

So, my move was to apply to the world’s largest library, because why not? I love books, libraries, literature, and poetry. It’s not like I would get it anyway.

Until I did.

Shortly after I was told I got the position, and after getting over my shock of actually getting accepted, I decided to visit the Library of Congress before I felt like a fraud for applying to a place I had never even been to (which I discovered later on is completely normal for “real” adults to do). Just walking up to the building screamed prestige. The inside even more so.

I had never been inside a more architecturally well-crafted and symbolic building. Every hall, room, and wall of the Library of Congress had a story—from colorful mosaics, to beautifully inspired Roman columns, to intricately detailed paintings that represented an important concept in literary history. One of my personal favorite sights is the painted history about writing on the lower walls of the Great Hall, near the Gutenberg Bible. It tells the story of how humans began writing.

Polaroid photos taken around the Library of Congress and in the Poetry Room.

I began my internship in September, which started out with aiding in the preparations for the U.S Poet Laureate’s Inaugural Reading. Joy Harjo was chosen to be the 23rd U. S. Poet Laureate, becoming the first Native American to be appointed to the position. Her performance, just like her poetry, was soothing, rooted in Native American history and symbolism, and conveyed a powerfully modern message. I also attended a ‘Life of a Poet’ event featuring Carmen Giménez Smith. These events marked the first time I had heard a poet read their poetry, and the first time I saw first-hand how poetry can bring people together with shared experiences.

This internship has taught me so much about literary programming and public event planning, which was honestly quite the treat because I now have a whole newfound respect for public program series like National Book Festival Presents. I learned about poets and writers from all over the world. I also learned that the Library of Congress houses seemingly countless archives that contain literal pieces of history, which are progressively becoming digitized online so everyone can access such treasures and learn more about them.

The primary archive I had the pleasure of working with and researching was the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, a collection of recordings dating back over 75 years that features writers reading their work. Listening to poets and writers read their pieces and provide some context to their intentions and/or interpretations was life changing in the eyes of this young new artist. I obtained so much of my newfound knowledge and understanding of poetry and literature through the recorded words of many who have since passed on, yet their voices and messages live on through this audio archive.

One of my top highlights from this internship was the opportunity to spend hours in the Manuscript Division’s reading room, reading numerous handwritten and typed correspondences between Archibald MacLeish and Ernest Hemingway. My main purpose of exploring the Manuscript Division was to see Ernest Hemingway’s writing, but what I got was so much more. I spent hours reading letters and memos, which seemed like old-fashioned text messages, between these two remarkable writers. I had just taken a class on Ernest Hemingway’s life and his works, so I thought it would be interesting to dive into some of the Library’s offerings. I did not expect, however, to discover such personal and remarkably preserved letters that completely changed the way I viewed Hemingway. He wasn’t just a dead writer I learned about in a classroom anymore: He was a person whose unedited pieces have become some of my favorites. His letters contained mistakes (my favorite being a $ sign at which he cursed in his typing), but more importantly they contained a more unedited stream of words, thoughts, and character. As I was reading some of his letters, I noticed common themes about who he was that made me understand him and his writing better: one being his frequent request that “Archie” (poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish) would visit him and would continue to write good ol’ “Pappy” (a.k.a. him, Hemingway). It was almost like reading bits of what would have been Hemingway’s personal diary, which made it that much more of a beautiful experience for a young aspiring writer.

Some of my other favorite memories from this experience are seemingly the most mundane—from counting and shipping off bookmarks, to walking down Pennsylvania Ave. and grabbing a morning coffee each day, to sitting in the Poet Laureate’s office to work, to simply commuting on the metro in the morning and evening. Even just getting to tune in on daily meetings with my supervisors and learn about basic office ethics and innovative collaboration was a wonderful experience for me. These accumulations of small moments gave me exposure and just practical knowledge to how the “real” world works in a career field.

Polaroid photos taken around the Library of Congress and in the Poetry Room.

I was also given an incredible opportunity to write some blog posts for the Poetry and Literature Center’s blog, of which I will forever feel proud. I chose my topics from recordings in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature that made a significant impression on me. My first post focused on Dudley Randall, and my second on Lucille Clifton. Both of these poets shared not only their remarkable poetry, but insights into civil rights and injustices happening in America during their times, which also seem particularly resonant now.

The last leg of my internship was difficult due to COVID-19. All nonessential businesses closed, and soon there was a stay-at-home order. I continued my internship remotely, completing some final archival tasks and writing blog posts.

Interning at the PLC allowed me to apply literary knowledge I was learning in my undergraduate program, but also allowed me the freedom to learn more. Being surrounded by supervisors and fellow interns who share a common passion for the literary arts has helped me immensely to gain assurance in my ability to continue to pursue this knowledge and apply it in the “real world.” I am incredibly grateful not just for the time I did have to go to the Library of Congress in person, but also for the incredible patience and flexibility of the Poetry and Literature Center’s staff throughout this pandemic.

Most importantly, though, I am grateful that this internship gave me the confidence to finally see and enter a new chapter, stepping into the “real world,” which is attending graduate school in the fall. I would have never believed I was good enough to go to graduate school if not for the Poetry and Literature Center: This internship was a positive test of my perseverance; I achieved what I felt I was incapable of achieving.

Best of the National Book Festival: Natasha Trethewey and Jenny Xie, 2019

Looking forward to the 2020 National Book Festival? In the meantime, you can watch past festival presentations by exploring our full National Book Festival video collection—which includes this video of Natasha Trethewey and Jenny Xie discussing “the poetry of place” and their new books, “Monument: Poems New and Selected” (Trethewey) and “Eye Level” (Xie), on the Poetry & Prose stage at the 2019 Festival.

Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth”

In commemoration of Juneteenth, Manuscript Division curator Barbara Bair explores Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel. First published posthumously in 1999 as “Juneteenth,” and a decade later (in 2010) as “Three Days Before the Shooting…,” Ellison’s novel takes a deep dive into the complexities of race and violence and prices of transformation in America.

There’s a Library of Congress Affiliate Near You (And They Have Great Programs to Offer!)

The Library of Congress, through its Center for the Book, has affiliates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now, you can learn about your local Center for the Book’s public programs in one place: Our newly launched Calendar of Events tells you what your state or territory is doing as well as the activities of other Affiliate Centers. And, through the beauty of the internet, you can be a part of programs from just about any state, as the current pandemic has forced almost all programs to go online.

The House I Live In: Philip Roth’s America

For Jewish American Heritage Month, Manuscript Division curator Barbara Bair explores Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America” (and its recent television adaptation). Set between 1940 and 1942, when Roth himself was a child, the novel examines the status of being Jewish and being American in a particularly perilous time period in American and world history.