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Five Questions with Rob Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center

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Rob Casper

The following is a guest post from Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I am the head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library. The Center is home to the U.S. Poet Laureate, the only federally-funded position for a literary artist in the country and the most visible position for a poet by far. We also put on over 40 programs—readings, panels, symposia, and such—every year, and we have a robust website which features online-only content such as our “Interview Series” as well as webcasts from our events.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

Well, as a poetry person I have to say I’m thrilled by the wealth of Walt Whitman materials we have, and the “Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass” exhibition page is a great place to start exploring. I’m also proud of our two new audio archives we’ve put online this past year: the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (ARPL) and the Archive of Hispanic Poetry on Tape (AHLOT). Both offer gems, such as a recording of Pablo Neruda in our studio or the historic anniversary reading for the Academy of American Poets in our Coolidge Auditorium.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

Every time the center celebrates the birthday of a great writer, as part of our “Literary Birthdays” series, we feature a tabletop display of materials by one of our curators. There are always exciting finds there—come check it out yourself! This spring we’ll celebrate the birthdays of Elizabeth Bishop (February 8) and Flannery O’Connor (March 25). On the Poetry and Literature website you can find past birthday events, for Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Robert Frost, Zora Neale Hurston, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

When our current Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera gave his opening reading in September, he introduced Layla Sampson—his third grade teacher. He then told the story of how he was a shy student just learning English, and how Mrs. Sampson told him, “You have a beautiful voice”—which changed his life. Mrs. Sampson is now 94, and let me tell you she was the hero of that night. I still cannot get over how much those words mattered, to young Juan Felipe and ultimately to all of us.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?

Well, the Poetry and Literature Center is programs-based, so I’d like to say: please come to our programs. I’m very excited about our event this Wednesday evening championing contemporary American poetry, to teen audiences. When I was in high school, I thought I hated poetry—it seemed highfalutin’ and inscrutable, and didn’t seem to have much to do with my life. And I’m sure many teens still feel that way! If only they had the chance to read poems such as “Obedience, or the Lying Tale” by Jennifer Chang—which begins, “I will do everything you tell me, Mother,” and goes a long way through the wild lands of the imagination until concluding, “Mother, I study escape.” What teenager can’t relate to that? Bring your students to hear Jennifer and Mark McMorris (poet profs from George Washington and Georgetown University, respectively) talk to editors about making an anthology filled with teen-friendly lyrics of the printed sort. And if you can’t come, look for the webcast! Something about being at the world’s largest library brings out the best in our presenters, and I’m sure Wednesday’s event will be no exception.


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