Tom, I'm here at work, and it stinks, and I'm finally learning that it's better to look busy than to be asleep with my eyes open and focused on images/words that are burning themselves into the monitor screen. No better time to talk about DCPoetry. I've been here in D.C. for only eight years, but it seems as if I was always here because poets linked to D.C. really make you feel like you're home. I get really itchy being in NYC or Philadelphia or San Francisco. I love parts and poets of those places, too, but I need to be where my people are. I may move to Fredericksburg, VA, next year for reasons of the heart, and I'm mighty anxious about it. D.C.'s only an hour away, but an hour ain't a hop on the train up to Dupont then a skip up to Adams Morgan to see the poets at DCAC. OK, anyway, eight years ago I came to D.C. to work at 2nd & D, the big shelter & drug treatment joint that Ronald Reagan sold to Mitch Snyder for $1 back in the eighties. I came to do grassroots organizing but ended up teaching literacy & helping run the shelter library & arts center. At the same time, I started taking some graduate classes at George Mason University. I really lucked out at GMU, not because the classes were worth a Pell Grant but because I met Jean Donnelly. The first encounter I had with Jean was during the first class of Carolyn Forche's Poetry of Witness course. A woman entered the classroom, rolling in a TV/VCR cart. I thought, this must be Carolyn Forche. The woman said, "You're going to watch Hiroshima," then got the film going and left the room. At the second class a week later, there was no sign of this woman whom I assumed was Ms. Forche, but there was a woman talking about Beirut and death squads and Claribel Alegria. She was the REAL Ms. Forche. So who was the Hiroshima woman? I didn't find out until we both took Ms. Forche's poetry workshop in the spring of '94. Jean Donnelly wrote poems that were like CPR to me. And one day she gave me a flyer for a poetry reading: In Your Ear Experimental Poetry Series, DCAC, Tom Raworth & Doug Lang. I'd been in D.C. for two years and had no idea anyone else knew who Raworth was or that he would actually come to D.C. to give a reading. That's a shame, given D.C.'s kickass history of poetry, but I really had no clue, moving in the all-consuming, oddly complacent microcosm of a shelter.
So Jean took me to the reading in her pickup, and damned if D.C. didn't turn out to be the promised land. Here was this place with a black box where poets read & poets gathered. The reading of course was stellar, with Raworth hitting me over the head with a big poetry frying pan and introducing me to one Mr. Doug Lang, that magic chevy of media-stompin luv. Afterwards, I learned just how much a person can drink, but before that, Jean introduced me to the young William Faulkner-looking feller smoking on the steps to the black box. This feller was Rod Smith. Jean told him that I also kick out a poem or two here and there, and Rod asked if I had any with me. I happened to have a stack, which I left with him. A week later, I received a postcard in the mail, which was a pretty big event at the shelter. On one side was a Life in Hell cartoon, and on the reverse was a note from Rod: "Thanx for the poems. They are smart, sexy. Keep working hard. Rod Smith." Just a few things float my boat, and follow-up is one of them.
Not long after that I got a call from Rod inviting me to a "salon" he was holding at his place. A character named Bill Howe from SUNY-Buffalo was in town, and folks were dropping by to hear him read and to have a few beers. It took three city buses to get to Rod's place up past the Cathedral, but it was worth it just to see Bill Howe's giant mohawk, which was spray-painted blue. It was a marvel to behold. I sat on the floor next to Jenny Gough, who had recently had some "sonnets" published in TO. Tina Darragh & Pete Inman were chatting animatedly with a magnetic presence in the rocking chair, one Joan Retallack, whom Bill kept trying to convince to try some unlabeled imported beers. I am thinking that other people were there, but I shredded a decade's worth of journals earlier this year, so the answer is somewhere in the loam. But I know for sure that someone else was there, some head shrinker dude who told me that Bill Howe was Susan Howe's son. I can't tell you the number of times that piece of information has gotten me in trouble. Anyway, Bill gave a reading that was like an Episcopalean prayer service compared to the readings (performances) I would see him give in later years. And he passed around copies of I AM A CHILD: POETRY AFTER BRUCE ANDREWS, which he edited, as well as copies of his TRIPFLEA, which he called "alternatively bound," and copies of a poem-poster of Susan Howe's (no relation). Then Rod suggested that everybody else read a poem, and I tried to exercise my supernatural powers and make myself invisible. It didn't work, and Rod handed me the stack of poems I had given him weeks before and made me pick something to read. And that was the first time I read in front of D.C. poets.
It seems that Rod was becoming my poetry "point man." He would load me up with copies of AERIAL and other reading material and call to tell me about upcoming events. One such event was a reading at the Pentagon City Borders. Rod said he couldn't go but that I "should go and meet some of the other poets; Mark Wallace will be reading, and he's worked with Bob Creeley and Charles Bernstein." So I took that Blue Line train to hell to hear this Mark Wallace, "author of COMPLICATIONS FROM STANDING IN A CIRCLE." As I walked into the Borders, Eleanor Holmes Norton was walking out, and I didn't know whether to take that as a good or bad sign. In any case, it turned out that the reading series at Borders was called "The Ground Zero" series and was run by this cat named Denis Sai, an intense person with bootblack hair who was very committed to opening the doors of Borders to all sorts of poets, the ones who say fuck as well as the ones who say hermeneutic, and so on. Mark gave a dizzingly great reading, and I told him so afterwards, and he asked me if I was the person Rod said to look out for. I guess I was, and Mark introduced me to two of my future co-conspirators and muses, Joe Ross and Buck Downs. Joe struck me as a sort of ambassador of the experimental poetry community, with his good spirits and fistfull of literature detailing upcoming readings at DCAC. And he looked sort of like Geddy Lee, so of course I was endeared to him immediately. Buck was sort of hiding in the periodicals section, with ball cap and earphones and the vibe of someone I'd instantly like. I wish I had a clearer mental picture of Buck from that meeting because I'd like to know if he made any purchases. Buck has this gift for going into any store and homing in on the best item in the joint.
Most everything since those initial meetings is a blur. There have been so many readings, projects, magazines, books, drinking binges, so much energy. There's been collective activism & grieving. There's been the stuff of legend. Like the time Rod & I were driving back from Buffalo where we did a reading & Rod caught the car on fire -- the car with the rotten bananas in the back seat and the vanity plate "GOINTAFUN." Or the time Jean, Buck, Mark, Rod, Anselm Berrigan, & I read in the Fairfax City Council chambers. Or the time Joan introduced a line-up of Linda Pastan and Creeley at the Folger Library. The legend aside, I cut through the blur a bit by looking at THE WASHINGTON REVIEW. The REVIEW is an institution that is not generally viewed as a bastion of the experimental but that has always supported and been supported by the experimental. It's now 25 years old and is one of the most eclectic, damn inconsistent journals you ever did love. The archive of the REVIEW boggles the mind. A lot of the history of D.C. experimental poetry is in the arcane mechanical print of the Review, tended by literary editors such as Beth Joselow, Doug Lang, and Joe Ross. Check out an interview with Rod, Mark, & Buck and see what I mean.