What brought you to DC and when, or if you already lived in the area, what were you doing?
I came to DC in Sept 1971 to play music---I knew a lot of musicians here through my brother, who moved here to attend Howard U in the mid 1960s. For most of my 30 years in DC, I've been in bands (primarily with an Irish band called Celtic Thunder, which I started with my brother in 1977 and left in 1998, and earlier with a string band called The Fast Flying Vestibule).
What were your initial contacts with the poetry community at that time? who were your first acquaintances, how did you first meet and/or continue to meet?
Soon after arriving (late '71/early 72), I got a job at Discount Book Shop on Dupont Circle (approximately where Olsson's is now, but the original space no longer exists). One of my tasks was running the poetry section, which I quickly filled with all kinds of small-press titles and other non-mainstream stuff. Ed Cox, DC native and terrific poet who died about 4 or 5 years ago at age 46, started coming into the store and talking poetry with me. He invited me to an open reading in the empty room over the Community Book Shop (on P ST, off the Circle) that was just starting up. So I started going. The weekly reading, which we called Mass Transit, was, eventually, my introduction to many DC poets of the day---Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Bernie Welt, Tim Dlugos, P. Inman, Tina Darragh, Lynne Dreyer, Beth Joselow, Liam Rector, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joan Retallack, Ethelbert Miller, Ed Sullivan, and many others, including the occasional crazy off the street. But it was a powerful assembly of talent. Doug Lang was involved toward the end of MT, when he began his own reading series at Folio Book, where 2nd Story is now. Diane Ward also entered the picture sometime after MT. So, the '70s were a very active time on the avant-garde poetry front in DC. I credit Michael Lally and, later, Doug Lang with being the two most significant catalysts in those days.
What were the primary venues for the gathering of the community at the time? reading series, performances, bookstores, publishing ventures,etc.
Along with the readings above, we also started a magazine called Mass Transit, with a rotating editor (I was its first), and a press called Some of Us Press (me, Michale Lally, Lee Lally, Ed Cox, Ed Zahniser). Michael Lally had a press called O Press; Doug Lang had one called Jawbone; Doug, Diane Ward, Bernie Welt, and I had a press for a while called Titanic Books. P. Inman ran a magazine called everybody's ex-lover. Doug Lang put out a number of issues of a magazine called Dog City. [I'm writing all this quickly & off the top of my head, so I'm sure I'm leaving out lots of crucial people, events, publications etc.]
What was the kind and level of activity in the scene? who was your audience? who were the featured out-of-town visitors? what were the big events? what kinds of interactions were going on among the community's members?
The Mass Transit readings attracted people from many other scenes in other cities. The counterculture was still in full swing in those days, so the networks were political, sexual, cultural, as well as esthetic. There was a close affiliation with the St Mark's poetry scene, and visiting poets were always showing up. Michael Lally started a reading series at the Pyramid Gallery in Dupont Circle, pairing a DC poet with an out-of-towner. John Ashbery et al. were among those who read. Doug Lang started the Folio readings along the same lines, but Doug's readings lasted for years & brought, it seemed, just about every significant poet to DC. Ted Berrigan, Fielding Dawson, Tom Raworth, et al. Most of the local poets----the MT and Folio veterans---all lived in DC, mostly in Dupont Circle, and spent a good deal of time together. Eating. Drinking. Smoking. Writing poems. Going to movies. Smoking some more.
What were the gender, race, and class dynamics involved in the community at the time?
It seemed to me to be pretty heterogeneous & diverse.
Was there at all a sense amongst yourselves of factors or qualities that made the scene identifiable with the place that is DC? a style of writing, a set of concerns, editorial stances, etc.? similarly, was there at all a sense of the same held by outsiders looking in?
There wasn't anything so conspicuous as a strong political current, in the sense of poems about American politics (as opposed to poems that were in some crucial way political, directly or indirectly). But insofar as people wrote about or referred to places and events in DC in the their esthetic landscapes, then you could say there were many poems that were specific to DC.
DC has never really gotten the attention it deserves in the histories of alternative poetry that are being or have been written (e.g., language poetry as an almost purely bicoastal (NYC-SF) phenomenon); do you agree or disagree, and why do you think that is (not) the case?
There was and still is such a strong language-school presence in DC (Ward, Inman, Darragh, Dreyer, Retallack, etc. and more recently Rod Smith, Tom Mandel, Jean Donnelly and others) that it would seem impossible to overlook. In the '70s and '80s, there was a tremendous amount of interaction betw DC and NY, and DC and Baltimore, and everyone in those places in those days was aware of the symbiosis going on. I think there was a belief that "The Dupont Circle School" was an offshoot of the New York School. I still read every few years at St. Mark's, as do others (I think) from down here. There was also a strong gay poetry scene, or at least poets who were gay and recognized as such by the wider gay community---Tim Dlugos, Ed Cox, Jim Everhard, Lee Lally (now all deceased), and Bernie Welt in particular.
What were the limitations of the scene or community? things that you felt should have been done that weren't, etc.
In the old days, everything was perfect
Crowds came and cheered for us
The food was tasty
Drinks were free
Books were free
You got all the sex you could handle
It never rained
It never poured
No one ever got jealous
of anyone else
Was there a moment at which the community or scene as you knew it began to change, for better or worse? took off in exciting new directions or fell flat on its face unable to get up?
I think there's been an amazing degree of continuity between the scene of 25+ years ago and today. Doug Lang is an important link between the eras, and probably knows more poets---and knows their work better--than anyone else. The readings and publications that Mark Wallace, Buck Downs, Rod Smith et al. have run have been A Bridge to the 21st Century. I don't get to too many readings these days, but when I do I'm often delighted to run into Doug, or Beth, or Pete, or Tina. By the late '80s, enough people had died, left town, settled down etc. that the concentration of poets in Dupont Circle was no more.