If there was ever anyone who could talk to the animals, it's this guy.
If you want to intimately understand the history of D.C., you may turn to history books, memoirs and documentaries. But perhaps you should start with D.C.’s poetry.
“By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital,” a new poetry anthology from literary historian and poet Kim Roberts, highlights authors and their poems from D.C.’s founding until 1930. The poems wrestle with issues top-of-mind at the time, like abolition, women’s suffrage and national identity. Some poems are hyper-local: A handful are about Howard University, and there’s a sonnet for Dunbar High School. As readers learn about the well-known and obscure poets Roberts features, they also learn about D.C.’s layers of history. And Roberts gives us a glimpse of D.C. geography through the lives of local poets — something she has done before.
Kojo sits down with Roberts to talk about the D.C. poets she features and what we can learn by arguing with the existing canon.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Kim Roberts D.C. literary historian and poet; Editor, "By Broad Potomac's Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation's Capital"; @fan_belt
Excerpt: Preface to "By Broad Potomac's Shore"
Reprinted from “By Broad Potomac’s Shore,” edited by Kim Roberts, by permission of the University of Virginia Press copyright 2020.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. When you want to learn more about D.C.'s history, where do you turn? Do you ever turn to its poetry? Literary historian and poet Kim Roberts did just that in her new anthology, "By Broad Potomac's Shore: Great Poems From the Early Days of Our Nation's Capital." The collection of poems offers an intimate look at D.C. history and challenges the canon by featuring little-known poets alongside famous ones.
KOJO NNAMDIShe joins me now. Kim Roberts is a poet and literary historian. She's the editor of the new anthology "By Broad Potomac's Shore: Great Poems From the Early Days of Our National's Capital." She's also the author of "A Literary Guide to Washington, D.C.: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston." Kim Roberts, thank you very much for joining us.
KIM ROBERTSHello. My pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd you can read Kim Roberts' preface to the anthology at our website, kojoshow.org. Kim Roberts, what first sparked your interest in putting together an anthology of poems from the early days of D.C.?
ROBERTSWell, I think that these are just stories that are less well-known. And I had been researching D.C. writers, oh, since I moved to the city over 30 years ago. And there's something about those early eras that really fascinates me. It was a time when poetry was much more a part of American's daily lives than it is now. Poems would have been reprinted in almost every newspaper. Students would memorize poems in school. Community meetings often started with the recitation of a poem, family gatherings. People included them in letters. Poetry was not considered something just for the educated or the elite. It was for everyone.
NNAMDIHow did the average person think about poetry in the 1800s? Was this a bigger part of their day-to-day lives?
ROBERTSAbsolutely. Yeah, and there was a general sense that poetry was a way to get in touch with your emotional sense, but also to engage with political issues of the time and, oh, to talk about nature and family and love. But also, poems were used as protest. Poems were used to declare your religious faith. Poems were really everywhere.
NNAMDIPoetry has changed a lot, over time. How are the poems in this book different from those we might read by modern poets?
ROBERTSYeah, yeah. (laugh) You do have to get used to a sort of different way of speaking. There was a sense then that poems should be written in a sort of heightened language. And so almost all poems had a regular beat, a regular meter, and were rhymed. So, you know, now we're much more used to most poetry being free verse, but these earlier poems were written in a lot of traditional verse forms.
NNAMDIKim Roberts, in your research you found that most poets largely fell into three groups. What are they?
ROBERTSOkay. I think what you're referring to is the -- I discovered...
NNAMDISubgroups, subgroups, if you will.
ROBERTS...I discovered as I was researching the book that a lot of poets were drawn here to D.C. for federal jobs or to work as journalists. So, I think that might be what you're referring to.
ROBERTSYeah. And, of course, there were also always activists of various kinds who were coming to D.C. to directly try and influence our political moment.
NNAMDIYou also talked about another subgroup -- two others, that I can think of, and that is poets who had been born enslaved...
NNAMDI...and the largest group, journalists. Can you talk about those?
ROBERTSYeah, sure. So, D.C. has -- the history of the city has always been tied directly to slavery. The capital is here because it was a compromise that lawmakers made to get the capital away from northern industrial cities and into the South. And, in the early days, most white residents of D.C. were southern sympathizers, and a lot of them strongly supported the continuation of slavery.
ROBERTSBut having said that, there were not actually a huge percentage of slave owners in the city after especially 1840, 1850. We -- for a southern city, there were very few southern cities where the number of free African Americans outnumbered the number of enslaved African Americans. We were just one of three, along with Baltimore and St. Louis. So, there was a large population of people of African descent, but a smaller percentage of them were enslaved. But we were also a huge center for the abolitionist movement.
ROBERTSI'm not sure how much detail I should go into with this, but, you know, the crops in the country changed as the mid-Atlantic -- the fields just wore out. So, tobacco was no longer widely farmed in the area. And so, most farmers were moving more towards crops like wheat, which didn't need as many people to labor, and it didn't need year-round labor in those fields.
ROBERTSSo, D.C., as a result, became a center in the country for the interstate slave trade. And so, there was just a huge number of people who made their living from the selling of human beings to the Deep South. And because D.C. also was not just a city, it was a symbolic city, it was the capital city, that started a range of abolitionist movements. And one of the most important abolitionist newspapers was started here. So, this is always a site of conflict over enslavement.
NNAMDIAnd that gave rise to a lot of poetry. Talk about the largest group, journalists. Why were so many journalists involved in writing poetry?
ROBERTSYeah. So, journalists came from all across the country -- actually, all around the world, to cover the congressional activities. And journalists, you know, they're writers. And during the time periods that I'm looking at, anyone who was a serious writer would have, at some point, written some poetry. And so, there's a big overlap between the journalists and the poets.
ROBERTSWhat's really interesting about that group is that there were also -- this was just periods when there was this huge expansion of print culture, and there were all these specialty journals. So, there were not just the newspapers from each major metropolitan area represented here, but there were also temperance journals and abolitionist journals. There were women's journals. And so, a lot of these -- almost all of these newspapers published poetry, and a lot of them gave first-time poets an outlet to start publishing their work.
NNAMDIOur guest is Kim Roberts. She is a poet and literary historian. She's the editor of the new anthology, "By Broad Potomac's Shore: Great Poems From the Early Days of Our Nation's Capital." Here's Nancy in Greenbelt, Maryland. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYSure. Thank you very much. My father was part of the Kennedy administration, and he was not a literary guy, but, you know, I realized when I was a kid that he was reading poetry. And one of his favorite ones was Emily Dickinson's "Success is Counted Sweetest By Those Who Ne'er Succeed." I think father thought success was sort of an illusion and a thing to run after, but when you get it, it doesn't get there. And also, Robert Frost's poem, when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, actually one -- "The Road Not Taken" is a very, very complicated poem about whether or not anybody has real choice.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Kim Roberts, it's obvious that people, when confronted with a particular event, not only write poetry, but a lot of people simply turn to reading poetry, correct?
ROBERTSOh, yeah. Yeah, and this remains true. Any major event that happens in the country, you will see just an outpouring on social media and, well, everywhere -- in mainstream media, as well -- people referring back to poems to help them better understand and interpret the events. And I think there's a lot of that happening among the poets in this anthology, as well. They are engaging with what were the major issues of their time.
NNAMDITell us about your research process. I can imagine if some of these writers are not well-known, digging up their poetry may have posed some challenges.
NNAMDI(laugh) And that's an understatement, I guess.
ROBERTSYeah, well, it's -- a few decades of research went into this book. Yeah. So, I spent a lot of time in different archives, including some of the major archives that are here in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress, at George Washington University's Special Collections, in the Washingtonian Room at the D.C. Public Library, at the Mooreland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University. We have a wealth of research institutions here, but I also did a lot of traveling to other archives.
ROBERTSAnd I spent a lot of time looking at the personal papers of people who seemed to be nodes. They gathered other poets and writers around them. And, inevitably, one poet would lead me to others who they were in contact with, and then I could start research those others. So, a lot of my research was around networks of writers. I also spent a lot of time reading newspapers of the period. As I mentioned, a lot of those specialty newspapers were particularly of interest to me. And luckily, a lot of those are not digitized. (laugh) That was not true when I first started doing the research, but it is now.
NNAMDIWell, just to know that your work is appreciated, here is Kyle in Washington, D.C. Kyle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KYLEI am. Thank you, Kojo. Hi, Kim. I just wanted to call and thank you for the work that you're doing with this anthology, following up on your work with "Full Moon on K Street." You know, D.C. is the place where people love to come to appreciate literature and poetry. You know, we have the Library of Congress. We have the Shakespeare Library. We have the National Book Festival that happens here. But I think, oftentimes, people don't notice all the poetic activity that's going on around them. And I think this anthology just extends that backwards further into history. So, I just want to thank you for your continued efforts in that regard.
ROBERTSThank you, Kyle. That means a lot to me. That was one of, I think, the most significant contemporary D.C. poets, Kyle Dargan.
NNAMDIOh, Kyle, thank you very much for your call. Kim Roberts, how did you decide which poets and poems to include in this book? D.C. has always been a transient place. How did you decide whether an author was a, quote-unquote, "D.C. poet"?
ROBERTSYeah, I did actually look at a number of poets who came through for shorter periods of time and then decided not to include them. So, I wanted people who had some significant connection to the city. For me, that meant that they had to have lived here for at least a couple of years. And many of these poets lived here much longer. I have some lifelong residents included in the book.
ROBERTSBecause the time period that I'm looking at includes the time before retrocession, I also include some poets who we would now consider as being from Northern Virginia. But, initially, that was an area that was considered part of D.C.
NNAMDISo many famous poets spent time in D.C. Can you remind us of the more prominent poets who found themselves in the nation's capital?
ROBERTSSure. Yeah, well, the names that I think everyone will recognize include Francis Scott Key, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglas, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar. So, some very famous poets lived for significant periods of their lives in D.C. And, of course, I include all of them. I make a point of including (laugh) the big names.
ROBERTSBut you don't actually put an anthology together. You don't do this work if you're just going to agree with all of the previous critics' sense of who is important. So, I also made quite a bit of effort to include writers whose names even the best-read readers will not recognize. And I was specifically looking for women poets, working-class poets and poets of color.
NNAMDIHere is Julie in Washington, D.C. Julie, your turn.
JULIEGood afternoon. Thank you. Well, one of my favorite local poets is E. Ethelbert Miller, and especially his book, "If God Invented Baseball." What could be better than marrying poetry and baseball, in my mind? Is he in your book?
ROBERTSNo, because I do not include contemporary poets.
ROBERTSSo, the period that my book covers is from the city's founding in 1800, right up until literature really changed with the rise of modernism. So, I go to about 1930.
JULIEWell, obviously he's much newer.
NNAMDIYeah, as a matter of fact, I think he's having a birthday this week, Julie, and so I'm going to wish him an early happy birthday, Ethelbert. Of course, anyone in Washington who likes and knows poetry generally knows who E. Ethelbert Miller is. So, Julie, thank you very much for your call. Here is Bill, in Bethesda. Bill, it's your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHi, there, Kojo. I heard earlier that you were looking for poets that were residents or born in the District of Columbia. And although he's a modern poet, and I just heard your guest say that her anthology stopped in 1930, one of my favorite poets is Campbell McGrath. Campbell was born in the District of Columbia and now lives in Florida, and was first runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2017. And has a number of other very interesting books and anthologies and poems, "Florida Poems, "Capitalism," "American Noise." So, when you were looking for D.C.-born poets, I just thought I would mention Campbell's name.
NNAMDIWell, this book "By Broad Potomac's Shore: Great Poems From the Early Days of Our Nation's Capital" will show you historical proof that there has never been a shortage of poets in Washington, D.C. Some who were born here, and some who lived here for a while. But thank you very much for your call. Kim Roberts, you include some poets who have been, well, on the wrong side of history, like Albert Pike, who, as you mentioned, was a popular poet in his day but also a Confederate soldier and Ku Klux Klan member. Why did you include Pike and others like him?
ROBERTSYeah. For the most part, I wanted to include poets whose work I really love. But there were some poets who I felt, because of their historical importance, needed to be included in the volume, as well. So, you know, I think if you're going to understand these early periods, you do have to take a look at some of these more egregious voices, like Albert Pike's. And he is there to emphasize that D.C. was a southern city, that there was a lot of sympathy toward the southern lost cause. And I don't want to make an argument for his continued importance to the influence of modern poets, but I think that just in terms of getting a complete historic picture, I felt like I couldn't leave him out.
NNAMDIOne poet you feature, Charlotte Forten Grimke, who wrote in the late 19th century and is moderately well-known, she apparently paved the way for many black women poets, locally. Tell us what she did.
ROBERTSI love her work. Yeah. So, Charlotte Forten Grimke came out of one of the most prominent free black families of Philadelphia. And I really feel that, you know, without that Forten family, American poetry would be a very different landscape, indeed. Charlotte Forten Grimke, at the end of the Civil War, was a volunteer literacy teacher in the Georgia Sea Islands and wrote about that experience. It was published in the mainstream white press.
ROBERTSBut she also wrote these incredible, just beautiful poems -- I adore her work -- which were less well-known during her time period, although she was publishing them in journals. But she never published a full-length, single-author book. When she moved to D.C., she married one of the most prominent pastors in the city. She opened her home weekly for a salon where African American intellectuals could discuss the arts and civil rights.
ROBERTSAnd she's just a hero. She just paved the way. She made so many writers of color realize that this life of the mind was possible for them, that they could publish, they could publish, oftentimes, on controversial subjects. Her work is stunning.
NNAMDIWe only have less than a minutes left, but what are you hoping readers will learn about poetry and about Washington, D.C. with this anthology?
ROBERTSWell, I do hope that they will look at not just the history of the city, which is very well represented here, but also, there's a larger story that gets told because we're the capital, because we are symbolic of the country, as a whole. These poems end up also telling an American story. And so much of the early poetry from these eras really does set out, as its goal, a kind of defining of what it means to be American.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have.
NNAMDIKim Roberts, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERTSOh, thank you for the opportunity.
NNAMDIThis segment about discovering D.C. history through poetry was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation about COVID-19 safety measures in Maryland was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up tomorrow, an obscure mathematical principle called Benford's Law is at the center of some election fraud claims. A University of Maryland professor explains how it's being misapplied, and the reaction she's getting from those who don't want to do the math.
NNAMDIPlus, we often say laughter is the best medicine, and area comedians are doing their best to deliver this medicine during these pandemic times. How can you still get your laughs while staying safe? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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