While the I-495 beltway encircling Washington, D.C. may elicit thoughts of morale-crushing congestion and fender benders, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, an online literary journal and resource bank, instead traffics in some of the best writing from D.C.’s literary scene. We talked to its founder and editor, Kim Roberts, about her work with the journal and her history in D.C. and environs.
KYLE DARGAN: I assume that most people around D.C. today know you as the editor of Beltway Poetry, but you mentioned to me before that you’ve had a considerable career in the D.C.-area arts scene. Would you mind talking about that background a bit?
KIM ROBERTS: I moved here for a teaching job over twenty years ago (as an adjunct at the University of Maryland), but soon transitioned to the nonprofit arts world, where I’ve worked for the most part ever since. My arts administration jobs have included Publicist for the DC Shorts Film Festival, Director of an after-school arts program for elementary school students called Project Create, Executive Director of the Friends of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, and Arts Education Specialist for the Cultural Affairs Division of Arlington County government.
For the past few years, I have worked as a freelance writer and editor, but starting this Fall, I will be the Director of the National Award for Arts Writing, an annual book award administered by the Arts Club of Washington.
In addition to Beltway Poetry, I also edit another online journal, Delaware Poetry Review, which is a group effort with five other editors. I serve on a couple of advisory boards, teach a memoir class at a Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, research and write the annual walking tours for The Big Read program (through the Humanities Council of Washington), participate in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Poets-in-the-Schools program each Spring, and recently started volunteering for the DC Advocates for the Arts.
DARGAN: So, in the midst of all those commitments, how did you come to create Beltway Poetry and how has it evolved over time?
ROBERTS: My friend Kathy Keler started Washingtonart.com as a website for D.C.-area visual artists. She convinced me to add a literary component, and was actually the person who designed the journal and taught me the basics of HTML. I would never have done it without Kathy’s considerable help (and prodding). I was focused on the journal at first, but soon the Resource Bank developed, and that’s now as big a part of the website as the poems.
The site is very well read—I’ve got a subscriber list of almost 5,000—and I think I’ve learned a lot over the years. I think I’m a better editor now. The format of the journal evolved over time. So, now the four issues each year are fairly set: I edit one or two general issues a year, selecting between four and six featured poets from the D.C. area. Then there is one themed issue with an open call for entries, and I often do another special issue which might focus on D.C.’s literary history—a subject dear to my heart. And one issue is always guest edited by a writer who has been featured in a previous issue of the journal. The next issue, which I’m co-editing with Katie Davis, will be our first All Audio Issue. I’m still learning.
DARGAN: Special issues can be very taxing. If you are publishing two to three special issues a year for Beltway Poetry (as we speak, you’re reviewing submissions for an issue on museums and ekphrasis), how do you manage the editorial workload?
ROBERTS: Yes, the special issues take a lot more work! But I feel that they are important, since regular issues are “curated” by me or a guest editor. The themed issues are a way for me to open the journal to poets I might not otherwise discover on my own, and many poets featured in the general issues first appeared in a themed issue of the journal.
DARGAN: You guide a fairly popular literary walking tour, and GLBT walking tour, of the District of Columbia. What would you say are the city’s least known literary facts?
ROBERTS: We are famous as the seat of American government, not as a writer’s city. But of course writers have always thrived here. Walking tours are a great way to tell our stories in an experiential, immediate way.
Walking through the neighborhoods and looking more deeply at our built environment is great fun. The GLBT Tour was actually researched and led by Dan Vera, not me. But I have given Walt Whitman Walking Tours, and several different versions of Harlem Renaissance tours, including ones focused on Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I am fascinated by the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance was not called that at its inception. It was originally known as the New Negro Movement. Only later did it get such a New York-centered name. And that’s very misleading! The Harlem Renaissance actually started here in Washington, D.C.!
DARGAN: One of Beltway Poetry’s recent special issues was a focus on the Split this Rock Poetry Festival sponsored by D.C. Poets Against the War and others. What do you think of poetry as propaganda against the current administration (which seems to have a strong audience in D.C.)? What effect, if any, do you believe these writers and organizers have on the capital city and the nation?
ROBERTS: I have always been drawn to poetry that is engaged with the world, poetry that builds community, rather than poetry that is more internalized and confessional in mode. Poetry that is purely propaganda does nothing—political poems, like any other kind of poem, must transform personal experience to become art. I’m not interested in propaganda, and I think any work that is overly didactic in the end fails as art.
I was so pleased to be involved with Split This Rock. When I co-edited that special issue of the journal with Regie Cabico, we started with a discussion of definitions. I think our definition of “political poetry” needs to be extended beyond the scope of poems on war and peace and world leaders. Any topic that is written at the intersection of personal experience or personal identity and the larger community is a political poem. I think political poems should lift us out of ourselves, challenge us to see in new ways, and to think more deeply about cultural norms. So, depending on how they are written, poems about pop culture, love, or nature can be “political” poems.
And of course I believe that our sense of place should infuse our writing. D.C. is an inherently political city, where our major industry is government, where that single-minded focus sometimes makes this seem like a “company town.” In Beltway Poetry, I am trying to capture a sense of that political identity, because it’s part of what makes this city distinct.
As to what effect political poems have on D.C. and the nation, I don’t know. Poems are powerful because they make us work harder than other written forms to create meaning, because we can’t read them passively. We can more easily trace what effect poems have on individuals. But I think that’s a start. That’s a fine start.
KIM ROBERTS is the author of two books of poems, most recently The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007). She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts, and has been a writer-in-residence at eleven artist colonies. For more information on Roberts and her work, please visit http://www.kimroberts.org.