The Folger Shakespeare Library houses a rare and almost inexhaustible collection of manuscripts, books, artwork, and other items related to the life and writings of William Shakespeare. But you would be remiss to overlook the collection of contemporary poetry books lining the walls (and ceilings in some cases) of Folger Poetry and Lectures Coordinator Teri Cross Davis’ office. A former producer for The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Teri isn’t looking to reinvent the poetry wheel at the Folger, but she is steering into some new territory. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about the library and the upcoming season of poets.
KYLE DARGAN: How do you see the Poetry Series fitting into the Folger Shakespeare Library’s general mission of preserving manuscripts and providing access to, and understanding of, Shakespeare’s body of work?
TERI CROSS DAVIS: I see the Folger Poetry Series as the contemporary arm waving hello from the body of Shakespeare’s work and, more specifically, his poetry. Many poets learn from Shakespeare’s plays and/or his sonnets, and I don’t think I’ve ever met one poet who could say, for better or worse, that they had never read his work. For me, this series is just one way to make people appreciate Shakespeare the poet, the long-reaching influence of his work, and the effect his poetry still has, even today.
DARGAN: When you are putting together different writers for readings at the Folger, what criteria do you use? For example, are you more interested in attracting an audience of mixed constituencies or are you looking for certain aesthetic balance?
CROSS DAVIS: I would say that I am interested in doing both—trying to attract an audience with a variety of poetic tastes, inclinations, and experiences as well as trying to provide that audience with a season of poets who appeal on many different levels. Now in our fortieth season, we’ve invited a lot of poets to read at the Folger. I am very sensitive about not wanting to retread the same ground. I also want to make sure the Folger Poetry Series is about bringing new voices to the Washington, D.C. literary community as well as highlighting voices who are at the height of their craft.
DARGAN: What many may not know about Washington, D.C. is that it is saturated with poetry. What do you think the Folger’s niche is in terms of the city’s poetry scene?
CROSS DAVIS: I think the Folger Poetry Series occupies a special space in the D.C. literary scene, mainly in terms of how long it’s been around and the variety of poets we’ve bought to the area. Also I look back at the series contribution to the poetry scene here in D.C., like the Midday Muse series and some of the poets highlighted in that series who later became fixtures of the D.C. scene, like Myra Sklarew who went on to found the poetry program American University. Also Charles David Wright, another great poet who read for that series. And the Ascension series with E. Ethelbert Miller highlighted the range of diverse and up-and-coming poets. In many ways our tagline about the series says is best, “A stage for contemporary poetry’s most eloquent voices”: from the lyrical to the experimental, or the emerging to the long-cherished.
DARGAN: Can you say a bit about your “Shakespeare’s Sisters” program, and how it was conceived?
CROSS DAVIS: Shakespeare’s Sisters is the brainchild of an incredible and dynamic woman named Louisa Newlin. She, until recently, was an education consultant with the library’s Education department. Working with my predecessor, Libbie Rifkin, Louisa crafted a nine-week seminar to highlight poetry written by women from Shakespeare’s time to the present. I’ve now co-taught this seminar for three years; the first year with Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford, head of the Folger Poetry Board. In the subsequent years, Gigi and I co-taught the seminar. Every year, I get so excited about the course! When is it not exciting or interesting to see new minds absorb the fact that women have always been adventurous, boldly creative, and intellectually-daring poets? The course covers the span of four centuries. So, the students, mostly females although the course is open to both genders, get a taste of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century poets too.
DARGAN: You are a writer (and soon to be mother as well, congrats). How do you balance your creative life and your work as an arts administrator? When do the two enhance and inhibit each other?
CROSS DAVIS: Ah, good question. I love poetry. It really is a foundation for my marriage—I’m married to a poet—and a major portion of my identity (although I am adding mother to that soon!). It’s just a fundamental orientating axis for how I view and interact with the world. It’s hard to separate being a poet from running a poetry series in that I am excited about every poet who comes here and I am always interested in finding new poets to bring to the Folger. At the same time, I do have to wear another hat as an arts administrator. So, I must consider the history of the series, the subscription and ticket sales, the costs of running a series, and just the task of keeping the series fresh, which all takes some work. I’m always weighing and acknowledging the validity of both sides and finding a way to allow the series to benefit. I do know this, every year it never fails that I have a creative writing spurt. So, there is that side benefit, plus I get to hear poets read at least once a month and I know no better job perk than that one.
DARGAN: OK, I lied. One more question: What can we expect from the 2008-2009 Folger Poetry Series?
CROSS DAVIS: One can expect to hear some interesting reading combinations this year. I really wanted to honor the Folger’s past of highlighting emerging and established poets. So, you see that happening with the Linda Pastan and Tracy K. Smith reading. Pastan’s is a well-known voice in this area; in fact, she read here during the very first season of Folger Poetry Series. Tracy K. Smith, while she has two books of poetry, this may be the first time many in the area get a chance to hear her work. For me, it’s also about bringing different voices to the Washington area: Rae Armantrout has never read at the Folger, nor has Bob Hicok or Nick Flynn. So, I like to bring in these new voices and show that this reading series can still surprise and enchant people with new work by really dynamic poets.
I also wanted to continue with the theme of music, in particular jazz, for the poetry reading in April. Hence two titans of jazz and poetry come together with Michael Harper and A.B. Spellman. I hope the audience won’t mind coming for the ride as we pair a percussionist with Spellman’s portion of the April reading. I was excited to pair Claudia Emerson and Natasha Trethewey together because of the interesting things they do with recollection and reclaiming the past. Both of their voices have echoes of history without being dominated by history. Each poet manages to stake her claim with a tranquil grace and fluidity.
I’ve always been a big fan of Rita Dove’s work, so I am overjoyed that she’s coming to the Folger—especially on the heels of a new book in April. And I count the work of Eamon Grennan, the Folger Poetry Board Reader, as a new favorite as well. The way his poems begin . . . they just wash over you and entreat you to continue reading. Elizabeth Spires’ work actually influenced the theme for the fortieth season. Her “Glass-Bottom Boat” poem really cemented how I’ve come to look at this season: “We are as stars to them/ stars waiting to be wished on” she writes. And it got me to thinking, “What is poetry but early wishes, dead wishes, all wishes?” Who are poets, but the scribes of the heavens—and the hells, and the earth caught in between? How can you not look back and look forward to know anything of where you are? So, that’s what you can expect this season.
TERI CROSS DAVIS holds an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. She was a Cave Canem fellow and her poems appear in anthologies such as Bum Rush the Page: a Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Growing Up Girl, and Poetic Voices Without Borders 2. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with her husband, poet Hayes Davis.