In this post we cast a backward glance at Bookend, a monthly interview show which ran from 2012-2015 on WAMU, D.C.’s public-radio station. The show was created “to talk with writers who have deep connections to the nation’s capital, whether they grew up here or were simply inspired by the city,” and promised and delivered “[a] regular look at the writing life here in the D.C. area.”
For the first interview, in June 2012, host Jonathan Wilson talked with Kim Roberts, a poet and founding editor of the online—and strictly regional—literary journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly. (Ms. Roberts is also, among many other things, co-curator of DC Writers’ Homes, a fascinating website that documents precisely that.)
Part of the first part of the interview went like this:
Wilson: As a poet in D.C., a person who works creatively for a living, a lot of people wouldn’t…identify D.C. as a place to stay. We identify writers [with] New York, San Francisco, the South. Do you think it’s fair to say that D.C. doesn’t have that reputation…?
Roberts: It’s very fair to say that people don’t think of us as an arts city. They think of other cities that have less going on…in a way that’s been good for the [Washington] literary community because I know of no other city where people are quite so generous to one another…this is a great literary community. We support one another. We go to each other’s readings. We buy each other’s books. We publish one another…I’ve got friends who live in New York and L.A. and they hear about the community here and they’re jealous of what we’ve got going.
Though she didn’t discuss in what ways the quality of literary community is correlated with the quality of literary output, Ms. Roberts was, I think, getting at something that TWW will turn to again in the coming weeks and months.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the capital has a cultural inferiority complex. It goes back to its remote and (for the East) late founding and its raw early decades as a mudhole with more streets in it than people. When you declare yourself a public monument, one based on Versailles no less, expect people to piss on you. Right from the start, the national capital has been a national and international joke town. And what’s wrong with that?
I think it's this. Cleveland can be Cleveland and sleep at night. But Washington is a world capital…isn’t it?
Isn’t a world capital supposed to be the main city of its own country?
Isn’t it supposed to have—along with antiquity, ruins, styles, catacombs, ghosts, bankers, markets, ports, manufacturers, international trade, hot dogs, daring architecture, European ethnic ghettoes, breadth of interests and a metropolitan sense of humor—along with all that, isn’t it supposed to have hordes of its own artists, architects, designers, writers, choreographers, composers, filmmakers, and the like, plus swarms of aspirants? Do, or so the joke continues, do a lot of potboilers, speeches, memos, bills, briefs, reports, transcripts, subway maps, and parking tickets, plus USA Today and The Washington Post—and blogs, of course—really count as literary coin?
Surely there must be more to the place than that. Is there?
To be continued…
NB. Read Mark Athitakis' interesting take on this from 2013, and also this one from 2008.
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I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.