Poets in the Woods
16 Jun 2019. Upstairs at Rock Creek Park’s Nature Center, the kids were gawking at the taxidermy animals—“That was fun!” Downstairs, in the little auditorium, fifteen or so people had gathered for the third week of the eight-week Joaquin Miller Poetry Series. Up front, on the roll-up screen, a slide show played: period and modern photos of Miller’s cabin. (Until 2011, the readings were held in the cabin.)
Sistah Joy Alford, the P G County Poet Laureate, hosted the show. After her opening remarks the two featured poets, Mi’Jan Credle and Brandon Johnson, read from their work—or, to put it more accurately, performed it. (Credle is the 2019 P G County Youth Poet Laureate.) An open mic session—five more poets, some of them polished performers, others not—followed.
“Not every place has a community [of poets] like [the Washington area] has,” Johnson said, after his readings.
The reading was cozy. Most of the audience, on this sunny Father’s Day afternoon, were organizers and participants. A number of the poems were about fathers.
What does the series, which has run since 1978, have to do with Joaquin Miller, the 19th-Century celebrity line-shooter and poet whose “Columbus” (a reading of which opens the series) was once familiar to American schoolchildren?
At one point in his wayfaring life, Miller, who had a nose for publicity, settled in Washington and in 1883 built a rustic cabin for himself in what would become Meridian Hill Park. It was later moved to where it now stands, next to Rock Creek just north of Military Road. You can read the rest of the story here.
Every few years someone announces the death of poetry, but we are surrounded by metered rhymed English. Nearly 100% of it is popular music. This is arguably the most popular art form in the world, and no one can escape knowing or knowing something about it.
Poetry-- traditionally read from the page or sometimes, in an even older tradition, heard (and then, poet and publisher hope, read from the page)-- is far less widely consumed. The Miller series showcases poetry of this smaller, second, and more strictly defined sort. Though more obscure than popular music, it's far from dead: according to the NEA-Census 2017 Survey of Public Participation the Arts (SPPA) nearly 12% of Americans read at least one poem a year. Though it's a little less than the rate of 2002, it's up from just over 6% in 2012.
The reading series runs Sundays through July 21 at 3 pm at the Rock Creek Nature Center.
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I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.