Ask Dolores Kendrick what makes a good poem, and be met with heavy silence.
This is, after all, a loaded question, and Kendrick, the District’s second poet laureate and an award-winning author, doesn’t take words lightly. Rather, she thinks deeply, speaks carefully and breathes deliberately, a practice in conversational recitation.
A teacher for most of her life — first in D.C. public schools, where she helped found the School Without Walls, and then for more than two decades at Phillips Exeter Academy, a private boarding school in New Hampshire — Kendrick seems acutely aware of the weight of words.
“Discipline,” she finally answers, “and that is a very strong word for me.”
Still dissatisfied, she takes another breath before her final answer: “Poetry is a disciplined art form which relates to the reader and eventually draws a universal statement. But, the reader is key. Poems, really, are only as good as their audience.”
Kendrick, who will read selections of her poetry Sunday at the National Book Festival, knows a thing or two about discipline. She decided early on in life that she had a choice: She could be a wife, mother, poet or teacher, but that at least one would always suffer. So, she said, she never married or had children and instead devoted herself to poetry and academia.
A native Washingtonian, she grew up in LeDroit Park in the 1930s and graduated from Dunbar High School. She received a teaching certificate from Miner Teacher’s College and a master’s degree in teaching from Georgetown University. At Exeter, she is the only African American woman to have her portrait hanging on the academy walls, she said.
Kendrick received the title of the District’s poet laureate in 1999 after Howard University professor Sterling Brown. She is the author of four books, including “The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women” (1989) and “Why the Woman is Singing on the Corner: A Verse Narrative (2001), which takes place in the District. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
In the past decade, she has worked to establish a stronger presence for poetry in the District through programs such as Poets in Progress, a series of readings at the Folger Shakespeare Library featuring young and aspiring writers, and the Young Champion Poets Program, an annual poetry competition between the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and McKinley Technology High School. This year, she will compile poems submitted from both high schools — as well as a school in France where she has taught poetry workshops — into a book.
She has even used the city as her notebook. Her words can be found on public sculptures, including on “Epoch,” an Albert Paley sculpture outside the downtown restaurant Zaytinya, and on “Journeys,” a sculpture by Barbara Grygutis at the New York Avenue Metro station.
But Kendrick has a conflicted relationship with her hometown.
“I suppose the Washington that exists today had to come,” she said. “The old Washington was segregationist and racist to the point where we couldn’t go downtown to get a hot dog. Our parents would fix us meals before we left so we would not have to endure that indignity. . . . But integration also brought its own problems. The black community somewhat disintegrated, and the seasons changed. It is a very different time, now.”
Kendrick looks at her title of poet laureate as an opportunity to make change and has therefore tried to use her position to rejuvenate poetry’s place in Washington.
“Most poets laureate take the honor and run, and that’s okay,” she said. “But I did not want this office to be invisible. I wanted it to play an active role.”
To accomplish that, Kendrick ditched the role of reclusive artist and engaged with the community. “I don’t believe poetry should be a solitary intellectual adventure,” she said. “It should be a relationship with people, it should forge a connection. Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”
In preparation for Sunday (this will be her third appearance at the festival), she asked friends and fellow poets to send in selections of her poetry that profoundly affected them. She will read those pieces in dedication because, she feels, “poetry means more when it has touched somebody else.”
Kendrick will speak at the National Book Festival at 1 p.m. Sunday and will host a book signing at 2:30 p.m.