The Federal Poets

Sharing Verse . . . and Criticisms

Friday, November 14, 2008

The District: home to lawyers, lobbyists, politicians and poets. Poets, you say? Go to a meeting of the Federal Poets tomorrow and see for yourself. It's the oldest poetry club in Washington, and Nancy Allinson, 59, the club president who has been coming to the meetings for 20 years, has minutes from the 1940s to prove it.

But more impressive than the club's age are some of the club's poets.

"If in our dreams we're porous enough/ to pass through walls, closed doors --/ perhaps those on the other side/ can pull us through, or if we intone/ a certain chant, the sound alone will do," read Bonnie Naradzay, 63, who works for the Department of Labor but received her master's degree in poetry from the University of Southern Maine in January. She intends to start poetry workshops in prisons and hospitals, so, she says, she comes to the Federal Poets to "get fresh information."

Open to anyone, the monthly workshop at the West End Public Library draws a mix of talents, ages and poetry enthusiasts. Normally, about 20 people attend, sit in a circle around a table and discuss one another's poetry. The group is casual but critical, and everyone participates.

"What makes this group unique, it's a public workshop. Anyone can come," said Pamela Passaretta, 47, who read her poem "Stilettos on the Verge" recently.

Each poet must bring 20 copies of his or her (preferably typed) poem to read aloud. Newcomers read first. Then the critiquing begins.

"You need to get deeper with this. The opening lines are pretty abstract," said Judith McCombs, a published poet, after reading Domenic Scalamogna's poem "The Howling Wind."

This constructive criticism is the whole point of the sessions. It's a chance for poets to put their work out there and see what people think. That's why Scalamogna, 32, a doctor and a newcomer to the group, was there. It's also an opportunity to meet people you otherwise would never know, he said.

Such as Ron Vardiman, 76, a retired scientist who has been writing poetry for about 10 years. He read his poem "The Enigmatic Sphinx" at a workshop. "I wait in the desert, watching./ It is my office to watch and understand," he read.

Poets present one poem per meeting, and it can't be longer than one page. With no restrictions on poetry topics, the subjects are as varied as the talent.

There are accolades if they are due, but check your ego at the door. You will be among talented poets, many of whom participate in other workshops and poetry readings in the area and have a vast knowledge of poetry.

McCombs read her poem recently about an obscure battle in the Revolutionary War in which two brothers died. It is one in a series she is writing. "The third day out, the militia marched in haste," she read. "Andrew, in front with Uriel, could see/ Their forest road slope down to a deeper seep,/ Where slippery, tipping logs half-blocked a creek."


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