Writers are plentiful in Washington, but there is no literary scene. Writers do not flock around a local publisher or magazine; no one has launched a salon to which writers might aspire to be invited. There is no writers' cafe or bar.
Washington writers don't want to be called Washington writers.
"I grew up here and my books take place here," Susan Richards Shreve says. "But my books are not Washington books. The lives I write about happen to be lived in Washington, but they could be lived any place."
The resistance to any flavor or esprit that might bracket them together is so great as to be a characteristic theme of Washington writers. They point to their differences and stress the temporary and accidental nature of their winding up in this federal barracks, which the poet Ernest Kroll called an "invented city, neither Rome nor home." But in their fecund diversity is a kind of unity; or, as it is printed on another product of the local presses, E pluribus unum.
Sterling Brown would be the city's poet laureate if the mayor decided to appoint one; critics have acclaimed him as the major poet Washington has produced. At 81, Brown has no telephone, doesn't like to be interviewed, and when he does agree, he pretends to hear only the questions he wants to hear. But he is elaborately courteous and enormously entertaining, with ribald stories, reminiscences of his friendship with Duke Ellington and satires of Shakespearean monologues.
A professor emeritus of English at Howard University, Brown declared in a speech at the Library of Congress in 1940: "The blues ain't nothin' but a poor man's heart disease . . . ain't nothin' but a good man way, way down."
Brown's poem "Tin Roof Blues" been anthologized many times: "I'm got de tin roof blues, got dese sidewalks on my mind, / De tin roof blues, dese lonesome sidewalks on my mind, / I'm goin' where de shingles covers people mo' my kind."
At 39, Stephen Good win may well be the brightest young talent in town. He is the author of two novels highly praised by critics and fellow writers. The first, Kin, is a sardonic story of a white Southerner bringing a black fellow-soldier to his parents' home for a visit. The second, The Blood of Paradise, is about homesteading in what he calls Zion County, Virginia. For Anna, the wife, "the country was landscape, always fixed, always distant, placid with a vengeance." But for Steadman, her husband, the farm was the world he could and did control. Goodwin's pastoral passages on creeks and gorges, lumber and lambing, are the backdrop to murder and suicide, drugs and abortion. His mountains are magnificient, but they are haunted by rabid foxes.
MYRA SKLAREW ith her long red hair, lilting voice and a conversa tion that sparkles with metaphors, Myra Sklarew is a storybook poet. To her, events are omens, people she meets are messengers, and travel is a search for transcendence. Finding herself alone, she wrote, "I posted innocence at my door" and decried her "thin legs of self-righteousness." Spending a summer in the mountains of Greece, she found time a ring on her finger, or a pet bird that will walk along her arm if called.
She began as a neurophysiologist, then switched to literature, which she has been teaching at The American University since 1970. Her two books of poems are From the Backyard of the Diaspora and The Science of Goodbyes.
She defines herself as a mother: "I stay still / so he can rail against me. / I stay at the fixed center of things / like a jar on its shelf / or the clock on the mantel / so when his time comes / he can leave me."
In the middle of the night, Ethelbert Miller's phone rings. "Hey man," the caller says, "you want to listen to my love poem?" "Did you write it to your girl friend?" Miller asks. "Yeah." "Then," Miller suggests, "why don't you read it to her?"
Miller never loses his patience. "My job is to meet people," he says. "I want to make sure writers get access to an audience." He is 31, a member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and since 1974 director of Howard's Afro- American Studies Resource Center. That year he launched the Ascension Poetry Reading Series bringing together hundreds of black and Third World writers.
When Miller first came here, in 1968, the literary world was segregated, he says. "There are still two literatures in the city," he says. "It's a given. But the key thing is how these cultures interact. We are in touch now."
Author of two books of poetry, Miller calls himself "a happy poet." He is relentlessly gentle; his anger comes out only in his writing, as in "Personal, 1976": "all alone / i am saigon / turning to communism / the embassy of my soul / invaded / helicopters like women / lift off and depart/days become dominoes / i surrender to my own war".
Susan Richards Shreve is the closest approximation to that mythical beast, the great Washington novelist. Of all the people trying to write up Washington, she is the most persistent and the most serious of purpose.
She grew up in Washington where her father, Robert Richards, was a journalist and speechwriter. She now teaches literature at George Mason University, and two of her four novels take place in Washington. Her Children of Power is about the McCarthy era, and the late senator himself looms large.
Shreve is an unsentimental chronicler of family life and politics. "A great novel must have great characters," she says. "But this town lacks great characters. The complexities that make for character are filed down by the exigencies of the political process--the need to compromise, to make the right friends, to wheel and deal."
James Webb, once a Marine lieutenant, wrote perhaps the best novel on the Vietnam war, Fields of Fire. Sales are now near 1 million. "It's not an autobiography," Webb says. "I wrote seven drafts to write myself out of it." He served in Vietnam for one year, in 1969, and was wounded twice; his novel was published in 1978. "The best thing about Fields is this big box of letters from guys who served in Vietnam thanking me for the book."
His second novel, A Sense of Honor (1981) takes place in a naval academy and deals with what Webb describes as "the perpetuation of values in a military system which must respond to the dictates of the political process."
Now a full-time writer, Webb is putting final touches on his third novel, A Country Such As This, to be published by Doubleday in 1983.
Writing in Czech and translated into 20 languages, Arnost Lustig has published 13 volumes of novels and short stories, and four screenplays. He is a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp and a refugee from Czechoslovakia invaded by the Russians in 1968. All his books are set in the Old World.
His balcony offers a spectacular view of Glover-Archbold Park, and he teaches literature and film at The American University.
"I'd love to write about America," he says. "But as an American I am only 10 years old. I won't be well prepared to write about America until I am 14."
For the past 18 years, Linda Pastan has sat down at her desk at 7 a.m. and worked on her poems until lunch. Four hours a day, five days a week. Whether she feels like it or not. "If I didn't do it that way," she says, "I couldn't do it at all." To date she has written five books.
Pasten stays with one poem at a time, usually for weeks. "But when I finish a poem," she says, "I do sometimes give myself a couple of days off."
Her work has an amulet- like luster, as in "Water Wheel": "You hold my face between your two hands / as steadily as if I were a cup / about to spill."
The newspaper editor thought the poem too long and wanted it cut. The poet retyped it as prose, sent it to another newspaper, which printed it as an essay.
The writer, Elisavietta Ritchie, is accustomed to adjusting to the demands of the marketplace. For longer that she wants to remember, she was a dutiful wife to a husband who despised her poetry. So she translated prose and verse from Russian to English; taught French literature at The American University. Now Ritchie is divorced. She presides over weekly seminars in her Cleveland Park home; she has published five volumes of poetry; her essays appear in The Christian Science Monitor. "These past five years have been the most brilliantly happy in my life," she says.
Her living room features a 100-year-old rosewood Steinway and a photograph of her father as a page in the Russian Imperial Court. Manuscripts and books spill over to the kitchen. Her writer beau surfaces unexpectedly, greets her children and then gives himself to Chopin. His children and their beaux show up too. Dinner is a communal rite. The Ritchie home is a halfway house for writers from Russia to Latin America. She gets them jobs, translates their work. "We practice mutual insemination," she says. "Then mutual midwifery. Because poetry is such lonely work, it is necessary to give to others."
I will give you one hour, sir, before I nail your fiance / to the billiard table,' I said, with a hammer in my hand. / Something strange had come over me. / It was an orange helicopter."
The poem is titled "Valences" and its author, Terence Winch, leads the march of the nonacademic -- or street -- poets in Washington. They are the hairy -- as opposed to the hoary -- poets. "I try to have a sense of humor," Winch says. "But the formal aspects of poetry are important to me, and I have written a ton of sonnets."
Last week marked the publication of his seventh volume, Total Strangers, by Toothpaste Press in Iowa. Winch enjoys giving readings of his poetry, which he defines as "urban and American."
He makes his living playing traditional Irish music. He plays the accordion and the tenor banjo in the pub The Dubliners near Union Station. The band's name is Celtic Thunder..
LARRY L. KING
Larry L. King is a celebrity, the writer-as-a-saga: the expatriate Texan who parlayed a magazine article about the closing of a brothel into an empire. First, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" became a Broadway musical that ran for four years. Then King wrote a book about producing that musical, and, earlier this year, the musical came out as a movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.
King is also a fine writer of essays and short stories. In his nonfiction collection, "The Old Man and Lesser Mortals," he describes his father as "an old-fashioned father, one who relied on corporal punishments, biblical exhortations and a ready temper. . . . He had the misfortune to sire a hedonist son who dreamed of improbable conquests accomplished by some magic superior to grinding work."
At 55, King is working on two musicals and writing a novel. He sees no need to choose between moneymaking popular writing and high fine literature. "I'm trying to have a foot in both camps," he says.
Doris Grumbach could have any of the top jobs with the nation's top literary reviews, and at one time or another she has held most of them. As a critic, she is dispassionate and trustworthy; her analysis is unswayed by trends and feuds. As a professor of literature at The American University, she fascinates and intimidates her students.
She is also a novelist, and her latest book, The Missing Person, is about stardom in Hollywood. "Her whispered name spread through the Roof Garden, and everyone on the dance floor stood back to watch," Grumbach wrote of her heroine. "They asked each other 'Who's the man she's with?' No one seemed to know. Astonished how much more beautiful she seemed 'in person,' as they said to each other, than on the screen, they remarked upon every one of her features, her piquant lost-child look, her deep single dimple, her flood of gold hair beginning at the sharp point of her forehead, and most of all, her splendid swelling breasts that strained against the seams of her dress."
In their assessment of Grumbach's four novels, reviewers were merely polite. REED WHITTEMORE
Upon becoming the Library of Congress poetry consultant in 1964, Reed Whitte more suggested that the post be abolished -- after his term, of course.
He once recommended that newspapers employ a Carping Critic to ask questions such as: "What are we doing all this for anyway? Couldn't we do a little less? How about some poker?"
In the close to 20 years Whittemore has lived in the Washington area, he has sought to be seriously funny. Since 1968, he has taught English at the University of Maryland. He has published 12 books: poetry, essays, stories, biographies.
He wears rumpled layers of tweeds and corduroy, knobbly wools and thick-soled suede shoes. But his poetry is polished, spare, Apollonian. The following is from his latest book, The Feel of Rock: "I did not know until grown how alone, / In a bed in a dark room, / One could be, one had been, little father clone."
Herman Wouk is the best-selling author living in Washington, and the only Washington writer whose books -- such as Marjorie Morningstar and The Caine Mutiny -- are household words.
Slender and elegant, Wouk has Old World charm and distance. He does not mix with other writers in Washington; his social turf is Embassy Row. He once told an interviewer that Cervantes' Don Quixote was the key to his career -- he read it at age 29 and it made him decide to write novels. He has said he writes "a traditional novel," which, he charged, critics mistakenly believe is dead. "I believe the classic novel is alive," he declared in 1971. "We are experiencing the end of the experimental period."