Terry Ponick has written only one poem in the past 30 years. And still, he regularly drives the 40 minutes it takes him to get to the Leesburg Poetry Exchange.
"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "You gotta go where the good stuff is."
With two degrees in English literature from Georgetown University and a doctorate in English and American literature from the University of South Carolina--and as editor-in-chief of Reston's literary journal, The Edge City Review--Ponick, 50, may have an inside track on what qualifies as "good stuff."
The purveyor of the stuff in question is Richard Moore, 72, who says he tends to forget that one of his volumes of poetry was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has published more than 400 poems in such publications as the New Yorker and Harper's, and he has written a novel, literary essays and translations of Plautus and Euripides.
So, if he is working on another book at his home in Boston--where he is "writing all the time"--why does he sit in a Leesburg living room one Sunday afternoon a month, listening to amateur poets read their work and non-poets read poems written by somebody else?
The Leesburg Poetry Exchange was created by Leesburg poet and publicist Claudia Gary Annis, who struck up a friendship with Moore after arranging for him to read at Borders Books & Music in the District in 1996. They began a correspondence that brought Moore back for a visit the next year.
Annis, 46, said that when it became clear he was going to visit her regularly, she figured it would be "selfish of me if I didn't organize readings."
Apart from the fact that he is "quite attached to Claudia," Moore says he is here because he is uninterested in accolades from committees. He pursues poetry to hit "some kind of truth." And, contrary to the trend toward abstract, free verse, he favors conservative, formal verse: sonnets, not slams; couplets, not contests. When he leads the Leesburg Poetry Exchange, he is not only providing poets with a forum. He also is giving lessons on formalism. He is teaching his craft.
The Poetry Exchange sits in a circle in the living room of professional storyteller and Leesburg local Laura J. Bobrow, 70. This week, Moore sits in a comfy chair, slouching slightly behind his wild Whitmanesque beard as he distributes the poem "The Man He Killed," by Thomas Hardy, to the 10 people who have shown up--five men, five women, of disparate ages, most of them from Loudoun. He then proceeds to recite it with emotion, flawlessly from memory, as everyone reads along silently.
"I shot him dead because--
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although,
He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like--just as I--
Was out of work--had sold his traps--
No other reason why.
"This poem is a shocker," Moore says. "Does the sentence structure work with the metric structure?" He leads the group in a discussion about what Hardy is trying to say (he uses war to justify murdering a "foe" who otherwise might have been his friend), how he says it (through dizzying repetition and a singsong rhythm) and why he says it the way he does (to convince himself--as much as his reader--that he was a stunned and innocent victim of the brutal circumstance of war).
It is a close and very traditional reading of a poem. If the group's talk drifts from meaning as conveyed through structure and language, Moore fires more questions at them.
"Richard is subtle," Ponick chuckles. "I think he tries to steer people."
The second half of the session is devoted to discussing the participants' work, again with an emphasis on form and structure, rhyme and meter. Annis, who is regional vice president of the Poetry Society of Virginia, said that writers "who read traditional poems . . . and learn to practice poetry as a craft can often write poems that are more interesting and more coherent."
Abdul Latif, 75 and a lifelong poet, has come to the Poetry Exchange for the first time today. He is a civil engineer who moved to this country from Pakistan several years ago and now lives in Ashburn. In 1994, one of his pieces won third prize in the North American Poets Contest, sponsored by the National Library of Poetry in Maryland.
Although he had never heard of Moore before seeing the Poetry Exchange announced in a local paper, he knew he had to come. Poets write of "very, very, very fine feelings," he said. He believed he could gain a "lot of wisdom from the others' poetry."
The youngest in attendance, Eric Hendrixson, 24, has been coming for about a year now. A George Mason University alumnus with degrees in literature theory and writing, he learned of the Poetry Exchange when someone heard him reading his villanelles and sonnets at an open-mike night in Arlington. He had heard of Moore during his studies.
At open-mike nights, "nobody's going to ask you why you chose this rhyme," Hendrixson said. "[Here] they hold you accountable."
Moore, a Fulbright scholar who went to Yale University and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said he "rebelled against academic poetry in the '60s," when academia embraced free verse and abstract metaphysical poetry. He was ultimately dropped by the New Yorker because, he said, "they discovered I was a lot less proper than I seemed."
He fell out of favor with the literary establishment as the trend in verse moved further and further away from what he preached and practiced. And yet there was that Pulitzer nomination for his 1971 collection of poems, "A Question of Survival."
"It's all connections," he said speculatively. He thought the nomination might have had something to do with his friendship with the poet May Swenson, who was on the Pulitzer committee at the time.
Moore is pleased with the Leesburg Poetry Exchange, which he takes seriously but approaches playfully. ("I've completely lost the distinction between goofing off and working," he said.) The exchange, modeled after one he holds in Boston, "seems to be hopping right along." The only drawback, he said, is that meeting once a month makes it difficult for those who attend to establish relationships.
"The group that turns up decides what its character is going to be," Moore said.
He says he is too old to have aspirations about the group's future. For the time being, he simply enjoys it. "It's had a very good effect on me, going back and forth and having the two places," he said, adding that when he arrives in Leesburg from Boston, "the crickets sound as if they're as big as baseballs."
CAPTION: Les Taylor reads one of his poems as Abdul Latif, left, and Carl Thompson listen.
CAPTION: Richard Moore, 72, who has published more than 400 poems and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and local poet Claudia Gary Annis founded the Leesburg Poetry Exchange.
CAPTION: Terry Ponick, a regular member of the Poetry Exchange, shares his impressions with fellow members Laurie Maxwell Tenney, left, meeting host Laura J. Bobrow and Abdul Latif.
CAPTION: Richard Moore leads the group in its study of poetic form.