When Dolores Kendrick was appointed D.C. poet laureate in 1999, the native Washingtonian was only the second person to hold the title since Sterling Brown was appointed in 1984. She has championed the power of poetry throughout the city, creating a poetry awards program for high school students, conducting numerous readings and contributing verse that will soon be on display at the City Museum. Kendrick, author of "The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women," spoke recently with staff writer Manny Fernandez about the job.
Q What does the District poet laureate do?
A It's an interesting question, because there are poets laureate all over the country. Every state has one, as far as I know. A person is appointed a poet laureate for a particular state, and that's the end of it. The honor is there, and that's the end of it. In Washington, with E. Ethelbert Miller [a poet and member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities], who helped to restore this office, we decided to make it a physical, visible office and to have the poet laureate interact in the community.
First of all, we got a physical office here, in the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Secondly, I wanted to establish programs that would begin to work within the community and help people within the community. One of the programs is the PIP program, the Poet In Progress program. I'm interested in poets who are talented but . . . have not had the exposure they need, and I know how important that is.
We're hoping that we're going to be the example for more poets laureate offices throughout the country to operate on this level. It will bring the whole business of poetry up 100 percent, and it will keep it from being the place . . . where just a special few people are involved. That's what I'm very interested in, to take it out of the elitist stage and put it in the hands of the people.
Why is it important for the city to have a poet laureate?I have to quote a very classical poet on that one, a poet whose name was Alexander Pope. He wrote, in one of his poems, "They had no poet and they died."
Centuries from now, when people begin to go over this culture, in this city or any city, what will remain? The art will remain. The poetry will remain. . . . Poetry is the soul of a city. It's the soul of the people. And that is so valuable. We overlook that so often in our race to make ourselves visible in other ways, in terms of prestige or money or all the daily things we have to deal with. But what happens to us as spiritual people? What we have to be aware of is that we can become intellectual giants and spiritual midgets, and that isn't going to work very well.
What poetry has inspired you? It's a line from Gwendolyn Brooks [the late Pulitzer Prize winner and former Illinois poet laureate]. I used it in my commencement address at St. Bonaventure [University], and I use it whenever I get a moment to do it. She says that we must civilize a space in which to play your violin with grace. It seems to me that says it all. If we aren't out here civilizing our spaces, then we're going to be doomed to an uncivilized future and culture. . . . You're going into a building. A person is ahead of you, comes in, slams the door right in your face. But if you go through the door and you're aware that someone is behind you, you hold it open. The person who slammed it in your face is not civilizing a space. The person who holds it open is. And it can come down to something as simple and ordinary as that.