"Hi -- is this the Poetry Hot Line?"
"Is it the who?"
"I'm sorry," I said meekly. "I was trying to call the Poetry Hot Line." Dialing wrong numbers is always embarrassing, but this defies apology. Besides, it's an anticlimax: I've been savoring for months my intention of someday dialing this number, ever since I first saw the listing (291-POET) in The Post's Book World. It kept getting pushed aside, maybe because I was afraid of a shattered illusion. A poetry hot line? Maybe you could call and gasp, "I'm parching from politics! A couplet! A couplet!"
Actually, what you get is a hurried-sounding voice -- government lawyer Laura Fargas' -- running through a taped list of the 12 or 15 readings and other poetry events that are on for the week. In the Washington context, this is a windfall. Is it just me? I thought. Isn't anyone else in gray Washington approaching the crisis-line level in poetic starvation? Guess again. In the brisk season, 300 people call the Poetry Hot Line every week.
Yes, Washington, there is a poetry subculture -- a very extensive one, of which 291-POET is only one stream. It's hard to tell whether its low profile is the fault of the city around it or just the nature of the endeavor. Unlike the public literary arts such as fiction and theater -- which suffer, here, from their consistent second-string status to other kinds of discourse -- poetry has historically flourished under mossy rocks. Attics are traditional for poets; so is public ignorance. In this city, the best way to hook into the properly random and disorganized poetry world is to stumble in by accident.
Consider Joe McCain, who walked into a word-processing course at the Writers' Center in Rockville one day, stayed around to do typing and filing chores and suddenly found himself the nonprofit center's associate director. "I still don't quite know what happened," says McCain, an actor and sometime free-lance journalist. "My poetry background is Ogden Nash, Kipling and some unseemly lyrics. I'd never been in a literary store in my life. I had no idea there was this much poetry in the world."
The center has a library and a newsletter and offers courses in poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing; half of its 2,000 dues-paying members are poets, which isn't necessarily counting the ones who show up for open-mike readings or who advertise in the newsletter. McCain, having adjusted, professes to like poets. "The people here are different from what I've ever met -- you know, let's-enjoy-this-thought-for-a-moment-type people, not 'Come on, let's get this out.' Maybe it's because when you do meet them elsewhere, they tend to be sort of shy and passive."
Fargas, who narrates the hot line, was less of a cultural newcomer -- she's a published poet herself -- but her stumble into the network was equally serendipitous. She used to call the line constantly, but for months it carried only a recording saying the listings would be back soon. "So I finally called one day and said, 'When? When?' and they said, 'When somebody volunteers!' So I picked it up. I really do it so I'll know when all the readings are."
She tries to cover "everything," which can be 40 readings a month, not only at the universities and the libraries but also in such unlikely locales as the International Monetary Fund Visitors' Center. The Folger Shakespeare Library and the Smithsonian have blue-chip literary series; the new poet laureateship runs its own show, though local poets say it stays somewhat aloof. And then there's the Poetry Committee of the Greater Washington Area.
For the initial skeptic, there can be no greater shock of discovery than the monthly meeting of this body: 20 sweatered poets around a table in the basement board room of the Folger, with its carpets and oil paintings and period furniture, talking about grants and publication dates, swapping season schedules for readings as far away as West Virginia. They congratulate radio interviewer Grace Cavalieri ("The Poet and the Poem," Sunday nights on WPFW-FM) for her hand in a new PBS poetry special; they discuss the success they've had with a D.C. grant distributing local poets' books to schools, jails and the homeless. The committee mailing piece lists 47 area groups as members. The list isn't near complete.
Gigi Bradford, the Folger's poetry coordinator, thinks all this activity goes unnoticed because "when people around here get off work, often they want pure entertainment. Going to a poetry reading is hard work." Two who are slightly more sanguine are Terri Merz and Robin Diener, the young proprietors of Chapters literary bookstore downtown, who graduated from Georgetown's French Department a couple of years ago and staked the 16th Street rent on the proposition that a silent majority would read and buy poetry seriously, even though they never talked about it. Two and a half years later, the store is still there.
"Our very serious readers are lawyers, government workers -- you wouldn't think they took an interest in the humanities, but they do," Merz says. "English majors who had to go into the real world and earn a living, maybe -- they find a little relief here, an oasis."
The poetry readers, it seems, are even deeper underground than the poetry writers. Take that as a lesson, anyone who, like me, has kept the vice secret and grumbled and groused at the lack of company. -- Amy E. Schwartz