“American Poetry Museum” conjures vitrines with quills, inkwells and manuscripts of bards from Anne Bradstreet to Edgar Allan Poe in a neoclassical palace on the Mall. But that expectation would be wildly off target. Sitting at a table in the museum’s Center for Poetic Thought in Brookland’s Arts Walk corridor, museum leaders admitted that the single-room institution, poised to turn 15 next year, has baffled donors and visitors alike.
“It’s not to fool or trick people,” said Jon West-Bey, board chair. “It could have been the Poetry Museum, the African American Poetry Museum or a lot of different things. I chose American Poetry Museum because I wanted to change the way that people saw museums.”
In 2004, West-Bey turned his graduate thesis into the museum’s founding proposal.
“We wanted to put programs before space,” West-Bey said. “We didn’t want to be the type of place where we said, ‘If we build it, they’ll come.’ It was more, ‘We’ll come to you.’ ”
At its height, the museum’s annual budget was $150,000, but last year, it operated on just $30,000. Nimble expenses allow for flexibility to focus on its mission, and a die-hard cheerleading squad has refused to let it die, even amid times when all nonprofit groups had to tighten their belts.
West-Bey began convening a gathering space for Washington’s “academic” and “street” poets a year before the first Busboys and Poets location opened.
D.C. poets previously gathered at places such as the now-defunct Mangos in the U Street corridor, said Samuel Miranda, the museum’s secretary, who teaches writing at Bell Multicultural High School. Miranda, who joined the museum in 2007, read for the first time publicly about 20 years ago when he brought students to a Mangos open-mic night. After Miranda’s students read, poets in attendance probed them about their lines and critiqued their work.
“I would have never been a poet in another city,” he said. “Once I saw that, I was like, ‘Damn. I kind of want to be a part of this.’ ”
The D.C. poetry community is collaborative, but that doesn’t mean it’s tame. “Don’t get into a car with a bunch of D.C. poets and not be reading something,” Miranda said. “The first question they will ask you is, ‘What are you reading?’ That ‘What are you reading?’ turns into, ‘You ain’t reading nothing, man? Then you ain’t writing!’ It’s this really beautiful push.”
The wealth of poetry in the District is “woefully underappreciated,” said poet Kyle Dargan, director of creative writing at American University, who has read at events and collaborated with the museum for years. “American Poetry Museum curates that resource, remixes it and makes it accessible to people.”
On a recent weekend, West-Bey and Miranda pulled the Brookland center’s garage door down to discuss the museum’s mission and history. A typewriter, which Miranda uses to write poems for visitors, sat on a table beside an artfully decorated shoeshine box for visitor donations, and on a stage in the rear were a music stand and a microphone alongside shelves of books. A photography exhibit covered two walls.
“That has always been my question about American Poetry Museum: How is it a museum?” said Dargan, who thinks the museum has answered that question over the years by welcoming all populations through exhibits of poets’ art and of writing by trafficked women. “It’s something of a counter-museum,” he said.
Eric Pankey, a George Mason University English professor, has seen overseas museums handle poetry well, as in Ireland, which “tends to treasure and honor their writers,” he said. By researching, displaying and educating about art, museums “focus an audience’s attention on the aesthetic development, the social history and the current liveliness of a given art form.”
But West-Bey wanted a different kind of liveliness and intentionally avoided creating a museum of poetic history or of art about poetry. Instead, he wanted to convene events that often feature musicians and poets performing on stage at the same time.
“We struggled, frankly, with funding for years, because nobody got it,” he said. “If you come expecting to see everybody that got published last month in Poetry magazine, you may or may not see them. But what you are definitely going to see are D.C. poets and poets of color.”
The museum’s diverse board has naturally attracted a diverse audience, which West-Bey thinks is different from museums like the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection. The Phillips, he said, is based on Duncan Phillips’s collection and “experience as a white guy in his lifetime. That comes through in the audience that institution has gotten over the years, and they’ve struggled with that over the years.” West-Bey cites the Phillips’s new chief diversity officer, Makeba Clay, as a step in the right direction.
West-Bey said the Phillips asked the American Poetry Museum in 2009 to help it bring in a more diverse audience. The resulting “Poetic Voices” series involved two hip-hop and jazz events at the Phillips. The poetry museum’s community members don’t tend to go to museums, according to West-Bey, but the jazz and hip-hop programs piqued their interest.
Clay said that in her six months on the job, the Phillips has made “noteworthy strides toward building a more equitable and inclusive institution” and that the museum is working to reach new, diverse audiences. “We are inspired by the American Poetry Museum as an institution that prioritizes diversity and accessibility,” she said.
At the Brookland space, Q&A sessions following events often spill over into conversations about gentrification and shift afterward to a local bar, according to Miranda. That context feels more like home to West-Bey than does going to larger D.C. museums.
A poetry museum event could include a poet talking about growing up on New York Avenue while sharing the stage with five Latino artists and another poet who grew up in the District but lives in Curacao. Half of the audience might be poets. “What’s more American than that?” he said.
If visitors don’t initially expect that kind of experience, that’s fine with West-Bey. “I hope they come with curiosity first and then they leave with a new definition of what poetry can be.”
American Poetry Museum’s Center for Poetic Thought, 716 Monroe St. NE, Studio 25. americanpoetrymuseum.org.