Last year, Chapters co-owner Terri Merz got the invitation of her dreams: After 15 years running the independent bookstore in downtown D.C., she was asked by the British Council, a United Kingdom cultural organization, to attend its prestigious Cambridge Seminar in England. “It was like dying and going to heaven to be invited,” says Merz, 46, one of just a handful of booksellers ever asked to the 10-day literary festival in the forum’s 26-year history.
In July 2000, Merz attended readings, discussions, and receptions featuring some of the English-speaking world’s most accomplished writers. Every year, the seminar brings together these leading lights from all across the former British Commonwealth to celebrate the English language and the international community of its readers.
“The most moving thing was to hear George Steiner,” recalls Merz, thinking back on the lecture delivered by the 72-year-old literary critic. “He talked about how English-language best sellers are available all over the world, and yet other languages are dying out….[Y]ou can go anywhere in the world and find a [John] Grisham book, but you don’t hear poetry in other languages in America.”
Inspired by the internationalism of the seminar and energized by Steiner’s remarks, Merz, along with Chapters co-owner Steve Moyer, also 46, decided to establish an international poetry series in Washington. The result of their efforts is the first-ever D.C. International Poetry Festival, which will run at George Washington University from Nov. 2 to Nov. 4 and, if all goes well, every year thereafter.
The goal is “to do as much in the original languages” as possible, says Merz, “and really emphasize translation.”
In August, Merz and Moyer started and formally incorporated Wordfest, a nonprofit sponsor for the program, which they run, literally, out of a cardboard box at the bookstore. “This is it. We don’t even have computer files,” says Merz, pointing to the paper-stuffed box. Passion, commitment, and a lifetime of connections helped that little box attract some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry to the Wordfest advisory board: controversial new-formalist poet Dana Gioia, Academy of American Poets Chair Jonathan Galassi, renowned poet and Ecco Press Editorial Director Daniel Halpern, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic Anthony Hecht, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Gioia, Hecht, and Dove all plan to attend the festival, says Merz.
“It’s a natural for [this] city, because we have all the embassies, the diplomatic community, the government, a whole professional community, [and] the lawyers who, from our experience, love literature, love poetry,” explains Merz. Though recent events have added a few wrinkles, such as the need to mail invitations from Maryland instead of D.C., the war against terrorism, says Merz, has also made the festival more significant. “Ever since Sept. 11, poetry really speaks to everyone….It does express for everyone what they themselves cannot say.”
Five poets will read from their work at the festival, which also features several receptions and round-table discussions on translation and the role of the poet in public life: Romanian Nina Cassian and Slovenian Veno Taufer will read from English-language translations of their works; Spain’s Rafael Guillen will read in Spanish, and Sandy McKinney, his translator, will follow in English; Northern Ireland’s Paul Muldoon and black British poet Fred D’Aguiar will read in their nativeand very differentEnglishes.
“These poets tend to speak in a very public way about current events,” says Merz. “I think their works can provide the necessary wisdom and solace that we all really need right now.” Garance Franke-Ruta
For more information, visit www.chaptersliterary.com or call (202) 347-4867.