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After a career on the literary margins, Dolores Kendrick wins an official laurel.
There is nothing immediately spectacular about Dolores Kendrick’s new office, located a few blocks from the National Archives at 410 8th St. NW. Since Kendrick was recently installed as the city’s second poet laureate, the space has become a modest testament to her resurrection. There’s no antique furniture, no assortment of fancy fountain pens, no autographed first editions of Langston Hughes or Robert Hayden. The entire office space is about half the size of a college dorm room.
What you will find in Kendrick’s office provides subtle hints at a literary career spanning more than half a century: A picture of Kendrick in Paris dining with a grinning James Baldwin sits on her desktop. On a table in front of her desk lie several volumes of poetry—three of them hers, including her oft-acclaimed The Women of the Plums, published in 1990. On the same table sits a picture of her father, Ike Kendrick, the man who in 1953 founded the Capitol Spotlight, one of Washington’s oldest black newspapers. It all comes together to suggest the lineage of a poet who’s been alternately acclaimed and ignored for much of her career. And perhaps nowhere has she been more ignored than right here in her native Chocolate City.
That all changed earlier this year, when Kendrick was named the District’s first poet laureate in a decade. Kendrick’s resume shows a long list of accolades; being named to a newly restored office that offers only a meager stipend is certainly not the most prestigious of them. But for a poet who has been somewhat forgotten by the people of her hometown, it’s certainly among the more personally touching honors. “I’ve been in Washington for much of my life, and I worked in the school system here,” says Kendrick. “I want to make poetry very visible…in this city.”
Most states have poet laureates, who typically serve terms of two to three years. The laureate, picked from the best poets in the state, usually takes it as his or her duty to advance poetry in the lives of local citizens. In the ’70s, Sterling Brown was given the title of poet laureate for D.C. Brown was considered a literary father figure by many of the poets from the Black Arts movement. In a time when black speech patterns were routinely looked down upon, Brown reveled in black dialect and penned vernacular classics like “Old Lem” and “Slim in Hell.”
But when Brown died in 1989, he took his title with him. Not that it was much to take; it was mostly honorary. “For many years, Sterling was introduced as the poet laureate,” says local poet E. Ethelbert Miller. “But you didn’t expect him to do much.”
As time passed, people began referring to Miller as the poet laureate, despite the fact that no ceremony or real discussion of the matter had taken place. “I was getting introduced as the unofficial poet laureate,” says Miller. “But I felt if anyone should be poet laureate, it should be Dolores Kendrick.” Then, in 1998, Miller drafted a proposal roughly outlining the guidelines for an official poet for the District. Less than a year later, Kendrick was unpacking her bags on 8th Street.
“We wanted the poet laureate to promote poetry in D.C. and to be able to connect with young people,” says Lionell Thomas, the legislative and grants officer for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. “And Dolores has an ability to connect with the human spirit.”
Kendrick, 72, was an easy choice because she has the social skills and artistic achievement people look for in a literary ambassador. And she’s also got the sweep of history on her side. Kendrick is one of the few poets in the city whose literary career stretches from the ’40s through the Black Arts movement of the ’60s and up into the ’90s. And although Kendrick has spent much of her life trotting the globe, her roots lie in the artistic glory years of black Washington.
Kendrick grew up in Le Droit Park during the ’30s and ’40s, a period when the neighborhood was a hub of intellectual and artistic energy. She lived right down the street from noted classicist Frank Snowden. “You had scholars and all kinds of professors who lived in the neighborhood,” says Kendrick. “We also had some members of a jazz quartet who lived upstairs, and a lot of times, they’d come and jam in our apartment.”
Kendrick’s mother was a bit of a jazz aficionado, who, she says, helped write Billy Eckstine’s “My Heart Beats for You.” Her father quit a comfortable government job in 1953 to found the Capitol Spotlight. “We got into the Howard Theatre free all the time,” says Kendrick. “We’d get to see people like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.”
In conversation, it’s clear Kendrick is somewhat nostalgic for pre-integration, pre-riots Washington. Though she’s not a reactionary who misunderstands the evil of segregation, Kendrick’s affinity for black Washington’s Jazz Age—when blacks and whites lived mostly apart—is apparent. Yet a quick survey of her work doesn’t reveal that nostalgia. Kendrick is no Jean Toomer when it comes to celebrating her native city. She has a handful of poems about her family, but has surprisingly little to say about the artistically vibrant city she was raised in. “I was writing about my experiences as a person and…I’d go where the instinct would take me.” says Kendrick. “I wrote The Women of the Plums when I woke up in the middle of the night.”
Perhaps precisely because her work tended to be so personal, Kendrick was virtually ignored during the Black Arts movement of the ’60s. That groundswell of creative output sought to make art a political weapon that would somehow tangibly assist in the liberation of black people. Much (though not all) of the work that came out of the movement tended toward didactic political pronouncements, something Kendrick simply did not produce. “There were a number of important writers who didn’t get published in the nationalist publications like Black World,” says Miller. “Dolores, unfortunately, fell into that group. But she was always writing.”
Kendrick spent much of the ’60s and ’70s traveling through the U.S. and Europe, during which time she published two volumes of poetry, Now Is the Thing to Praise and Through the Ceiling. She reflects on much of her experience in Europe in Now Is the Thing to Praise. In the poem “Shipping Curry,” she gives a short portrait of European life:
The smell of curry hides
in my kitchen back home
and keeps me warm here
in my small apartment
on the Mediterranean,
in Barcelona, where
flowers drip over the
sides of balconies like
But it was The Women of the Plums that brought Kendrick the most critical acclaim. The book examines the lives of female slaves through the poetic interpretation of slave narrative. The Women of the Plums has its detractors, many of whom claim that the book’s language patterns don’t always ring true. But Kendrick says she spent years studying the details of slave narratives to make the voices as authentic as possible. Nevertheless, Kendrick won the Anisfield Wolf Award for the book—along with the acclaim of the poetry world at large.
The District’s literary scene will almost certainly be a new world for Kendrick. The most visible group of poets in Washington, for better or worse, come out of a spoken-word tradition. The open-mike scene has blossomed in the District, and with it a crop of writers who often put more emphasis on performance than writing. Whether Kendrick will have an impact on this younger group of poets remains to be seen.
The parameters of Kendrick’s position have not been fully fleshed out. She spends three days a week at work and will receive a $2,500 annual stipend. But her actual duties are not entirely defined; nor is Kendrick’s tenure, which could last as long as three years.
For now, Kendrick is focused on pushing creative writing in education. She’s currently working out the details for a poetry festival throughout the District’s public schools that will coincide with National Poetry Month in April. She is opening her door to serve as a mentor to young poets in the city who need to have their work critiqued.
Because no plans have been cemented, Kendrick will probably end up defining the position for those who come after her—which should end her time in obscurity for good. CP