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Kim Roberts wants to talk back to the canon. That’s the point of putting together an anthology of historical poems, she says. As a local literary historian and a poet herself, she’s been thinking about the city’s literary culture since she first moved here three decades ago. Roberts has already put together one volume of recent poetry about D.C., 2010’s Full Moon on K Street, but a different sort of project awaited her in her newest book. In By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital, which comes out Oct. 6 from the University of Virginia Press, Roberts collects poems from more than a hundred writers published between 1800 and 1930, from the city’s most famous names to its most obscure. As she writes in the preface, “Taken together, the poems create a map of a particularly American landscape, and the capital city reveals something representative, something symbolic, about the identity of the country as a whole.” Roberts spoke with City Paper about the book, D.C. poetry, and the city’s history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Washington City Paper: You’ve already edited one volume of poetry about D.C., but those were contemporary poems. How was this project different? Why focus on this time period?
Kim Roberts: It’s very different. I have been really interested in researching the early years of D.C. because I think those stories are less well-known. The anthology is sort of a companion to my guidebook called A Literary Guide to Washington, D.C., and that also stopped around the same period. I stop around 1930 because literature changes completely around that time with the beginnings of modernism. There was less of a division between who read poetry in those earlier years. It wasn’t seen as something only educated people read. Poetry was considered [to be] for everyone, and it was much more a part of people’s daily lives. It was reprinted in newspapers and recited at public events; children would memorize poems in school. Poetry was sort of everywhere. And after modernism, it started becoming less accessible and perceived as something that was for the elite. So there’s something very appealing to me about that earlier period.
WCP: How diverse were most people’s reading—or listening, as it was often recited—habits? Were the poets you’ve included well-known in their own times?
KR: Not necessarily. I wouldn’t know of them at all if they hadn’t [been] published in at least some newspapers and things that have been preserved, but certainly some of the poets who I’ve included were not well-known writers. But they were people who took their writing seriously. There’s a strange way that who gets to be famous works, and many of the poets whose work we consider important now were not well-known in their own time.
WCP: What does the process of putting this book together look like? Where do you start? What do you read?
KR: When I moved to D.C. 30-odd years ago, I immediately wanted to know who were the poets who were an important part of the literary community here. I have been compiling poets for a very long time. I didn’t know I was writing a book; I was just doing it for myself. When I started looking at this as a book, there were quite a lot of poets who I knew right away, even if they were not well-known, that I wanted to include them. I supplemented by doing a lot of research in archives, and that was helped tremendously by how many newspapers are now digitized, so I could search for particular names if I knew them, I could look through the archives of local newspapers that I knew published poetry. One great source for me was abolitionist newspapers. It’s been sort of digging for buried treasure. Often when I started looking at the work of one poet, I could look for the other writers that were part of their community, and that would lead me on to discovering others.
WCP: You mention putting in a lot of work to include poets who aren’t often anthologized—poets of color, working-class poets, women. Was the process of finding those poets different? Are there any that you especially loved?
KR: For me, the whole reason to put together an anthology is to argue with what has already been determined to be canonical. I’m thrilled to include Walt Whitman, I adore Walt Whitman, but everyone knows Walt Whitman. What I really wanted to do was to highlight poets whose names have been completely forgotten but whose work is, in my opinion, just as good, if not better, than some of the poets who everybody knows. For women poets, working-class poets, and poets of color, oftentimes their work was either not published well in the first place or got lost in the ensuing years because of political reasons. The real joy in editing this book was to put the better-known poets in conversation with the lesser-known poets.
In the first section of the book that covers the period prior to the Civil War in D.C., it is all White men and Emma Willard. And Emma Willard is a tremendous figure, an early feminist, someone who really advocated for women’s education. I think she’s pretty amazing. In the Civil War section, one of the great surprises is an author named Arthur Bowen. If you know about the racial history of D.C., you know that the very first race riot in D.C. was called the Snow Storm, happened in the 1830s, and it was precipitated by a young enslaved man, Arthur Bowen … Multiple businesses and homes and schools owned by African Americans were destroyed. Everything we know about Arthur Bowen is through the records of White people—it’s his mistress’ correspondence, it’s court records … And we know nothing about the rest of his life. But I was able to find a poem written in his own hand, which was amazing to me. It was published in a newspaper at the time, and it is the only thing that we know about him from him. I’m not arguing that it’s great literature; it’s not. But it is a wonderful indication of the power of poetry. He could have written a letter to the editor, but he chose to write a poem, because he felt that that would be the most direct way to engage people’s sympathy, and to show that he was an educated, cultured man. I think T. Thomas Fortune, also African American, he’s known as a newspaper editor, not as a poet, and his poetry is terrific. Anne Lynch Botta, she’s just totally been forgotten and she’s an early woman poet who I think the feminists need to embrace. The same, I think, with Charlotte Forten Grimké. This anthology allowed me to argue their case.
WCP: How do you decide which poems from each writer to include?
KR: If the poets had poems that were specifically set in D.C., then that really drew my interest, because I wanted the book to reflect what is unique about this city. But beyond that, a lot of it is subjective. It’s “What did I fall in love with?” I was leaning on my many years of experience as an editor of literary journals and as a teacher to look through as much of their work as I could find and to pick what I really think was the best.
WCP: The book is a very broad survey of what was being published and what was being read—you’ve got presidents and first ladies next to these writers whose names are now obscured. But with Albert Pike, you wrote he was very popular at the time; he was also said to be a KKK member, and he was the only Confederate to have an outdoor sculpture in D.C. before it was pulled down in June by protesters. In his poems you’ve included, he’s rejoicing in this false, romanticized Old South vision. Why was it important to include that?
KR: While as an editor, you want to include mostly poets you love, what I was trying to do was give a sense of historical sweep. He deserved to be included because he was important in his time period, he was popular, he was well-read. In his case, I selected some poems that really give the reader an immediate sense of a political viewpoint. And you’re absolutely right, it is a romanticized, pro-South, Lost Cause literature. Part of the reason why I wanted to include him, and I included more than one poem of his, is the shock value, I guess. It’s important to remember that that was the political air everyone was breathing at that time period, and that D.C. was a very pro-Southern city. For an anthology like this, it was important to me not just to make certain poems more widely available, but also to start a certain conversation about what the role of poetry was in that time period for getting across political messages and messages about American identity.
WCP: Your introduction is a very wide-ranging look at the early history of D.C. How much context do you think the average reader needs to either enjoy or understand these poems?
KR: I would hope that the poems would stand alone, but I have always believed that knowing something about a poet and the context in which they lived and created their work helps us to read more deeply. Does everyone need to know that history to get something out of the poems? No. But I think the history really does help. We are all products of our time period and of our context, and I was trying to make certain arguments for how these poets reflect the history of D.C., and in turn how D.C. reflects the history of the country as a whole.
WCP: What is studying and collecting this poetry like as a poet yourself?
KR: It can’t help but change the way I think and I write, that’s for sure. I feel really fortunate. I feel like living with this older material has really enriched the background that I can draw from for my own writing. Because the historic sweep of poetry acts sequentially—we end up standing on the shoulders of our poetic forebears—it’s incumbent upon writers, if they’re serious about their writing, to be reading the forebears.
WCP: What makes you want to keep focusing your efforts on the history and literature of D.C.?
KR: I have these twin passions of loving literature but also loving urban history, and specifically this urban environment. I’ve lived in D.C. longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. It’s a fascinating, weird city. It’s equal parts infuriating and awe-inspiring. Doing literary history has allowed me to combine two passions that otherwise might not come together. I just love the deep sense of place that doing this research gives me—the layers of history in the city.
WCP: How does it feel to be at the culmination of a project you’ve been working on for three decades?
KR: Oh, my God, yeah. It is amazing, isn’t it? I hope that I’m going to continue to do this work and continue to discover new poets, but it does feel like this is sort of, as you put it, culmination. I’m very excited about this book. I’m very pleased with how it came together. There was a lot of judicious culling that had to happen, but it feels like it’s got a nice heft and shapeliness to it now, in this version. I’m very proud.