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Imagine reading your poetry in front of 130 faces on your computer screen—the largest audience you’ve ever stood, or sat, in front of. Imagine competing with established poets, round after round of speaking your words, and the nerve-wracking wait for votes from strangers. Then imagine winning and being chosen to publish your first full poetry collection, as Jenn Koiter did just this year, with Day Eight’s DC Poet Project.
Day Eight is a young, exciting nonprofit that began with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The small arts organization was founded in 2007 and is responsible for publishing a literary magazine, anthologies, and poetry chapbooks. It’s a diverse organization that offers a variety of programming to the writers and readers of our city, including the DC Poet Project, which is both an annual open mic competition and local reading series. The project, founded in 2017, is designed to support local poets, and it results in publication of a new book of poetry each year by the winning author.
Koiter won 2021’s competition, and her resulting collection, So Much of Everything, was published on Oct. 31 by Day Eight. Koiter, a 44-year-old Edgewood resident, learned about the DC Poet Project from a friend, and decided on a whim to enter. She advanced to the finals, competing with four other finalists, and was voted the winner on May 22 by the large virtual audience. She was awarded $1,000 and a book contract.
So Much of Everything explores the complicated grief and loss that Koiter experienced after her ex-boyfriend died by suicide nine days after their breakup. She spent a decade writing the poems, but had only a month to put the collection together after winning the competition.
“[The collection] was written over a period of more than 10 years, so it’s a crazy quilt of a book!” Koiter says. “It’s got found poems made from mid-century women’s beauty literature, poems about travel, poems about religion, persona poems, a long sequence of elegies—and that’s not even a comprehensive list. In a weird way, though, it definitely hangs together.” Koiter’s poems are compelling and modern, and she surprises readers at first with a delicate mixture of vulnerability and humor. In “AFTER THANKSGIVING,” she writes:
I am eating
leftover brandied cranberries
mixed into plain yogurt
not because I
particularly like them
my mother does
& I feel closer to her
when I eat them
than I do when we talk…
Koiter is right at home where whimsy meets sadness. Voices and characters thread through the collection, offering us an unusual narrative feeling for a work of poetry. It’s as if she’s whispering to us: “I have a story to tell.” In “THE MESSY GIRL FORGETS HER DREAMS,” Koiter writes as a young schoolgirl:
you were falling? You know,
if you hit the ground,
you won’t wake up.
Later in the collection, Koiter hits hard. “THE SURVIVOR” lets readers begin to see where the collection is headed—into the deeply personal journey of someone who has been through the unthinkable.
The detective shut your front door behind him
and walked calmly toward us
across the lawn. He did not hurry
because he had no reason to hurry.
This collection is crushingly honest, daring in its proximity to ugliness, yet still so beautifully and skillfully rendered. Koiter’s words linger, her voice clear and strong. She fits right in with the other DC Poet Project winners, including Kevin Wiggins, John Johnson, and Susan Meehan, all of whom wrote and published distinctive collections for Day Eight.
Koiter’s win—and book—however, charted a lesser known path due to the realities of the pandemic. As Day Eight board member and literary arts editor Gregory Luce explains, “The major impact [of the pandemic] was that we had to hold the Poet Project virtually this year, and we have just published a very fine book by the amazing winner, Jenn Koiter!” Luce co-founded the project with Day Eight’s Executive Director Robert Bettmann and has continued through the past 18 months to edit the anthologies and literary journal that Day Eight is known for. He expects the organization to continue to grow and evolve in the coming year.
“We are currently in the planning stages for moving poetry publishing into its own journal and launching a twice-yearly print version. We’re hoping to have this project completed early next year,” says Luce.
Bettmann has worked hard to expand Day Eight’s impact over the past 14 years, though the organization has struggled, like most arts nonprofits, to push through and continue providing programming during the pandemic.
“It’s really hard for us to stay connected to donors when we don’t see people in person,” Bettmann says. “Theaters are going through the same thing. It’s not just ticket sales, but the fact that people who attend an event are the same people who end up donating.”
Bettmann worries about the ability to fundraise (and thus provide programming) as a small nonprofit stuck, for now, in the virtual arts world. In addition to the poetry competition and reading series that the DC Poet Project offers, Day Eight works as a creative team to develop and get funding for programs such as the Eco Arts Project, dance performances, and even a publishing collaboration with the new Anacostia Swim Club.
The organization relies primarily on private funding to develop its arts programs and to publish books, and is overseen by an active board of directors that includes Luce along with noted D.C. writers Grace Cavalieri, Ori Z Soltes, E. Ethelbert Miller, among others.
Both Bettmann and Luce are thrilled with Koiter’s So Much of Everything, as well as the upcoming anthology The Great World of Days, due out in March 2022. The two are also hopeful that the D.C. literary scene will be back to in-person events sooner than later, so Day Eight can keep doing what it’s always done: support and elevate the city’s arts and artists.
Jenn Koiter reads from So Much of Everything at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 30, 2022, at Reston Readings, at Reston’s Used Book Shop, 1623 Washington Plaza, Reston.