Poetry is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Washington DC. Despite its storied literary history, diverse music communities, and world-renowned museum system, visitors and residents alike have trouble seeing beyond the shadow of Capitol Hill. But away from the divisive politics of downtown, there is a poetic renaissance taking place. In community centers, bookstores, and the backrooms of restaurants, wordsmiths are gathering to share their talents and refine their craft.
Over the last fifteen years, groups dedicated to the poetic arts have sprouted up all over the city, supplementing old institutions and providing new outlets for emerging artists to find their voices. One of the most prolific organizations in this poetry revival is the local restaurant chain Busboys and Poets. Named for Langston Hughes, who lived and bussed tables in DC, Busboys and Poets provides consistent venues for up-and-coming artists with near-daily open mic events held at its various locations across the metropolitan area. Come out and you’re sure to see powerful spoken word poetry, but you’re as likely to catch comedians, musicians, live painters, and many other types of live performers.
Aside from open mics, Busboys hosts both in-house and privately organized events. The 11th Hour Poetry Slam held at its 14th & V Streets location each month is a heated competition between local poets in which audience members get to decide the winner. On the first Friday of every month, Busboys 5th & K Streets location holds American Sign Language Poetry, offering a place for deaf and hearing-impaired people to express themselves artistically. As part of its commitment to social activism, the restaurant also provides a venue for local nonprofits, activists, and politicians looking to spread their message. They’ve played host to activists and writers such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker, curating readings and discussions. Check out their events schedule for full details.
Poets & Social Activism
Another prominent local organization is Split This Rock, a non-profit dedicated to fostering greater roles for poets in public life by using art to promote social activism. The organization’s national network of poets and activists work to combat issues like social injustice, income inequality, and discrimination. This past April they held DC’s preeminent poetry event– Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness. The multi-day gathering hosted over 700 poets, artists, and activists from around the world with dozens of readings, workshops, and panel discussions advocating social change through art.
Split This Rock also organizes its own poetry workshops, readings, and contests. Throughout October and November, the group is hosting PRINT (Poets Reclaiming Immigrant Narratives & Texts), a workshop dedicated to giving a voice to immigrants, refugees, and first-generation Americans. This series aims to provide a venue for migrants to practice their talents and share their experiences. Its Sunday Kind of Love poetry series held on the third Sunday of every month features established poets from across the United States and is followed by an open mic showcase where local amateurs can demonstrate their skills. To get involved, check out their website where you can donate, volunteer, or submit your own work. If you’re interested in contributing to their 2019 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest, you can find details here.
Shakespeare at the Folger
Anyone looking for a classical experience downtown should visit the Folger Shakespeare Library. Founded by Henry Clay Folger in 1932, the Library is a historic landmark built on the belief that “the poet is one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.” This stunning testament to neoclassical architecture and Elizabethan design contains the world’s largest collection of Shakespearean materials, from the 16th century to the present day. It provides unparalleled resources for lovers of the Bard to explore the power of written word and live performance. The Folger Theater’s 2018/2019 season includes performances of William Shakespeare’s King John and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
For those who enjoy more contemporary verse, check out the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series. Since 1968, this series has hosted some of the best poets from around the world. Past guests include Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Octavio Paz. The 2018/2019 season has already kicked off with readings from Melissa Tuckey and Brenda Cardenas. Each reading is followed by a discussion with the performers as well as a wine reception and book signing. For more information, check out this season’s brochure.
Charged with the political and social energy of the nation’s capital, DC poetry has a unique vibrancy. Its lines are often interlaced with a heightened sense of awareness and powerful calls to action. This focus, not just on the aesthetic beauty of poetry, but on its ability to raise social consciousness makes DC an epicenter for the poetic arts. For anyone looking to explore the world of poetry, refine their verse, or take in the words of emerging and established artists alike, there are few better places to do it than Washington DC.