KS: The Word Works is located in Washington, D.C. how does that change things from if you were in, say, Mount Happy, Ohio?
KA: I believe there were advantages to The Word Works in its early days of the middle 1970s in being located in DC. Our founding president Deirdra Baldwin had face-to-face access with people who knew the inside stories on how to get nonprofit status and National Endowment for the Arts grants. We also could go down to the Library of Congress and talk to the Consultants in Poetry (this was the title before we had Poet Laureate). We hung out with poets such as William Meredith and Maxine Kumin.
We were original supporting members of The Writers Center, a Maryland organization that helped with the printing and sales of small press books. We were members of a group at the Folger Shakespeare Library that helped coordinate poetry programs so we wouldn’t all be giving competing readings on the same night. One of board members Jim Beall got permission from the National Park Service back in 1975 to conduct poetry programs at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park and annually since that year we have been mounting programs in Miller’s name. For 35 years, those programs were mostly outdoors. We believe we are the only literary organization with such a relationship with a federal department and certainly the longest running outdoor poetry program. I personally think this was only possible because we had savvy help from DC insiders who could run interference when we got into trouble with conservative government officials. For example, we had a guerrilla theater group led by Kirby Malone doing what he called silent poetry and passersby reported us to the park rangers thinking there were some kind of marauders taking over picnic grove #6 where the Miller Cabin stands. (This was way before people talked about terrorists.) Kirby is now active in New York theater and opera.
We also had access to poets with prominent accomplishments, publishing Edward Weismiller (a Yale Younger Poet who became a George Washington University professor) – his Word Works book: The Branch of Fire. Also a long list of prominent names in The Unicorn and the Garden edited by Betty Parry: Robert Bly, Chinua Achebe, Sterling Brown, Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsburg, Josephine Jacobsen, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Linda Pastan, Muriel Rukeyser, and others. We sponsored work that Betty Parry did to archive stories from DC’s black intellectual community that included poets Sterling Brown and May Miller Sullivan, but it also address other African Americans in other disciplines like architecture. With Jim Beall’s grant-writing expertise, we got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which resulted in a colloquium at the Folger Shakespeare Library. To a certain degree, we built ties with the publishing scene in New York. Some of our authors, including me, had books at the independent Gotham bookstore.
Perhaps we were wrong in thinking that the main cities to pay attention to for literary events were New York, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. New York had the big publishing houses, Poets & Writers (we used them to promote our Washington Prize), and critical mass for where the people with big names lived and worked. DC had the Library of Congress and its Poetry Consultants who had a regular schedule of programs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities (we got grants from the NEH also), and people who were smart and connected were also friendlier in DC versus NYC. San Francisco was the seat of the old radical fringe – Beatniks and Hippies.
And we also from the beginning thought about reaching beyond the limits of the U.S. Our group often talked about Paris in the Twenties, American expats, and doing bilingual editions. I think our geography played into that kind of thinking. When the Internet became accessible to ordinary folks, I was on it in 1994 putting up a web page for our activities and books. Now, we can be located anywhere and we are. Our current president Nancy White lives in Cambridge, New York, and to me that’s on a par with say, Mount Happy, Ohio!
KS: Tell us about your submission process and publication schedule.