Art Talk with Kim Roberts
Kim Roberts. Photo by Dan Vera.
"I think place exerts a powerful influence over what we write, how we write it, and how we see ourselves." --- Kim Roberts
Poet, editor, historian---Washington, DC writer Kim Roberts wears many hats with aplomb. Roberts' reputation is international: her work has appeared in journals in France, Brazil, and New Zealand, and has been translated into Spanish, Mandarin, and German. But it may be as a historian of DC's literary culture that Roberts is best known. From the 2010 anthology she edited, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, to the DC Writers' Homes web exhibit she curates with fellow writer Dan Vera to the numerous lit-themed walking tours she's led over the years (including some for the NEA's Big Read), Roberts is committed to showing off her adopted hometown as a haven for more than politicians. We spoke with her via e-mail about place, poetry, and the panoply of writers who have at one time or another called the nation's capital home.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
KIM ROBERTS: An artist's life is one where time is regularly set aside for the creation of new work. For me, that means making time to write, to rewrite, and to read.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience or engagement with the arts?
ROBERTS: From an early age, my parents took me to see live theater, dance, opera, and museums. I think this early exposure is crucial. I especially remember regular trips to the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History, both in New York City, when I was a toddler. How I loved those museums! I still do.
NEA: You are the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Can you talk about how your work as an editor informs your work as a poet, and vice versa?
ROBERTS: Editing a journal has definitely made me a better writer---it has made me think about issues of craft in new ways, and exposed me to a wider range of influences. I've been editing Beltway Poetry Quarterly for twelve years now, and there's still more I'm learning. But I think what I am most grateful for as an editor is the sense of connection to a larger literary community. Because the journal publishes writers from the greater Washington, DC region, it has become a portrait of this city I love, showcasing how rich and varied the writers are from this area. I alternate between issues that feature several poems by just a few writers and special issues arranged around a theme. Beltway Poetry has helped build my personal connection to this region. I've met so many writers I might not otherwise have found.
NEA: Can you tell us about the DC Writers Homes project? What sparked it? Why is it an important project? Is there such a thing as a typical Washington, DC writer?
ROBERTS: DC Writers' Homes is a web exhibit I created with Dan Vera. We have documented the homes of writers from the greater Washington, DC region; we have 125 homes up right now, and we're about to add another 25 or so in our first major update. We include novelists, poets, playwrights, and memoirists---the writers must be dead, but their houses must still be standing to be eligible. We started this project several years ago, but just inaugurated the website in November 2011.
For each writer included, we provide a short bio, a photo of the author, and a photo of the house as it currently looks. If we have information specifically about their lives in DC, we include that---dates they lived at these addresses, work they created while living here. We also divide the writers into categories, so you can see how they connect to one another. That way, you can see how writers grouped together by time period---during the Civil War period, or the Harlem Renaissance, for example---or by affiliation. We made categories, for example, for all the hosts of literary salons, all the writers who were political radicals, all the writers with "Showbiz" connections to Broadway and Hollywood. We also grouped gay, Latino, Jewish, and African-American writers. And, given that this is the Federal city, we were interested to see how many writers were also employed by the government.
We think this is an important project because it counters the sense that many people outside the city have that DC is only about politics. This has always been a great city for the arts as well, and has always attracted all kinds of artists, including lots of writers. But we don't have an identity as an arts center, the way other cities do. We also worked hard to include a range of writers---from the famous to the lesser known---and writers from all times in the city's history, from 1800 to the present. This website is one small way to better claim our history.
As for a typical DC writer---no such thing exists. DC has been home to Henry Adams, Roald Dahl, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sinclair Lewis.
NEA: A lot of your research seems to be concerned with place. What do you see as the relationship between place and literature?
ROBERTS: Place has always been an obsession of mine---I am drawn to literature that reflects its setting strongly. And I am endlessly fascinated with cities and urban planning: how the grid and the architecture and the open space work together to create a city's identity, and how that changes over time. My research on the literary history of Washington, DC, is a convergence of many things I love: architecture and the interlocking architectures of community. I think place exerts a powerful influence over what we write, how we write it, and how we see ourselves.
DC is also interesting because it's a kind of "company town" with one main industry---government. It's like no other city I've ever lived in. I'd like to reflect that in my own writing.
NEA: Who are some of the influences on your work?
ROBERTS: The poets who have influenced me most, and whose work I go back to again and again, are Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Walt Whitman.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” What do you see as missing from the world of literature? What should be part of the work writers as a community are doing but isn’t?
ROBERTS: I don't know that anything in particular is missing, but I think we can always do more to support one another. I think writers need to read books by other writers, attend readings by others, join small critique groups, and in general do all the activities that build a stronger sense of community. We can publish one another, recommend other writers we like to those who organize readings, write support letters for grants and residencies. We can always be more generous.
I also think that more writers should consider community teaching. Community arts---leading workshops in senior centers, prisons, therapeutic recreation programs, and other social service settings---helps connect writers with their passion for language. The goal of these programs is not to turn participants into professional artists, or to get them to create great art, but to expose them to the process of creativity. I have done a great deal of this kind of teaching, and I always feel enriched by that emphasis on process.
NEA: What does the Art Works mean to you?
ROBERTS: Working in the arts---whether teaching, editing and publishing, or creating new work---is deep and engrossing work, the kind of work that engages my whole body and mind. I feel lucky to be able to do this work. It makes my life more meaningful, and it gives me the tools to make more meaning from my life.
Who are your favorite DC writers? Let us know in the comments.