Volume 14:3, Summer 2013
In this issue, Ive tried to remedy a great wrong and put back into publication significant works by DC poets that have gone out of print. Some of these writers have a very minor footprint on the web, and its my dear hope that this issue will contribute in some small way to their discovery by new readers. I feel strongly that all eight of these poets deserve to continue to be read.
The earliest writer included here is Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, who lived in Washington, DC during the Civil War. Her poems, popular in her time, are being re-discovered by feminist scholars. I am drawn in particular to her poems of war and its aftermath and include five here. Piatt’s wartime experiences forced her to re-think her assumptions about her happy Southern childhood, her family’s complicit role in slavery, and the contrast between her own pacifism and her era’s romanticized ideals of soldiers.
Four of the writers in this issue have a connection to the Harlem Renaissance period, a particularly rich time in DCs literary history, and a time I continue to go back to for inspiration. Alice Dunbar-Nelson, always overshadowed in her lifetime by her more famous husband, was an older mentor by the 1920s. Her poem, I Sit and Sew, written during World War I, is one of the most moving poems I know about womens homefront wartime experience. She is represented by that poem and four others.
So many lesser-known Harlem Renaissance writers have been largely forgotten. I first discovered Esther Popel when I saw a striking photograph of her by Addison Scurlock in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The caption described her as a poet and I thought, How come Ive never heard of her? I have reprinted five of her poems, including her powerful Flag Salute, a protest against lynching.
I am fascinated, too, by the largely unknown Lewis Alexander, who is included in two of the major Harlem Renaissance anthologies, but never published a book. He was an early proponent of Japanese verse forms in English, and absorbed a delicacy of imagery and word choice from those traditions that glows forth even in his free verse. Ive included seven of his haiku, as well as six additional short poems.
The reputation of Waring Cuney, the youngest and perhaps the best-known of the minor poets of the Harlem Renaissance, rests primarily on a single poem, No Images, which won first prize in the Opportunity poetry competition in 1926, and was later set to music and recorded by Nina Simone. That one poem is fairly easy to find, but the same can not be said of the rest of his work. I have selected five other poems to feature, which show off Cuneys lively sense of humor. Cuney authored two books, neither of which was published in the US.
Gloria C. Oden serves as a bridge from the Harlem Renaissance era writers to the more contemporary authors in this issue. Oden, born during the Renaissance years, was directly influenced by those authors; she published her first book in 1952, then had a long break before her last four books appeared, beginning in 1979 and ending shortly before her death in 2012. Her final book was a single long poem, published independently as a chapbook, copies of which are nearly impossible to find. I have printed the entire text of her final book here.
John Pauker, born in Hungary, spent most of his adult life in DC, working for the federal government. During World War II, he dedicated himself to sponsoring European writers and intellectuals, allowing several people to escape the Nazis and immigrate to the US, saving their lives and enriching American culture in the process. His poems are biting, ironic, and darkand reward re-reading. Seven of his poems are printed in this issue, two in both English and French, as he originally published them.
And finally, Lee Lally, a co-founder of one of the most influential small presses of the 1970s, Some of Us Press, has six poems in this issue. Lallys work captures the excitement of feminism when it was new. Her poems, written in a stripped-down plain voice, belie a deep well of emotion beneath their deceptively simple surface.
I am indebted to several people who helped me compile this issue. My thanks to Lees surviving children, Caitlin Lally Hotaling and Miles Lally, as well as her ex-husband, Michael Lally. Dr. Julia A. Galbus, a scholar who has written about Gloria C. Oden in an earlier issue of Beltway Poetry, provided a coveted copy of Homage. The Word Works continues to support my efforts to promote the legacy of DC poets who have passed away. My thanks, especially, to Karren LaLonde Alenier and Nancy White for permissions and assistance with poems by John Pauker. And let me not forget the spectacular research librarians at the Library of Congress, whose assistance with their rare book collections has been invaluable.
Kim Roberts, Editor