Merrill Leffler

Merrill Leffler: Tenth Anniversary

Tenth Anniversary Issue: A Tribute to Guest Editors
Volume 11:1, Winter 2010

Guest Editor, “The Distinguishing Voice,” Fall 2000

Merrill writes:
“When Kim asked if I would guest-edit the fourth issue of Beltway Poetry in 2000, I didn’t hesitate. Yes! Of course, I’d love to, I said enthusiastically. I had last edited a magazine in 1977—that was the final issue of Dryad: at 144 pages and more than 40 poets and reviewers, I remember it feeling like a monster that took too long to subdue. Though my editing role for Beltway was in comparison to be modest—I could select five poets, each with a handful of poems—the chance to do so must have appealed to my nostalgia for little magazine editing; it was also the chance to seek out poets whose work I had some knowledge of but who had published little. And unlike most magazines, with each poet having four or five poems, a reader could get some feeling for that writer’s voice. I began by making a list of poets whose work I knew to varying degrees, from a little, like John Clarke’s, to those I had a greater familiarity with, like the work Henry Allen, Jack Greer, Jean Johnson, and Saundra Rose Maley. Many poets around Washington were on John Clarke’s e-mail list from the Library of Congress, gratefully receiving his regular postings of poems and announcements. But few knew John as a poet—even I had only read two or three poems. What a wonderful surprise when I asked him for ten poems and was able to select among them. The same with Henry Allen—The Washington Post’s premier critic then of American culture, with a Pulitzer Prize later for his photography criticism, few knew Henry’s edgy, sometimes sardonic, and wildly comic poems; and Saundra Maley, who went on to guest edit The Whitman Issue in 2004. I’d known Saundra first as a student in the mid-70s at Maryland and published two of her “skinny” evocative poems in Dryad, one of them in that last issue of Dryad. Except for some of her friends, few knew her poetry—Beltway was the chance to broadcast her work beyond her friends.

While it was personally satisfying to introduce the work of these poets, I came to realize more recently that I was an early participant in what has become a unique poetic enterprise. There are many online magazines of course but what Beltway has done over these ten years—and may it continue for another ten!—is to ingather poets from the Washington area and give their heterogeneous voices a home. In doing so, Kim Roberts’s Beltway and those she has called upon for help, have created an expanding community—this is unlike print magazines, which get shelved not to long after their initial publication. In Beltway, the poets and their work remain online and always available. Not only contemporaries of course but the work of poets who have lived in Washington or passed through for a time and left their mark—US Poets Laureate and especially “forebears” (an inspired idea) such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, May Miller, Gwendolyn Brooks, O.B. Hardison, let alone Walt Whitman; these forebears give dimension and enrich by giving us a poetic history, thereby joining the past and present. I have to add that I was fortunate to contribute to the forebears issue by writing about the poetry of O.B. Hardison—how else would I have had the occasion to introduce the richness of his work that others can now experience.

I don’t know that Kim could have foreseen what Beltway has become for so many poets and for poetry in Washington over this decade. Look into the archives, move around among the many voices here—discover how a community gives a home to such diversity.”

From the Editor:
“The very first guest editor, in 2000, was Merrill Leffler. Leffler was an obvious first choice for me, because his work as the publisher of Dryad Magazine and later Dryad Press was so instrumental to the growth of the literary community in the greater DC region. Leffler has always willingly given me advice, and I hope I don’t embarrass him by admitting here that I consider him a hero and a role model. I was thrilled when he agreed to guest edit an issue, and his was a terrific start to the tradition of bringing in someone else to edit at least one issue each year. Merrill’s poems were featured in the first issue of the journal (Vol. 1:1, Winter 2000), and his guest edited issue was released later that year. He has contributed essays to two of the bi-annual literary history issues, with important pieces on O.B. Hardison, Jr. and Gabrielle Edgcomb. In addition, turning the tables, Richard Peabody wrote about Merrill’s contributions as an editor in his essay, Three DC Editors (published in 2006).”



It is everywhere and potentially
The basis of being, a form of non-structured
Structure that will inspire a great deal of trust
If you allow yourself to trust It.
Everyone has the capacity to know It.
While many emphasize the absence of It
Once you have accepted and internalized It
It will coalesce into a vision.
It offers a uniqueness. In the beginning
It was quite small.
No more. It can prevail
But It is up to you. It can make or break
An organization, a community,
Even a country. While you can take courses in It
The learning that characterizes It
Can only come through action on behalf of It.
You may feel a little stiff about It
At first and sometimes disturbed by the sound of It.
Don’t worry. It is easy to make adjustments to.
You will be able to make decisions and even to judge
People (i.e., next door neighbors) on the basis of It.
If you do not experience the fullness of It
Probably foreign factors have come together
To prevent you from wholly embracing It
To be successful, you must rehearse It
Until you bring It alive, until It becomes
So much a part of you that you finally become It.


Kathy Keler, "The Healing," 2010, acrylic and alkyd on paper mounted on wood, 16" x 11"

Kathy Keler, “The Healing,” 2010, acrylic and alkyd on paper mounted on wood, 16″ x 11″


Here in this hall the poems are primping
themselves and tidying up their I-ams,
dolled-up as all get out. The depressed,
the lonely, the cuckolded, the needy,
the seekers, the failed suicides and more.
Here’s one who’s suffered greatly
at the hands of fate and one
who loved forlornly and was left
on a two-lane road and told to scram
or he’d have his last syllables kicked
out of him. Now comes another who left
his father’s house, like Abraham
a wanderer forever in deserts
of the forsaken And here’s Odysseus
in all his pride, he who scudded
the lonely wine-dark despairing seas
fucking and killing in one bleak episode
after another.
All of them, here,
among memory’s ruins, all of them
seeking solace, each one seeking you and me,
or anyone who will only take notice
and listen.




Here at the window’s ledge
a sparrow’s pecking for crumbs that I’d not noticed.
OK I say (to myself), you’re there on one side
of the divide and I’m here on the other—
you’re under the high blue and I’m under
a low roof here in Takoma Park—I’m pecking too.

It’s clear what you’re after. And me?
Perhaps I just want to see you as you are, sparrow,
To celebrate you. Maybe I’ll contrast your ordinariness
with mine, your small brown wings
with my earthbound lack of them. I don’t know.
It could be—of course it is—that I want these words to rise
like you will, sparrow, into the sky’s spring blue
to fly high heigh-ho soaring over my own low roof.



“The mind wears many hats.”
—Reed Whittemore

If you think the I standing before you
doesn’t want to seduce your attention
and hold you close to the erratic beating
of its heart; if you think it’s not in performance now
for your applause and approbation,
that it’s not needy or demanding
and doesn’t want more than it knows it’s entitled to
and won’t pull from its hat every available trick
if necessary: its brooding, solitary
soulfuness or its comic shtick or both
in the glaring light or not — whatever it takes —
then think all this if you will.

But friend, look yourself in the mirror.
Show me we are not an assemblage of misery and joy,
of lust, desire, ambition and fear, of every need
that has clung since we were first thrust into this dark
resplendent world, that all our stunting
our juggling and somersaults, all our art and philosophy
want nothing from each other and is not a performance.
Friend, mon semblable, astonish me.



Merrill Leffler is the author of three books of poems: Mark the Music (2012), Take Hold (1997), and Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love (1984). The publisher of Dryad Press, which has been publishing literary books since 1975, he has also guest edited issues of such literary journals as Poet Lore, Shirim, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. One of the founders of The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Leffler taught literature at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Naval Academy until the early 1980s, and for more than 20 years was a science writer at the University of Maryland Sea Grant Program, which focuses on issues related to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. He lives with his wife Ann Slayton in Takoma Park, Maryland, where he served as Poet Laureate, 2011-2018. To read more by this author: Merrill Leffler:Winter 2000 Merrill Leffler's Introduction to "The Distinguishing Voice" Issue, Fall 2000 Merrill Leffler on O.B. Hardison, Jr.: Memorial Issue Three DC Editors: Richard Peabody on Merrill Leffler: Profiles Issue Merrill Leffler on Gabrielle Edgcomb: Profiles Issue