Tina Darragh

1) What brought you to D.C. and when, or if you already lived in the area, what were you doing?

I came here to go to Trinity College (northeast DC) - that was in 1968.

2) What were your initial contacts with the poetry community at that time? Who were your first acquaintances, how did you first meet and/or continue to meet?

I was glad Ralph Nader mentioned Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed at the Green Party election rally here a couple of weeks ago. I hadn't heard anyone speak of that book in a long time, but it was really popular when I was in school and I felt like we were crushing the distinction between the academy and the community when I was in college! (Down, emphasis, down) But so many people have said to me that they can't believe that I really learned to love writing poetry in college - for lots of people, school kills whatever desire they have to write. It was lucky that the Lallys - Lee and Michael - came to Trinity College in1969 straight from Iowa - Michael's first teaching job. They brought in a lot of people from there to read - Darrel Gray, Ray diPalma, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Marvin Bell, and Michael Dennis Browne to name a few. It was very informal - the readings felt like an extension of an ongoing conversation that had begun elsewhere - lots of talk about how to write and to publish - even someone like Marvin Bell told a very material story about wanting to have a poem accepted by the New Yorker so he "surveyed" their most recent picks and wrote a fish poem since they seemed to go for fish. I don't know why that stands out, but in general there was a lot of demystification going on. Michael had a rejection slip from Robert Bly on his office door, and occasionally would tell us students that we were the teachers and he was the student. So it didn't feel like "school" had felt before and has felt since. Anyway, Lee and Michael were going to local poetry things, too, and they'd invite people from there to read at Trinity - Ann Darr (she'd just written a book about being a WW II pilot) and Bruce Andrews come to mind. When Marge Piercy read at Trinity, there were more community people there than students. After I got out of school and was living in Adams Morgan (with some travel in between), I'd go to the Mass Transit readings. That's where I met P. Inman, Anne Ferguson, Beth Joselow, Lynne Dreyer, Tim Dlugos, Ed Cox, Bernard Welt, and Terry Winch. Also, I helped a little bit with Some of Us Press (S.O.U.P.), but I missed most of it because of the travel.

3) What were the primary venues for the gathering of the community at the time? (Reading serieses, performances, bookstores, publishing ventures, etc.)

Mass Transit lasted only a couple of years. After the Community Book Shop closed, things started up at a new bookstore, Folio, up the block on the corner of 20th and P. Streets. Doug Lang was in charge of the reading series, and lots of local poets read plus people from out of town like Tom Raworth and Susan Howe.

4) What was the kind and level of activity in the scene? Who was your audience? Who were the featured out-of-town visitors? What were the big events? What kinds of interactions were going on among the community's members?

For me, Mass Transit was the first place (other than school-related things) I read my work aloud, and I could be inarticulate and uncertain about things and that was fine. Of course, it was part of the times back then to question everything, so it was OK to be a big ? in front of people. Everyone else there was a writer - even Ann Ferguson, who was primarily a visual artist and did the covers for the magazine, was writing things at that time. The only thing people agreed upon was that it was NOT a writing workshop/MFA spin-off. Also, there was a rotating editorship of the Mass Transit magazine. When the Community Bookshop closed we had a "demonstration" at the Longfellow statute at 20th and M Sts. I was more sporadic about attending readings at Folio because, for a chunk of that time, I was pregnant and, after Jack was born, P. and I would trade off going to things because of lack of babysitters, transportation, etc. Folio is where I met Diane Ward and Phyllis Rosenzweig and Joan Retallack.

5) What were the gender, race, and class dynamics involved in the community at the time?

Well, this period followed BIG RHETORIC in terms of the civil rights, anti-war, women's, and gay movements. So there was a lot of pain, really, that these movements hadn't been more successful, and that they didn't listen well to each others concerns. A Mass Transit evening was devoted to talking about the Venceramos Brigades that went to Cuba, and some of the gay members who had been selected but then quickly deselected when they came out talked about how angry they were. A sort of ethical relativism debate broke out as some people responded that it was a "cultural" thing with the Cubans to counter the decadance of their days under capitalism. It was very emotional, with lots of people crying - dark, but not nasty. I think there was a sense of failure and fear that it was impossible to have a totally progressive movement - there would always be reactionary elements. A similar situation from the women's movement was the pirated publication of Lee Lally's book These Days by a women's collective who claimed they were justified in publishing it without her permission because she was relating to men, and S.O.U.P. (the original publisher) had male editors. I'll never forget being at the S.O.U.P. meeting where we all talked about it, and Lee crying in the kitchen afterwards. In terms of race, I really felt a loss, and at a loss. We had the women's center of the Revolutionary Peoples' Constitutional Convention at Trinity in November, 1970, but the biggest discussion there was whether the Rising Up Angry women from Chicago should take the dorm we were in for Huey Newton (who was running the Convention downtown near Howard). If cooler heads hadn't prevailed, I'd still be paying off that dorm. It seems really silly to talk about it now, but it was wonderful to have all these buses of women and children come to school so that they could go downtown to write and ratify a constitution. It seemed that things would be different quickly, and when they weren't it was difficult to speak of it. It still is. At Mass Transit, Ethelbert Miller and Ahmos Zu-Bolton would come to a few readings, and some of us would go to the Hoo Doo Blackpoetry Bookfairs they organized. I think the best way to describe the way things were then would be to refer to the collaborative reading of Perreaoult Daniels and Heather Fuller at the Ruthless Grip this fall. Their reading is the way I remember things - historical voices in the background, overlapping voices in the present, with a little bit of direct address here and there.

6) Was there at all a sense amongst yourselves of factors or qualities that made the scene identifiable with the place that is d.c.? A style of writing, a set of concerns, editorial stances, etc.? Similarly, was there at all a sense of the same held by outsiders looking in?

I don't think it would be accurate to say that dc, as the location for a lot of the big demonstrations, was a haven for revolutionary poets. It was more likely that so many different kinds of poets were here because the federal government creates jobs (or it did back then!) What people have said to me over the years is that it is amazing how different everyone in the dc scene is from one another. So, in this intensely political town, the poets don't relate to each other as members of this or that poetry group, and it's very sustaining.

7) D.C. has never really gotten the attention it deserves in the histories of alternative poetry that are being or have been written (e.g., language poetry as an almost purely bicoastal, NYC-SF phenomenon); do you agree or disagree, and why do you think that is (not) the case?

One way to look at the NYC-SF Phenomenon is that it exists as a grand narrative, with moving to NYC being the Story of the Tough while moving to SF is the Story of the Lost. Anthologies default into being baby grand narratives even if the editors don't want them to be. Probably it would be best if anthologies were done on some totally random basis, like the alphabet with a time frame - say A to J 1990 -1995. I think lots of people have said things along this line. It is fine with me to be as undefined as possible, both as a poet and as a community, for as long as possible. Attention beings definition, and I'm all in favor of challenging definitions so I guess I might as well challenge attention, too!

8) What were the limitations of the scene or community? Things that you felt should have been done that weren't, etc.

As Robert Creeley said the other night at his reading here, poetry is good company over the years, and gets to be better company as the limitations of age set in (I added that last part...!) I wish we all could get together more, party more, etc., but the fact that we can't is a limitation of our lives, not the scene.

9) Was there a moment at which the community or scene as you knew it began to change, for better or worse? took off in exciting new directions or fell flat on its face unable to get up?

I do think of the dc scene as a series of moments, not in the dramatic, paradigm shift sort of way but in the local, partial knowledge sort of way. It is impossible to calculate the importance of being around other mothers who are poets - Beth, Joan, Lynne, Diane - to continuing to write over the years. Then there are moments when you hear someone read a new group of poems - Doug Lang's Goethe poems, Joan Retallack's errata poems, P. Inman's red shifts, Phyllis Rosenzweig's dog poems, Beth Joselow's April poems, Diane Ward's profiles, etc. - and you feel totally sustained by it, not just that day but over time. Also there is a non-professional tone here that is, if not exhalted, at least condoned. One time Hannah Weiner talked to me about being more "professional" at readings - she said "Tina, you have to be a performer when you read." I told her that's why I didn't live in NYC! And being able to be serious without being "professional" is one of the reasons why I've always loved living and writing here.