I returned to DC from a brief sojourn in San Antonio in 1971. I had always written poems, but had never been part of any sort of group of writers. Some time in 1971 or 1972, I saw a bunch of chapbooks in the window of Discount Books at Dupont Circle. I went in to inquire about them, and was directed to Terry Winch, who worked there at the time. Terry told me about Some Of Us Press, a cooperative press of which he was a founding member, along with Michael Lally, Ed Cox, Lee Lally, Ed Zahniser and others I'm sure. I got some of the books (which sold for $1 each) and liked them. Terry also told me about Mass Transit, the by now well known open reading event that took place every Monday night at The Community Bookstore on P Street. The readings were in an empty upstairs room where everyone sat on the floor and pitched in for "refreshments" – beer, sodas, chips. I became a loyal regular there right away.
Sometimes there were as many as 40 people at Mass Transit, sometimes only a dozen or so, but it was always an enthusiastic group. I met many, many poets there, including: Tina Darragh and P. Inman, Ron --- (a blind poet whose last name I've forgotten), Tim Dlugos, Ed Cox, Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Jim Everhard, Ed Sullivan, Lynne Dreyer, Ron (now Liam) Rector, Bernard Welt, Ron Weber, Sheila Zubrod, Laurie Summers, Claudia Vess, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Ethelbert Miller, Hugh Walthall, and many more, I'm sure.
Because the readings were set up to allow for no critique, not even applause, it was a great place to get your feet wet. You really wanted to have something to read every week, so it made you write. I was a Mass Transit junkie. Eventually, I was very proud to edit one of the Mass Transit mags (#5) with Peter Inman, and to have SOUP publish my first book, Ice Fishing, in 1974.
It's interesting that you ask about gender, race, class. From a very personal point of view, I felt a little bit out of the boundaries of the group, amorphous though it was. I was one of a very few of us who was married (I was only 24!) and soon I was pregnant, which was REALLY way out there! When my daughter, Thea, was born in 1974, Ed Cox and Michael Lally wrote poems for her, and Ahmos dedicated a reading to her when she was three weeks old. So, there was obviously celebration and friendship, but most of the people were still working at odd jobs, getting by, smoking dope, playing music, having exciting and/or painful affairs and adventures, while I was caught up in the middle-class new mom world.
I don't think our thinking in those days had much to do with the atmosphere of DC. When politics crept in, it was not with any inside knowledge or concern – no more than you would find in a group of "counter culture" people in any city at that time. Most of the people were from elsewhere originally, and did not have a big investment in DC, even though, surprisingly, many of us have stayed on.
Was it in the early 70s that Betty Parry ran a reading series at The Textile Museum? I remember that it was exceedingly stuffy and exceedingly well attended. There was also a, sometimes lively, series at MLK library not long after it opened.
In 75-76, I moved to Baltimore with my daughter to go to grad school at Hopkins. I had not expected to return to DC, and didn't keep in close touch with people in the poetry community (except for Lynne Dreyer, who was living in Baltimore for part of that year, too, and who became a close friend). When I returned the following year, the poetry scene had become centered around the reading series hosted by Doug Lang, recently arrived from Britain, at Folio Books on P Street. Readings there were usually formal readings, always pairing a visiting poet (Tony Towle, Philip Lopate, Ted Greenwald are some I remember) with someone local. The work was decidedly more NY school or reflective of the thinking that would later be known as "Language" poetry than Mass Transit had been – MT was a hodge podge, from embarrassing drivel to memorable excellence, but with no particular theoretical bent.
I wonder sometimes if I'd have felt more comfortable with the new shape of things if I had not gone to Baltimore, where my education was tilted toward university press sort of work, and where I began to entertain the notion of winning prizes and publishing books (ho ho!). I drifted more toward things going on elsewhere in town – the Folger, another bookstore downtown (oh what was the name???) where Ron Rector put on a reading series (Philip Levine, e.g.). I met Joan Retallack, Jean Nordhaus, and Elizabeth Wray at that time. A.L. Nielsen ran a good reading series at GW. There was a big scene in the late seventies for a while in Alexandria at Irene Rouse bookstore, with lots of poets who worked at Time-Life books, with Michael Blumenthal the big honcho there.
I got involved with Washington Writers Publishing House (Grace Cavalieri, Robert Sargeant, Deirdra [last name? She founded WordWorks and was lit editor of the old Woodwind in the 70s], and they published my second book, Gypsies. Hugh Walthall and Richard Flynn had a press called S.O.S. Books for a few years. They published, very beautifully, my book, The April Wars, and Joan Retallack's Circumstantial Evidence. The press was funded by money Hugh was awarded from a class action suit brought by people who had been illegally held in RFK stadium after the massive May Day arrests in Washington in 1971 (1972?).
It seemed to me at that time that the most interesting group of poets in town were my old friends, now centered at Folio. But the work I was writing then was so much more conventional (narrative, mostly, with a little surrealistic flavoring) that there was no place there for me. I felt group-less for a long time, and leaned on the relationships I'd formed in grad school. I published Broad Daylight with Robert McDowell's Story Line Press, then in Santa Cruz, CA.
In the late 80s, my work began to change, and I began to feel once again more comfortable, thank goodness, with my preferred comrades in Washington. Doug Lang and I had become good friends. Doug, who has done so much for just about all of us individually, and certainly all of us collectively, passed the baton of literary editor of Washington Review to me. His was a hard act to follow. I tended then, and probably would now, to be regionally-minded about the Review, looking for good work from any sensibility. Other editors, perhaps for the better, have led the Review to become more of a voice for leading edge sort of work, with little or no regard to region.
Other scenes in DC were very, very mainstream – some groups of poets who were very accomplished along those lines, others that weren't very interesting. But the group that now is centered around Bridge Street Books, DCAC, and the much-missed Ruthless Grip, is to my mind the richest in great work, interesting perspectives, and liveliness.
Whenever I think I've said enough, and I really have, I think of important contributors to the scene that I've left out: Maxine Clair, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Diane Ward, Rod Smith, Jonetta Barras, Douglas Messerli, Rick Peabody, Ross Taylor, Anne Becker (remember Black Box?), Carlo Parcelli, David MacAleavy. There have been some "mainstream" poets who have stuck their heads in from time to time and made valuable contributions to forward motion, I think: Henry Taylor, Roland Flint, Myra Sklarew, Merrill Leffler. And I leave it to others to speak about today's leading lights, including Mark Wallace, Heather Fuller, Buck Downs and so many younger poets who have breathed life into a community that sorely needed that breath of fresh air!
I am unusually indebted to poetry, and to Rod Smith and Tina Darragh, for bringing me out to a reading at Bick's Books on March 1, 1990, where I met the poetic genius and perfect man (I know, I know), Tom Mandel, and took a long leap into happiness and haven't landed yet.
It's a little frightening to put these thoughts out there because this is such a personal take on things, and I'm so afraid I've left out people who have been big, big players here in the last 30 years. This is off the top of my head, and written when I am hundreds of miles from DC. For what it's worth, here it is. Please make additions, corrections, amendments!