Issue 141 - Interview with Kim Roberts
Interview with Kim Roberts, whose most recent book titled By Broad Potomac’s Shore has just been released, with Robert L. Giron.
—Kim, I know that you have done research on Walt Whitman in D.C. and have researched famous authors who have lived in D.C. I wonder what sparked this collection.
“I see this as a companion to my earlier book, A Literary Guide to Washington, D.C.: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2018. The format of that book, with its emphasis on walking through different neighborhoods, only allowed me to showcase a limited number of authors. This anthology includes 132 poets, all living and working in D.C. from the city’s founding in 1800 through about 1930. After 1930, we see the beginnings of literary modernism, and poetry changes quite dramatically as a result. But I wanted to emphasize those earlier periods, because I think those stories are less well known. And in those early eras, poetry was not considered something elite; it was a part of every American’s daily life. And that fascinated me as well.”
—Was there one poet more than others that kept you going?
“One of the primary reasons to compile an anthology is to make an argument: to question the literature that has become canonical over time. Certain poets continue to get read and continue to be taught in schools—but I wanted to take a more inclusive look. So while I still feature some well-known names, such as Walt Whitman and Paul Laurence Dunbar, I got really excited about some of the working class poets, women poets, and poets of color who have been forgotten or overlooked—and whose poems are just as powerful, in my opinion, as those considered part of the canon.
I’m not sure I could name just one poet. Can I mention a few? Anne Lynch Botta and Charlotte Forten Grimké both certainly deserve to be better known; their poems are some of my favorites, and the idea that I might help others discover them really did “keep me going.” Emma Willard, an early white feminist poet and advocate for women’s education, would also be on my list. Some of the incredible poets who were born enslaved, such as Fanny Jackson Coppin, T. Thomas Fortune, Walter H. Brooks, and John Sella Martin. Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, a lesbian feminist who served as First Lady in the White House for her bachelor brother. The lesser known women writers of the Harlem Renaissance era, such as Carrie Williams Clifford, Esther Popel Shaw, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Ruth Muskrat Bronson, an activist for Native American rights, was also a terrific discovery. And there are some writers I included who are better known for their nonfiction, but whose poetry is also wonderful, such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Adams.”
—What were the challenges to find the names and the work that is included in the book?
“I worry about all the poets I’ve left out—I know there are many more discoveries to be made. Many of the poets I included did not publish single-author books, and their work is only known through inclusion in anthologies and newspapers, which makes them harder to find. I tried, with each author I researched, to find out who was in their literary circle, so one poet would often lead me to others. I spent a lot of time going through the archives of specialty newspapers, such as the abolitionist press, which regularly published poems. But finding women poets was a real challenge: many of them married and changed their names or wrote under pseudonyms.”
—Were there poets that you chose not to include and why?
“In general, I wanted to paint a full picture of the time periods and contexts in the city’s early history. So there are some poets, such as Albert Pike, whose political beliefs are abhorrent to me, who still got included because I thought they were significant markers of their time. Others were included because their work reflected something that could only happen in Washington, D.C.: there’s a love poem by George Alfred Townsend that takes place in the Senate chambers during cloture, for example. I got a real kick out of that one.
But of course I had to make some hard choices, and plenty of poets got cut. The original manuscript I compiled was about twice as long as the final one! I was sorry to cut some of the diplomat poets, such as Luis Muñoz Marín and Maurice Francis Egan, for example, and some of the early U.S. Poets Laureates who moved to D.C. during their terms at the Library of Congress.”
—What was your goal in researching the poets?
“My original goal was personal: I wanted to know who more of my literary forebears were, to feel a deeper connection to my home city. I didn’t know I was compiling a book at that point; I was just fulfilling my own curiosity. In some sense, you could say I’ve been working on this book for over thirty years, as I was reading to inform and enhance my sense of place.”
—Which poet and their life most surprised you and why?
“My biggest surprise was finding a poem by Arthur Bowen, the enslaved teenager who was at the center of D.C.’s first race riot, The Snow Storm. Almost everything we know about Bowen comes to us from white witnesses: news reporters, court records, and the correspondence of his mistress, Anna Maria Thornton. When I discovered that he had written a poem from prison, which was published in the National Intelligencer newspaper in February of 1836, I was blown away. It’s the only thing we have from his own hand, and it’s extremely moving.”
—Has reading these poets, living with them for several months/years in my mind, affected any aspect of your writing of poetry?
“Oh, yes! How could I not be affected? I consider the time spent I researching the lives of these poets, reading through their out-of-print books and searching for poems in old journals, to be a real privilege and an education. It’s certainly enriched my sense of the layers of history that get built up over time in the city. And the themes that the poets covered have such a range—from wartime odes, to abolitionist poems, to voting rights—that resonate strongly with some of the major issues of our own time.”
—Thank you, Kim. Once again you have done the Greater Washington, D.C. literary community a grand service by bringing forth this in-depth trove of poetic voices from the past. This is a gem of a book and one many can refer to for various purposes. Bravo!
By Broad Potomac's Short
—A sampling of the poems in the book By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital, edited by Kim Roberts, University of Virginia Press, Copyright © 2020 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.
(May 31, 1819—March 26, 1892)
From 1863 to 1873, Walt Whitman lived in Washington, D.C.
By Broad Potomac’s Shore
By broad Potomac’s shore, again old tongue,
(Still uttering, still ejaculating, canst never cease his babble?)
Again old heart so gay, again to you, your sense, the full flush spring
Again the freshness and the odors, again Virginia’s summer sky,
pellucid blue and silver,
Again the forenoon purple of the hills,
Again the deathless grass, so noiseless soft and green,
Again the blood-red roses blooming.
Perfume this book of mine O blood-red roses!
Lave subtly with your waters every line Potomac!
Give me of you O spring, before I close, to put between its pages!
O forenoon purple of the hills, before I close, of you!
O deathless grass, of you!
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass, Philadelphia: David McKay Publisher, 1891-92 (The Deathbed Edition). This poem is in public domain.
John Sella Martin
(September 27, 1832—August 12, 1876)
John Sella Martin moved to Washington, D. C. in 1869, having escaped slavery in Alabama in 1856.
from The Hero and the Slave
But just now a sable listener
Makes a passage through the crowd,
’Till he stands before the soldier—
But his presence seems a cloud;
For the listeners looked contemptuous,
As they fixed on him a stare,
And a person said in anger,
“There’s a ’nigger’ everywhere—
In the church, and state, and barracks,
Still his woolly head pops in”;
And e’en here he comes unwelcome,
Like a Ghost upon the scene.
And as if in great amazement,
Each one from the center shrank,
As the negro neared the soldier,
Lest he soiled his skin and rank.
“Ah, my hero,” spoke the negro,
As he raised his manly brow,
“Have we passed through blood and peril,
All to meet so happy now;
Thanks to Him whose love impartial,
Guards the hero and the slave,
Thanks to Him, for from our dangers,
He alone had power to save.”
”Sir, my jaded memory fails me,”
Said the brave, with some surprise,
“But perhaps your explanation,
May remove your new disguise.”
“You shall have it,” said the negro,
Drawing nearer to the brave;
“From the Monumental City
I have journeyed as a slave,
And when life was ebbing from you,
Through the wounds which these deplore,
”Twas these sable hands that stayed it,
In the streets of Baltimore;
When the frenzied mob were yelling,
And with stones, and bayonet,
Crushing heads, and bodies piercing,
Of the soldiers gasping yet;
It was I who saw you falling,
And still marking where you fell,
Sought your helpless form, and dragged it
From the gates of riot’s hell;
It was I who staunched your bleeding,
With the garments of my wife;
Torn from limbs by white men fettered,
To bind in a white man’s life.
Even in the bondsman’s prison,
Sounds mysterious sometimes came,
Telling of old Massachusetts,
First in conflict, first in fame—
First to brave king George’s power,
And defend the nation’s laws,
First to give the negro freedom,
And the last to leave his cause.
When I saw her son a stranger,
Helpless, wounded, and alone,
I remembered Massachusetts,
And I did what I have done.
Yes, that name so dear to bondmen,
Prompted risk of life for you,
And your safety well rewards me
For the dangerous interview.”
“O, you are my life’s preserver,
And whate’er my state or mood,
You shall be the constant idol
Of a soldier’s gratitude.
Yes, your words awaken memory,
Which awakened, now recalls,
Every tone, and act, and feature,
Of the friend my soul extols;
O! ’twas you who proved the hero,
Mid the bloody scenes that say,
Risking life, and dealing mercy,
In the chaos of the fray;
For your acts were voluntary,
While the soldier’s deeds were done
’Neath the iron spur of orders,
Which nor weak, nor brave, could shun;
And my acts should prove my feelings,
Better than my tongue can tell,
Had I wealth to guide that courage,
Which ’mid dangers shone so well.
Still these Christian men around you
Are the guardians to whose care
I commit you, as to Christians,
With a soldier’s heartfelt prayer.”
Then he turned to those around him,
While his eyes were growing bright,
With the gems of grateful feeling—
All too pure for vulgar sight—
And he said in tones that trembled:
“Freemen, there a freeman stands,
With his deed of manumission,
Snatched from riot’s guilty hands;
From these gilded halls I journeyed
Into slavery’s dark Bastille,
Thoughtless of the hearts of bondmen,
Till he taught my own to feel—
Taught me how to feel those terrors
Which our fathers’ weakness gave,
Into hands to-day as murderous
To the white man as the slave.
Starting from his life-long prison,
Did this bondman make his way;
To this grand old hall of justice,
Where sweet freedom holds her sway;
I went there to lose my freedom—
He comes here in search of his;
He restored mine when I lost it,
And shall we do less than this?
In his conflict with condition,
He a double conquest gains;
Conquers hate of white-faced haters—
Conquers bondage and its chains;
Shall he now a deadlier conflict,
Wage with color’s hateful ban,
Or, assisted by our justice
Stand up every inch a man.
Let us by our manly dealing
Quell the cry of prejudice,
Which drives to proscriptive darkness
Even such a gem as this;
For, though still my highest glory
Was to shed a patriot’s blood,
Here I learn my highest lesson,
God’s great truth of brotherhood,
And henceforth the name of negro
Loses all of its disgrace,
For the hero’s deeds may blossom
From the stem of any race.”
Martin, John Sella, The Hero and the Slave: Founded on Fact, Boston: W.F. Brown & Co., 1870. This poem is in public domain.
Bertha Gerneaux Davis
(1873—February 14, 1952)
Though Bertha Gerneaux Davis was born in New York she moved to Washington, D.C. with her family where she lived until 1910. Later she moved to Minnesota with her husband but returned to the area when he became the first president of what is now the University of Maryland.
The trolley brought them out by scores today—
Our boys from nearby camps, to go away
So soon to blood-stained fields. I watched one lad
Who stood apart a little—not quite sad,
Yet somewhat grave for one so young. (I doubt
If he were twenty!) He was looking out
Upon the fair Virginia hills, the trees,
The river flowing by. A gentle breeze
Made fragrance from the clover fill the air.
He wandered out to those green acres where
The thousands lie in sleep—such endless rows!
’Twas early evening, overhead the crows
Were darkening the sky. (In wearied flight
They wing their way to Arlington each night.)
Among those countless grass-grown graves he stood,
This soldier boy, his young face clean and good,
His stiff-brimmed hat in one slim hand—(Because
The day was warm and close? Or did he pause
In honor of those dead?) Then toward the sky
He turned his face. (To see the crows drift by,
Or was it something else, unseen by me?)
I only know his smile was sweet to see!
Davis, Bertha Gerneaux, Mark Winton Woods, Harriet Winton Davis, Verses by Three Generations, College Park, MD: University of Maryland Press, 1921. This poem is in public domain.
Anne Kelledy Gilbert
(1859—November 6, 1944)
Though Anne Kelledy Gilbert was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, she was a longtime Washington, D.C. resident and was praised for her poetry in the 1932 collection District of Columbia Poets: An Anthology of 32 Contemporaries.
(A Military Burial)
How reverently the sunlight falls
On Arlington near close of day,
Veiling its marble-studded slopes
From where the pillared mansion, throned,
Envisages the peaceful scene,
The grassy vales, the towering trees
With graves between,
The soul takes flight with yonder plane,
Hovering lonely against the sky
Among lesser birds that twitteringly
Hark! The sob of mournful strains;
The heavy scrape of marching feet;
The mounted guard with clanging sword;
The gun’s repeat!
The gate stands wide: a veteran comes.
The flag he served enwraps him now;
Flanked by the comrades of his youth
He keeps his vow.
His vigorous mount, in mourning draped,
Follows slowly, awed and meek;
With toes reversed the dangling boots
The stirrups seek.
The big guns boom his rank on earth;
The surplice priest intones a prayer,
The volley clangs! The bugle sounds!
We leave him there.
The air is still. Broad darkness falls.
The birds are mute beneath the leaves
Save distantly a whippoorwill
Grieves . . . grieves.
Gilbert, Anne Kelledy, The Angel of the Battlefield and Other Poems, New York: H. Vinal Ltd., 1928. This poem is in public domain.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša)
(February 22, 1876—January 26, 1938)
Zitkala-Ša, born to a white trader and a Yankton mother, was given the name Gertrude Simmons by missionaries on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation. She wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and Everybody’s Magazine, which later were collected in 1921 as American Indian Stories. She moved to the Washington, D. C. area with her husband but settled in Arlington, Virginia. She and her husband are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Winona’s Aria: The Magic of the Night
(from The Sun Dance Opera)
The magic of the Night of Nights beckons me
A wonder-world is sheltered ’neath the trees.
From grass and shrubs and willows low
Come mystic voices, sighs enchanting breeze.
The pallid lake lies quiet now
Beneath yon mountain’s somber breath.
The moonlight flickers—branches bow
But I? My lover comes! He comes to me!
Oh Night of Nights!
He comes—in his serenade!
Before the coyote’s call at morn,
Or bird awakes its mate at dawn,
While mystic voices sing their song
He comes—my lover comes—I know ’tis he!
Ohiya, yes Ohiya brave—in his serenade.
I pass into the nightworld unafraid.
He comes to chant ecstasy
He comes to chant his serenade.
Hanson, William F. and Zitkala-Ša, The Sun Dance Opera. Premiered at Orpheus Hall, Vernal, Utah, 1913. This poem is in public domain.
Juan Ramón Jiménez
(December 24, 1881—May 29, 1958)
Juan Ramón Jiménez, a Spanish poet, editor, and critic, left Spain in exile, first living in Cuba and then the United States. He was a professor of Spanish at the University of Maryland from 1943 to 1951 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956. He and his wife lived in Adams Morgan in Washington, D. C.
Le soy desconocido,
Pasa, como un idiota,
ante mí; cual un loco, que llegase
al cielo con la frente
y al que llegara el agua a la rodilla,
la mano inmensa chorreando
sobre la borda.
Si le toco un dedo,
alza la mano, ola violenta,
y con informe grito mareante,
que nos abisma,
dice cosas borrachas, y se ríe,
y llora, ye se va . . .
A veces, las dos manos
el la borda, hunde el barco
hasta su vientre enorme
y avanza su cabeza, susto frío,
hasta nuestro minuscule descuido.
Y se encoge
de hombros y sepulta
su risottada roja en las espumas
verdes y blancas . . .
asoma y nos espanta; a cada instante
se hace el mar casi humano para odiarme.
. . . Le soy desconocido.
Jimenez, Juan Ramon,Diario de un poeta recién casado, Madrid: Casa Editorial Calleja, 1917. This poem is in public domain.
To him I am unknown,
He passes like an idiot,
in front of me, a madman
whose forehead reaches heaven
while standing in water up to his knees,
his immense and weeping hand
defining the shore.
If I reach in with my finger
he raises his hand in a violent wave
and screams himself dizzy
into the abyss,
then stumbles like a drunk
then cries, then departs . . .
Sometimes with both hands
on shore, he swallows boats,
taking us whole into his huge belly
and his head emerges, cold with fright,
to see our haphazard insignificance.
his shoulders, he buries
his red lips among the foam
glowing green and white . . .
and terrifies us, and any moment
his hate can turn almost human.
. . . To him I am unknown.
Translation from Spanish to English by Kim Roberts, © 2020.
Ruth Muskrat Bronson
(October 3, 1897—June 12, 1982)
Ruth Muskrat Bronson was born in what was then Indian Territory and is now the state of Oklahoma. She served for twelve years as the head of the scholarship and loan program at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. She advocated for Native water rights along the Colorado River, as well as Native rights in the Territory of Alaska, and medical care for American Indians.
The Hunter’s Wooing
Come roam the wild hills, my Cherokee Rose,
Come roam the wild hills with me.
We’ll follow the path where the Spavinaw flows,
Dashing wild on its way to the sea,
On its wearisome way to the sea.
We’ll chase the fleet deer from its lair in the woods;
We’ll follow the wolf to his den.
When the sun hides his face, we’ll rest in the woods;
Hid away from the worry of men.
Hid away from the bother of men.
And then we’ll go home, my Cherokee Rose,
Where the Senecas live in the heart of the hills
By the rippling Cowskin, where the Saulchana grows,
We’ll go home to the Coyauga hills,
To the sheltering Coyauga hills.
Bronson, Ruth Muskrat, The Hunter’s WooingUniversity of Oklahoma Magazine, No. 10, October 1921. This poem is in public domain.
About the Author
Kim Roberts is an award-winning poet, literary historian, and editor who resides in Washington, D.C. She is the author of five books of poems, editor of two anthologies, and co-editor of the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes. Her previous book is A Literary Guide to Washington, DC.