Folger Shakespeare Library Poetry Programs

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Folger Shakespeare Library Poetry Programs

After O.B. Hardison, a poet himself, became director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1969, the Folger upgraded its model Elizabethan Theatre to accommodate audiences and began to sponsor theater performances, concerts, and noontime and evening poetry readings.

Leni Spencer, the head of the Folger’s Public Programs Department, who directed the Folger’s public programs with the help of an informal advisory committee of local poets, eventually hired Liam Rector to run the poetry programs. In addition the Evening Poetry Series, Liam organized a conference in November, 1979, “After the Flood,” featuring Harold Bloom, Marjorie Perloff, and other luminaries. For several years, the Folger also hosted a lunchtime reading series, the Midday Muse, pairing local poets with visiting writers from all over the country.

From 1980-83, and again for a year during the 1991-92 season, Jean Nordhaus became the Poetry Coordinator, taking over midway through the 1980-81 season from Liam. During her tenure, the Folger started a second lunchtime poetry series called the Moveable Muse, with weekly readings at alternating downtown locations: the Renwick Gallery, the Phillips Collection, and other venues. (The Renwick venue was cancelled, when the Director of the Smithsonian, fearing congressional displeasure, read a Washington Post account of a reading there about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by Chris Llewellyn, who termed herself a “labor poet.”) In those years, the Folger also published a monthly listing of poetry events and news called the Poetry Clearinghouse. In Spring, 1981, with funding from the Witter Bynner Foundation, the Folger sponsored “Toward a Transparent Language,” a 2-day conference on the translation of poetry. George Steiner was the keynote speaker. Participants included Robert Bly, John Simon, Richard Howard, and Jerome Rothenberg. The Folger also sponsored a 1986 conference on Emily Dickinson, which was organized by Katharine Zadravec, coordinator for a time of the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction at the Folger, who stayed on to plan and run the Dickinson conference.

Among others who coordinated the poetry series in subsequent years were Michael Collier, Saskia Hamilton, Aurelie Sheehan, Libby Rivkin, and Teri Ellen Cross Davis. Poets who have read at the Folger over the past 40 years include: Octavio Paz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Merrill, Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, Derek Walcott, Hayden Carruth, Rita Dove, Seamus Heaney, Sterling Brown, Denise Levertov, June Jordan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sonia Sanchez, and James Dickey. Beginning with the 2010–11 season, the reading series was renamed the O.B. Hardison Poetry reading series in honor of its founder, O. B. Hardison, Jr.

Annual special events on the series include the Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute Reading in which an artist, poet, or scholar pays tribute to Dickinson and her poetry followed by a reception with black cake inspired by Dickinson's own recipe, and a reading sponsored by the Folger Poetry Board which gives distinguished writers an opportunity to share with audiences their favorite poems by other authors as well as their own work. The Folger Poetry Board Reading was inaugurated by Seamus Heaney in 1991. Other readers have included John Updike, Robert Hass, Czeslaw Milosz, Sharon Olds, Octavio Paz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz, Alan Shapiro, Sandra Cisneros, Galway Kinnell, W.D. Snodgrass, Pattiann Rogers, Charles Simic, Eavan Boland, and Lucille Clifton.

The O.B. Hardison Poetry Series collaborates with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to present the annual “Poets in Progress” reading, and with Para Eso La Palabra, a collective of local Latino writers, artists, and musicians, to present their Spanish-language peñas every other month at the Folger’s Haskell Center.

Here is a link to a list of the poets who have read.

article written by Jean Nordhaus June 6, 2013


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