Thursday, July 28th, 2011
“When I moved to D.C. 25 years ago as a part-time adjunct professor, I wanted to find a way to explore this city and understand its personality. The more I learned about D.C., the more I saw the ghosts, especially related to its literary history.
“Now, I drive around and see these ghosts through my research into the different time periods of the city. I see places like the house where Zora Neale Hurston rented rooms when she was a student at Howard or where Walt Whitman worked.
“Walt Whitman has been especially significant to my life here. I had long been an English teacher and taught his work, but there was this convergence of two major events that changed my life into a before and after. I had a friend, Martha, who was dying of cancer. I moved in to help care for her for the last two years of her life. When she was in her final phase of life, I was also diagnosed with cancer. It was the worst period of my life. At the same time, dealing with her cancer, helped me deal with mine. I knew that my prognosis was good and I would be cured. That helped to put things into perspective for me.
“Those experiences led me back to Walt Whitman. I had spent two years nursing Martha and it was a more intimate type of relationship than any I had before. I felt like I needed some words to help me get through it. Walt Whitman moved to D.C. to be a volunteer Civil War nurse, and wrote incredibly movingly about nursing these young soldiers in D.C. hospitals. His words helped me. I had read the texts before, but they had a special impact when I really needed them.
“This reconnection with Whitman encouraged me to learn more about him. I wanted to know where Whitman had lived and to go visit those places. I was pretty sure that they didn’t exist anymore, but I wanted to find the plot of land and go stand there and feel connected to him. While there are hundreds of Whitman scholars running around questioning why he changed commas from draft to draft, no one had mapped out where he lived during his ten years in D.C. I decided to do it.
“I went through his correspondence and found eight boarding houses where he lived in this city. All of his addresses were prior to 1870, which was before they regularized the street addresses. Before then, your house number was based on the previously numbered house, but had no connection to the cross street. After 1870, they changed that, so I had to translate all of his addresses, which was not that easy. I eventually found the current addresses, all of which are now high-rise office buildings or apartments downtown.
“My interest in Whitman eventually led me to Langston Hughes, who lived here as a young man, and had an important connection to Whitman. While we may think of Whitman as a solid member of the canon and one of the greatest American poets, there were times when his star faded. During one of the those periods, Hughes defended him. In fact, there is a story that when Hughes left Columbia Business School to take a steam ship to Africa, he threw all of his books overboard into New York Harbor except Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
“To me, it is incredible how Whitman spoke through the generations to people like Hughes, and so many other writers here. I have devoted a lot of time and research to understanding these connections and learning about D.C.’s writing community. I believe that we need to do a better job of learning and claiming our history. If we don’t do it, it gets lost or minimized. A great example is the Harlem Renaissance, which some would argue started in D.C., but whose name links it only to New York.
“We should all be interested in the incredible stories and history of the arts in Washington. Because unless we actively claim these things as ours, they get effaced.”
In addition to being a literary historian, Kim Roberts is also an award-winning poet and the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the anthology Full Moon On K. Street: Poems About Washington DC. She is the author of three books of poems, Animal Magnetism, The Kimnama, and The Wishbone Galaxy. Below is one of her poems, Swamp.
The Lincoln sinks into the Potomac
with a sigh. Constitution Avenue,
weary of constraint, reverts to canal,
complete with stink and Spring floods.
Swamp reclaims the grounds
of the Washington Monument, and river
reclaims the rest, filling with masts
that glided in from the Chesapeake Bay.
All the mere human efforts
of the Army Corps of Engineers
have come to naught. The Kennedy Center’s
massive bunker, like a Soviet tank, slides
under the gurgling mud and the bridges dissolve,
their long lines of cars a dim specter.
Across the wide dirt roads downtown
Walt Whitman strides in his boots,
kicking up clouds of dust that eddy in his wake
—until he, too, wavers and melts
amid white columned buildings,
the classical ruins of grand intent.