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‘D.C. queer poets doing some of the most innovative writing’

Kim Roberts on Washington as home to thriving poetry scene

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‘Because the federal government is here, people don’t think there’s poetry in D.C.,’ said Kim Roberts.

Cheer up! There’s hope! April isn’t just for filing your taxes. It’s National Poetry Month!

Few people are more important — more vital — to poetry in Washington, D.C. than queer poet, editor, and literary historian Kim Roberts.

It’s hard to imagine any bard in the D.C. region who hasn’t been enriched by Roberts’s editing, poetry, or understanding of history.

“Kim Roberts brings the past and present together with elegance and intelligence,” said Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri in an email to the Blade.

“Poetry’s past has gone nowhere at all, thankfully, because of Kim’s work,” Cavalieri, producer and host of the public radio show and Apple podcast “The Poet and the Poem,” said. 

D.C. has been home to numerous poets from its founding to the Civil War to World War I to World War II to our COVID era, Roberts, 60, told the Blade in an interview.

“D.C. is a company town like Las Vegas,” Roberts, who moved to Washington, D.C. 35 years ago, said. “Because the federal government is here, people don’t think there’s poetry in D.C.”

“We get overlooked,” she added.

You might think poetry is a snooze or only for residents of Mount Olympus who are untethered to earthly hopes, fears, loves and losses. But you’d be wrong.

All sorts of people  – from politicos to journalists to teachers to lovers to mourners — seek out and write poetry.

“You turn to poetry in times of great emotion like funerals and weddings,” said Roberts, who is the author of six books of poems.

Recently, this hit close to home for Roberts. “COVID’s been so hard for so many people,” she said, “I feel a bit guilty. Because at my age, I fell in love during the pandemic!”

Roberts was gobsmacked (in a good way) by love — she didn’t expect to find it so late in life. 

At this transformative juncture, Roberts turned to poetry. “My style changed,” she said, “I became confessional.”

Much of her previous poetry has been about other people. The poems in her 2015 collection “Fortune’s Favor: Scott in the Antarctic,” for example, are in the “voice” of explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

“The Scientific Method,” her 2017 book, combines poems about Thomas Alva Edison and Carl Sagan, “the strange mating habits of invertebrates and fish, and rondeaux about the United States presidents,” Roberts writes on her website (kimroberts.org).

Roberts’s poems about her love for her girlfriend Tracey are personal. They are filled with passion and desire.

Five of her love poems are just out from The Last Press. Roberts is the third poet to be featured in an ongoing series of accordion-fold, hand letter press poems called “Quire.” If you don’t feel the passion pulsating through Roberts love poems, check your pulse.

“My desire for you this evening/is not done, where I bridge/inopportune distance,” Roberts writes in her poem “On Roosevelt Bridge,” one of the poems in the “Quire” series, “where I cross/the river into my city, fluid/ around my heart.”

“There’s an ocean inside my belly,” Roberts writes in “Another Lapping Refrain,” one of her “Quire” poems, “and you’re making my tide rise/I want to apologize to the shore/for my past indifference to its beauty.”

The pandemic gave her permission to try different types of projects, Roberts said. One of the things she and her friend Robert Revere, a photographer, missed during the shutdowns was going to museums. Roberts and Revere co-created “Corona/Crown,” a 14-part prose poem with photographs.

“We created a “museum of our own,” Roberts said. “We combined how we imagined people would interact with visual culture with photos of real places.” 

“Corona/Crown” will be published as a chapbook by WordTech Editions in the winter of 2023.

Since childhood, Roberts has felt a strong connection to the English language. “I loved the musicality of words. I made up rhymes and stories,” Roberts said, “it’s inevitable that I would write.”

Roberts earned a B.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Arizona. In 2000, Roberts became the founding editor of “Beltway Poetry Quarterly,” an acclaimed journal that publishes D.C.-area poets. She retired from editing “Beltway” in 2019.

“Beltway” has published many queer poets (including a special LGBTQ issue). Richard Blanco, Regie Cabico, Jona Colson, Cheryl Clarke and Angelina Weld are among the queer poets whose work has appeared in “Beltway.”

“Publishing queer writers helps us see ourselves as part of a special literature,” Roberts said.

Roberts began to explore the history of Washington, D.C. decades ago when she arrived in D.C. “It helped me to feel connected to the city,” she said.

The anthology “By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital,” which Roberts edited, came out in 2020. The collection covers poets, born between 1800 to 1900 through the Civil War, Reconstruction and World War I.

Their work “spans the gamut form traditional Victorian-era sentimentality through the beginnings of literary modernism,” Roberts writes in the preface.

Everyone knows about Whitman being queer, Roberts said. The anthology’s title comes from Whitman’s poem with the same title. But there have been many other queer poets throughout D.C.’s history, Roberts said.

Take Natalie Clifford Barney, a feminist poet, who lived from 1876 to 1972. Barney spent her early years in D.C. She hosted salons in Paris for artists for more than 60 years. “She was the first woman to write openly about lesbian love since Sappho,” Roberts said.

“The full-sailed rising of your body’s sweep/ – Adrift and safe on joy’s last tidal wave —,” Barney wrote in her poem “How Write the Beat of Love,” “Will toss you on the silver sands of sleep/Forgetful of the ecstasy you gave.”

Other queer poets in the “By Broad Potomac’s Shore” anthology range from Charles Warren Stoddard, whose homoerotic writing about the natives of the South Seas was inspired by Whitman’s “Calamus” poems to Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, first lady for two years for her bachelor brother President Grover Cleveland.

Roberts is as committed to LGBTQ poetry in our time in D.C. as she is to queer poetry in the city’s past.

Roberts and filmmaker Jon Gann are co-coordinating the DC Queer Pride Poem-a-Day project. In June, the Project will feature 30 poets reading a poem in short videos online. One poem will be released daily. The website will stay up after Pride. (This reporter is one of the poets who will be featured in the Project.)

“D.C. queer poets now are doing some of the most imaginative, innovative writing,” Roberts said. “It’s important to document the writing of our time.”

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Theater

‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ an irreverent romp at Woolly Mammoth

Solo performance by John Jarboe offers much to consume

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John Jarboe in ‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’
Though June 23
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
$60-$82
Woollymammoth.net

With “Rose: You Are Who You Eat,” a solo performance by John Jarboe (she/her), now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, there’s a lot to uncover and consume.  

For much of the show, the appealing Jarboe comes across as a cute cis gay guy playing dress up in a pair of tighty-whities and sparkly go-go boots, but it’s something else and she’s ready to go there. 

Jarboe is a cannibal. Not in the usual sense. She learned from a well-meaning aunt that while still in the womb, she ate her twin, and that’s what made Jarboe the way she is (a reference to gender queerness).

Despite the aunt’s awkward delivery of family dish, the prenatal news struck a chord with Jarboe: the vanishing twin who would have been named Rose, became increasingly connected to her own identity. Along with the inevitable jokes about eating her sister’s spaghetti thin hair and tasty eyeballs, there’s meaty matter unfolding onstage. 

Not entirely unexpected, Jarboe also harbors mommy issues. Mom, here referred to as “Mother” for the sake of anonymity, is a buttoned-down tax accountant who the more perturbed she becomes the wider her forced smile grows. And while Jarboe needs to have that long overdue talk with Mother, something always seems to get in the way; invariably it’s tax season.

Assisted by some primary source props (a baby book, notes, a string of pearls filched from Mother’s jewelry box), Jarboe further digs into gender expression and identity. Her performance career began in her child bedroom closet with a flashlight and makeshift costume, an obsession to which her parents initially subscribed, later not as much. 

Among the 75-minute-long show’s highlights are five or so songs, rock numbers and redolent ballads composed by Jarboe, Emily Bate, Daniel de Jesús, Pax Ressler and Be Steadwell. 

It’s definitely a solo show conceived and delightfully performed by Jarboe; however, she’s supported by a terrific four-person band (costumed in what appeared from Row D to be rosebush inspired jumpsuits) including Mel Regn, Yifan Huang, Daniel de Jesús, and music director Emily Bate. Bate is a singer, composer and performer who runs a queer and trans community chorus in Philadelphia called Trust Your Moves, an experiment in collective singing designed around liberation and co-creation.

As Jarboe moves into her 30s, she celebrates and incorporates her lost twin as part of herself with a new intensity. She writes letters, yearning for even the most tepid reply. Her obsession with Mother remains a thing too.

Dressed in a sylphlike rosy red gown (by costume designer Rebecca Kanach) Jarboe uses call-and-response (with the audience standing in for Mother) in search of some resolution. It’s beautifully done. 

With various kinds of backing coming from CulturalDC, the Washington Blade, Capital Pride, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and other New York-based groups, there’s nothing itinerant cabaret looking about “Rose.” Directed by MK Tuomanen, it’s an elevated, visually engaging production. 

For instance, set and video designer Christopher Ash’s projections shown on both a serviceable scrim and later a wondrously huge toile curtain, beautifully feature photos from an ostensibly idyllic Midwestern childhood. We see a young Jarboe not only enjoying hockey, fishing, and hunting, but also pulling off a strikingly girly, cheesecake pose.  

At the top of the show, there’s live video of Jarboe’s outsized mouth devouring wings fished from a bucket of fried chicken. Hints of cannibalism? 

“Rose: You Are Who You Eat” is an irreverent romp, deeply personal yet relatable. It’s an evening of poignantly performed moments, off the cuff laughs, and some awkward/sexy audience interaction. 

As a performer, Jarboe lays herself bare, exposing strengths (rich melodious voice, presence, ingenuity) and weaknesses (garrulity and more than a few un-landed jokes) in equal turns. 

Hers is a world that invites audiences to just let go and go with it. Jarboe’s intrepid journey melds the familiar and the startling. In short, it’s a trip worth taking. 

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Photos

PHOTOS: Capital Pride Festival and Concert

Keke Palmer, Billy Porter among entertainers

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Billy Porter performs at the 2024 Capital Pride Festival on Sunday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 2024 Capital Pride Festival and Concert was held along Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest D.C. on Sunday, June 9. Performers included Sapphira Cristál, Keke Palmer, Ava Max, Billy Porter and Exposé.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Out & About

Get ready for Baltimore Pride

Events scheduled throughout weekend

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Baltimore Pride Parade (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Baltimore Pride begins this weekend on Friday, June 14 in the heart of the city.

There will be a variety of events, the main ones being Mt. Vernon Pride on June 14 at 2 p.m. on the 200 Block of W. Read St., the Parade and Block Party on Saturday, June 15 at 3 p.m. on N. Charles St., and Pride in the Park on Sunday, June 15 at 3 p.m. at Druid Hill Park.

For more event details, visit Baltimore Pride’s website

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