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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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PHOTOS: 2022 Baltimore Pride

Annual LGBTQ march held on Saturday

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Baltimore Pride 2022 (Washington Blade photo by Linus Berggren)

The 2022 Baltimore Pride Parade was held on Saturday, June 25. The march was followed by a block party and entertainment.

(Washington Blade photos by Linus Berggren)

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Theater

Queer actor on new role: ‘Playing villains is a blast’

Jaye Ayres-Brown returns as a contemptible Londoner in ‘Red Velvet’

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Jaye Ayres-Brown in ‘Red Velvet’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

‘Red Velvet’
Through July 17
Shakespeare Theatre Company 
Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 7th St., N.W.
$35-$120
Shakespearetheatre.org

After a five-year absence from the stage, actor Jaye Ayres-Brown (queer, gender fluid, non-binary, and trans-femme) returns to the boards as a contemptible cisgender Londoner in playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet” at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre.

Possessed of presence and genuine warmth, Ayres-Brown, 27, is playing Charles Kean, the smug and dubiously talented son of legendary English actor Edmund Kean. Charles is also the essential antagonist in Chakrabarti’s exploration of the life and career of renowned early 19th century African-American Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom).  

When Aldridge is tapped to play Othello on the London stage, Charles, who’s slated to act opposite the star as evil Iago, quits the show. It’s 1833 and Charles is deeply opposed to a Black actor playing a Black lead character, and he’s even less pleased that his real-life fiancée Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest) is assaying Othello’s romantic obsession Desdemona in the production.  

Offstage, Ayres-Brown is Aldridge’s biggest fan: “He was way ahead of his time. A hundred years before Stanislavsky, Aldridge was introducing a proto naturalist approach to acting. In retrospect, it’s hard to disentangle the public’s reaction to him. He was something so different. But were white audiences reacting to his innovative acting style or were they showing their racial bias?” 

“In the play, I’m that bias,” says the New York-based actor. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Joan Crawford famously said, “I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman — a lot in every man.” 

JAYE AYRES-BROWN: Oh yeah, playing villains is a blast. Ira Aldridge was such a spectacularly heroic person, an amazingly gifted and resourceful artist, he deserves a good villain to push against, a meaningful villain who makes us admire the hero even more. And Amari [Cheatom], the actor who plays Aldridge, is a great artist who deserves a strong antagonist too. 

BLADE: Are you enjoying your stay in London 1833? 

AYRES-BROWN: No, I hate it!  But my character loves it. Charles enjoys tremendous privilege – racial and professionally. He’s a cisgender white supremacist committed to the patriarchal power structure of the time. But me, Jaye as a person, is less than charmed by it.

BLADE: But aesthetically, it’s quite fine? 

AYRES-BROWN: Yes, You-Shin Chen’s sets are impeccable, and the period costumes are beautifully rendered by Rodrigo Muñoz. Sometimes, I do feel a little bit like a drag king in Charles’ attire. It’s a performance of masculinity. 

I have an expansive experience of gender in which I include masculinity and I think I have something interesting to say and a unique perspective. Language about gender nonconforming identity didn’t exist in 1833, but the people existed, getting by the best way they could. Everyone was either a man or a woman. Who knows today how any of these characters would identify? 

My objective is to cram as much humanity in the character as I can. The play is deeply considered with questions about who gets to play what roles. And I try to bring as much of myself to each role regardless of their gender.

BLADE: Charles is very far from who you are?

AYRES-BROWN: For me, the work of playing a character like this is derived largely from the racist lessons all Americans learn. The stereotypes are things that I’ve been exposed to as someone who grew up white in America. There’s the initial desire to distance and highlight contrasts, but ultimately you must mine your own experience even if it’s uncomfortable.

BLADE: How is it to be working in live theater again?

AYRES-BROWN: Like Christmas morning! It’s my first play in five years, and still my training kicks in. I re-balance on my bike and it’s like I’ve never stopped riding. But mostly, I’m trying to have as much fun as I can. 

BLADE: And how was working with young director Jade King Carroll? 

AYRES-BROWN: Wonderful! The play deals with some difficult moments, harmful language and ideas.  Jade created a space in our rehearsal room where people could be playful while engaging with that. Dealing with concepts of history requires the seriousness it demands, but there’s also a need for humor and lightness, and Jade made that possible.

BLADE:  Any thoughts on “Red Velvet” being stuck in time? 

AYRES-BORWN: No, I think this play is a shockingly contemporary telling of a lost history that feels overwhelmingly resonant as it’s related to identity politics and the push for representation. I hope the audience sees a period but appreciates the present-day dynamics, discussions, and language. It’s also surprisingly human and very entertaining. To me it’s a very funny show. Anyone interested in laughing at posh British folks being stupid might agree.

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Sports

Olympic champion Tom Daley ‘furious’ about bans on trans athletes

“Anyone that’s told that they can’t compete or can’t do something they love just because of who they are, it’s not ok”

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Tom Daley (Screenshot via Channel 4 UK)

Olympic diving champion Tom Daley said he is “furious” about FINA, the world swimming body, banning some transgender athletes from women’s swimming, diving, and other competitions. 

“Anyone that’s told that they can’t compete or can’t do something they love just because of who they are, it’s not OK,” Daley said to iNews at a press conference. “It’s something I feel really strongly about. Giving trans people the chance to share their side.”

Earlier this month, FINA released the new policy on eligibility, banning athletes who have experienced male puberty from women’s competitions.

FINA President Husain Al-Musallam said the new policy intended to protect athletes’ right to compete but also ensure competition fairness.

FINA intends to create an open category for athletes whose birth sex is different from their gender identity.

“This has not been done before, so FINA will need to lead the way. I want all athletes to feel included in being able to develop ideas during this process.” Al-Musallam said.

The new policy was condemned by the Human Rights Campaign, which said that requiring athletes to transition before age 12 was unrealistic and unlikely. States such as Alabama regulate young people’s access to age-appropriate gender-affirming care.

“This sudden and discriminatory decision is a blatant attack on transgender athletes who have worked to comply with longstanding policies that have allowed them to participate for years without issue,” said Joni Madison, HRC’s Interim President, “This policy is an example of swimming organizations caving to the avalanche of ill-informed, prejudiced attacks targeted at one particular transgender swimmer.”

The new policy will impact the career of trans swimmer Lia Thomas, the first trans woman to win a NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming Championship, and may prevent her from participating and competing in the female category.

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