Celebrating 40 years of rhyme and reason with HoCoPoLitSo

Garrison Keillor lounged by a backyard pool, sipping a glass of wine. Isaac Bashevis Singer sat at a dining room table and ate homemade pea soup. Edward Albee arrived with a new boyfriend in tow.

Over the past four decades, the likes of Larry McMurtry, Frank McCourt, Grace Paley and Lucille Clifton, along with a dozen or so other well-known authors and poets, have made themselves at home during visits to Columbia.

Many of them lingered after their readings to share a meal, and some even stayed on as overnight houseguests.

They are among the more than 300 writers who have read from their works for the Howard County Poetry & Literature Society, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Jean Moon and Prudence Barry launched HoCoPoLitSo in 1974 from the basement of the Kennedy home on Wilde Lake. The three women were quickly able to attract and interact with extraordinary writers in the early years by employing a simple strategy.

Along with promising a rapt and educated audience, the founding trio offered a home-cooked meal, stimulating conversation, an overnight stay at a member's home and all the hospitality they could muster.

"We told them, 'You'll love the experience and you'll be taken care of,' " said Moon, who now owns a public relations firm and was general manager of The Columbia Flier when HoCoPoLitSo was formed. "And they took a chance on us."

The women also developed a proven method for attracting audiences to hear the writers, a group soon made up predominantly of poets.

"Getting people to come to a poetry reading isn't the easiest thing to do, so we always had a party," said Barry, who founded the now-defunct Actors' Company in Howard County in 1973. "You went to the reading first, then to the party."

Moon echoed that sentiment.

"Poetry isn't soccer," she said. "Like other arts, it draws small audiences."

The first reading sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo took place in November 1974 at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, and featured Carolyn Kizer and Lucille Clifton, two of the group's favorite poets. Clifton, who died in 2010, eventually became Maryland's poet laureate and moved to Columbia.

The names the nonprofit group was able to attract exploded from there, bolstered by the breadth of the women's connections.

"I saw Prudence as an actor, director and poet, Ellen as a scholar and literary translator, and myself as a journalist and teacher," said Moon, who also taught women's studies in Howard Community College's credit-free curriculum.

"And we were all deep and broad readers. It was natural for us to see ourselves as having the capacity to create this organization," she said.

Kennedy recalled that she had just moved from New York with her husband, Pat, who had accepted the position of president of the Columbia Association in 1972. He served in that capacity for 26 years, and the couple still reside on Waterfowl Terrace.

"It was the years of the Nixon administration, and I wasn't happy" about that or about moving to Howard County, said Kennedy, who served as the organization's director for 30 years. "It took me a year or two to adapt" to Howard.

Working on the concept for HoCoPoLitSo eased the transition, she said.

"HoCoPoLitSo [has been] a labor of love, second only in my life to family," Kennedy said. "Creating something with others, running it for 30 years and seeing it move on and flourish for another 10 years in a new and more permanent setting — who could ask for anything more?"

Her husband contributed to the group's growing success in 1979 by suggesting an "Irish Evening" to feature readings by Irish poets and authors along with Irish music. The annual event, which was later expanded to include Irish dance, remains popular.

A dozen years after the nonprofit was founded, the organization expanded its outreach with a cable program called "The Writing Life," in which Baltimore-Washington area writers interviewed visiting authors and poets. Episodes of the show are still being filmed at a rate of three a year, and many are available for viewing on YouTube, according to the organization's website.

The program has also tapped into a global audience thanks to the Internet, according to Tim Singleton, a HoCoPoLitSo co-chairperson. In the two years staff members have been posting episodes to YouTube, video views from countries around the world have topped 100,000, he said.

Despite their successes, knowing they couldn't thrive over the long term as a home-based organization led the group's board of directors to move the offices to the Howard Community College campus in 2004, becoming a partner-in-residence there.

"We knew we needed to transition to a more sustainable future with the college," said Moon, who served on the board for 21 years. "Having [HoCoPoLitSo] allied with HCC ensures it will live forever in a good home."

The organization has stayed true to its original mission of "enlarging the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and the world literary heritage," and is still drawing crowds.

In April, as part of the Blackbird Poetry Festival, the society hosted Billy Collins, who served two stints as national poet laureate and was dubbed "the most popular poet in America" by The New York Times. His appearance drew a near-capacity audience of 375 people.

And on June 25, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, HoCoPoLitSo will present a preview of "Drifting," the debut novel by Baltimore resident Katia D. Ulysse.

"We work hard to bring the world's greatest writers into our own backyard … and to create programs that make possible the close, personal, moving, and fun encounters among writers and audiences that are increasingly rare," said Tara Hart, co-chairperson of the board.

Singleton described one of those unforgettable experiences from last summer.

"When Patricia Smith and Sage String Quartet performed her Katrina poems to Wynton Marsalis' 'At the Octoroon Balls,' it was such a powerful, heartbreaking performance that no one could speak to each other for moments afterward.

"It is these moments that we want to go on creating, moments where we can gather people and present to them one of the great writers of our day, and they are profoundly changed," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who has a bachelor's degree in literature, said she has been attending the intimate readings from the beginning, and "was pinching myself afterward when we were all in the same small apartment with someone like novelist Saul Bellow."

"HoCoPoLitSo has enhanced the arts in Columbia exponentially," she said, "and it's not a stretch to say that it reflects the atmosphere that Jim Rouse created in Columbia."

Barry also attributes much of the organization's success to its supportive setting.

"How many cities have been made from the ground up?" she asked."HoCoPoLitSo happened because of Columbia, and because what makes a happy people is being able to express themselves."

Moon said the organization allowed them "to couple their private reading with a public purpose."

"It was the times, too," Barry added. "You could just go ahead and build something. We never thought we couldn't do it."

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