Celebrating 20 years of love for the written word


Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) will celebrate Sunday 20 years of listening to literature -- and even nature is in sync with the event.

"The Great Blue Heron" by Carolyn Kizer is the title of one of the poems in an anthology published to commemorate the unusual group's 20th anniversary. A few days ago, Ellen Kennedy -- president, executive director and co-founder of the society -- spied from the society's office a great blue heron gliding inches above the surface of Wilde Lake.

Ms. Kennedy, 62, hopes a few will remain when Ms. Kizer arrives from California for the anniversary. "I would like to go out there and tell them 'stick around, buddy,' " she said.

Sunday, Ms. Kizer, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, will read poems with four other writers, including three who are former and current poets laureate of Maryland: Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan and Reed Whittemore.

The fifth reader is the "poet-emcee" of the event, Roland Flint, professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington and host of "The Writing Life," HoCoPoLitSo's show on the Howard County educational cable TV channel.

Both Ms. Clifton and Ms. Kizer read at HoCoPoLitSo's very first program at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, where Sunday's anniversary celebration will take place.

From Edward Albee to Jonathan Yardley, more than 200 people have performed over the past two decades for the Columbia-based society of 150 members. Many of them have won literature's most prestigious recognitions: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Nobel Prize.

Stanley Kunitz, who's appeared twice, assesses the society in a quote on the back of the 81-page anniversary anthology, "Twenty Years, Twenty Poets."

"I have never encountered anywhere in this country a community as responsive to poetry and as involved with it as this one," he said.

In a telephone interview from his academic office in Washington, Mr. Flint said: "I don't know another organization like it. It's private citizens from Columbia and surroundings who put this thing together. It's unusual and impressive."

He said his most memorable moment with the society was last summer, when he and Garrison Keillor read to almost 800 people on each of two nights during the Columbia Festival of the Arts. "It was fun to read to such a big and enthusiastic audience," Mr. Flint recalled.

The anniversary anthology includes poems by 20 writers who have read at HoCoPoLitSo, including Sterling A. Brown, Seamus Heaney, William Stafford, Derek Walcott, Reed Whittemore, Richard Wilbur and Gwendolyn Brooks.

This week, Ms. Brooks won the 1994 National Book Foundation Medal for "distinguished contribution to American letters."

All of the poems in the anthology revolve around a theme of family.

"The fellow who thought up the idea of this book found that the things he remembered best were poems of the family," Ms. Kennedy said. That fellow is Padraic Kennedy, Ms. Kennedy's husband, president of the Columbia Association and former poetry editor of the Corpus Christi Flash, a primary school publication in New York City.

Ms. Kizer's contribution, "The Great Blue Heron," is a poem of mourning about her mother:

As I wandered on the beach

I saw the heron standing

Sunk in the tattered wings. . .

Some fifteen summers ago;

I wondered, an empty child,

"Heron, whose ghost are you?". . .

You have stood there patiently

For fifteen summers and snows,

Denser than my repose,

Bleaker than any dream,

Waiting upon the day

When, like gray smoke, a vapor

Floating into the sky,

A handful of paper ashes,

My mother would drift way.

Ms. Kennedy said that she came across that poem at a bookstore a few months after her mother died. "I was flooded with emotion," she remembers. "It punctures what's inside you and it all drains out. I wrote to her about what it meant to me."

Ms. Kizer's influence on HoCoPoLitSo extends before its founding in 1974.

Ms. Kennedy, who lived in Washington, was attending a lunch given by the Women's National Press Club for the president of Senegal in 1966, when she was surprised to find Carolyn Kizer among the guests at her table.

The two became good friends. And six years later, Ms. Kennedy told Ms. Kizer about plans to move to Columbia in the summer of 1972.

"Carolyn said moving is good for the soul, and said I should start some literary activity, have poetry readings," she said, adding that Ms. Kizer admonished her, "Go out and make things happen."

Together with Jean F. Moon and Prudence Barry, Ms. Kennedy founded HoCoPoLitSo two years later.

After receiving funds from the non-profit Columbia Association for two years, the group became independent in 1976.

Today, Ms. Kennedy says HoCoPoLitSo has a "three-pronged attack" with general audience programs, its cable TV show for Howard and Carroll counties and talks with high school students.

But after 20 years, Ms. Kennedy still finds herself busy soliciting grants, which account for about half the society's budget. "I feel like I'm writing or reporting on grants all year round," she said.

The society is planning a "poetry quartet" for the future that will tour private schools in the area and even the women's prison at Jessup. It also will appear on television.

The goal is to serve new audiences and writers who publish on small presses.

Reminiscing back over the years, Ms. Kennedy said that most of the poets are agreeable people -- not temperamental romantics given to tantrums.

"When you meet people and you make contact with them, person to person, and feel at home, that happens more than you expect," she said.

Ms. Kennedy finds a few poets among all that stand out: Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wilbur. She also recalls Nobel-prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Mr. Singer read to 420 people one day and more than that number the next with patrons packing hallways and stairs. "He created a special world," she said. "And we broke the fire laws."

Howard County Poetry and Literature Society will hold its 20th Anniversary Reading from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, 10431 Twin Rivers Road in Columbia. Tickets are $20, which includes the anthology, or $10. Information: 730-7524.

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