In its 25-year existence, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society has traveled the arduous path from upstart local literary club to one of the region's most respected and popular cultural institutions.
The society has become so well-known that the acronym that once tripped clumsily off the tongue is now commonplace: HoCoPoLitSo has finally, unequivocally, arrived.
Since 1974, HoCoPoLitSo has brought scores of famous and noted writers to Columbia, including Amiri Baraka, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, Derek Walcott, Roland Flint, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Rita Dove. A dozen Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, six national poets laureate and three Nobel Prize winners have found their way to adult and high school audiences, as well as to local cable television.
The group also has earned itself something of a reputation among writers and poets as an organization that really "gets it." Readings are well-attended and warmly received, and lesser known (but no less talented) scribes stand on equal footing with literary giants.
Over the next few months, the group will commemorate its silver anniversary with several events, including its successful "Irish Evening," which will be held Feb. 18 at Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia, and a presentation to Howard Community College's library in January of the 56 taped episodes of the society's cable TV series "The Writing Life."
This year also marks the 25th year that Howard County high school students have been HoCoPoLitSo's guests to hear nationally known poets and writers read their work. For the past few years, the group's writers-in-residence program has brought the mountain to Mohammed by having writers visit all 10 high schools during the academic year.
This year's poet-in-residence, 41-year-old Edgar Gabriel Silex, says the program can have enormous impact on students.
"When kids hear contemporary poets, they realize they're speaking about their own times and in their language," says Silex, who lives in College Park. "It helps them explain and express things, and the more you read poetry, the more you understand the strength of language."
Silex's poetry tackles serious issues such as drugs, incest, suicide, spirituality, alcoholism, absentee parents and the Native American experience. "When kids read my poems, I think they can connect their lives to literature probably for the first time," Silex says. "Some kids have had difficult, even tragic lives, so when they hear poetry that speaks about these issues, I think it makes a real connection."
Virginia Pausch, a member of HoCoPoLitSo's board and a retired English teacher at Howard High School, agrees.
The organization "gives the audience and students the opportunity to meet contemporary, living authors. I think it's one of the biggest services to the community we could offer," she adds. "It's one thing to read something a person's written, but it's another to hear them read their own work aloud. My students were always very impressed with seeing live writers as opposed to someone who's dead or in a book."
Silex was eager to take on the job of poet-in-residence and jumped at the chance to work with HoCoPoLitSo.
"They happen to be one of the best [cultural organizations] as far as I know," Silex says. "They are models across the nation -- a class organization without any doubt. They know how to find both undiscovered people as well as famous writers. And they don't have problems meshing the two."
While the writer-in-residence program has traditionally accommodated only high school students, there is talk that the writers will visit a number of middle schools this spring, says Ellen Kennedy, HoCoPoLitSo's president and a founding member.