A passionate, learned literary 'ambassador'

When the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society and Howard Community College presented a reading with poet Nikki Giovanni last month, the society's executive director, Carla Du Pree, was one of the most excited members of the audience.

"I discovered her in adolescence," said Du Pree, 50, of Columbia. "It was like this door opened. ... [The reading] was so wonderful, I did not sleep that night."

It was that passion for writers and literature - along with Du Pree's organizational skills and education - that persuaded the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) to hire her last fall.

"She was very knowledgeable about many of the authors that we knew and some we did not know," said David Barrett, president of the HoCoPoLitSo board of directors. "She was very convincing in suggesting some people we might consider [for events]."

As HoCoPoLitSo's director, Du Pree is working with longtime deputy director Pamela Simonson and the board of directors to choose writers, arrange readings and other events, and oversee the group's cable TV show, The Writing Life.

The director deals with fundraising, budgets, grant requests, administrative duties and community outreach.

"I feel blessed," she said of being chosen for the position, "because I feel like I've been ready for it."

A Wilde Lake resident since 1987, Du Pree spent many years writing before her friends encouraged her to earn her master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

Two months after she started the program in 1993, she found out she was pregnant with twins. She completed the degree and taught at the Hopkins program at night, but her literary life soon took a back seat to raising her two boys and their older sister. She has been married to Al Du Pree for 22 years.

Now that her daughter is 16 and her sons are 13, she has found more time for her writing. An excerpt of her novel, Sweet in the Mouth, but Bitter in the Belly, was recently published in Callaloo, a literary journal of African and African-American writing. She also won a $3,000 Maryland Individual Artist Award grant this year.

In addition to writing, Du Pree worked for five years part time as a bookkeeper at Insight 180 design firm in Ellicott City. She continues to hold another part-time position as a parent liaison at Wilde Lake High School. She said she also developed event-planning skills as a volunteer for her daughter's school.

She said when she saw the advertisement for the position at HoCoPoLitSo, "it felt like a good fit."

The society, she said, "is clear about what writers they bring in. It is high-quality writers and diverse writers. ... They wanted [a director] to be an ambassador for literature. I felt I could do that."

Du Pree is the third director for the 34-year-old society.

Founder Ellen Kennedy ran the organization in her Wilde Lake basement for 30 years before retiring in 2004.

HoCoPoLitSo then became an organization in residence at Howard Community College and the chairwoman of the college's department of English and world languages, Tara Hart, became the society's executive director as well.

Hart said the organization was pursuing new partnerships and new programs at the same time she was fulfilling her position at the college and caring for her two young children.

"Personally and professionally it was time to step down," she said.

Hart continues to be a member of HoCoPoLitSo's board of directors and was part of the search committee that chose Du Pree.

"She had the kind of sensibility we were looking for," Hart said. "She recognizes not just what is popular, but what is truly great, and is also able to recognize emerging writers."

Hart added that when she sees Du Pree at public events "she sparkles. ... She truly loves literature and is very excited about meeting the writers. That infuses the events she is part of."

Next on the schedule is a panel discussion April 27 on "Racism in America," to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On June 26, the society will co-sponsor a high tea with author Manil Suri, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Du Pree said she is focusing on the goal set by the society's board of directors to expand the group's audience.

"I want HoCoPoLitSo to become a household name," Du Pree said. "I want people to say, 'You know what, they bring in a lot of good people. They understand literature in a big way. I like that it is really wide open.'"

She also said she is the right person to spread the word.

"Any time you are passionate about something, it comes out," she said. "The big deal is making other people passionate about what you are passionate about."

Information about HoCoPoLitSo: www.hocopolitso.org or 410-772-4568.

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