What The Folger Means

When I was a senior in high school, a long time ago, in Southern California, I had an English class in a basement classroom. It was a typing classroom meaning the desks were metal with huge electric typewriters taking up nearly the whole desk surface. There was just enough room for a stand-up typing book bound at the top. I guess we didn’t need the desk much because we used the small Folger Shakespeare Library paperback editions of the plays we read. These paperbacks were (and still are) fantastic. The text of the play is on one side and on the opposite page you can find definitions of words which might be rare, as well as interesting little bits of information about Elizabethan life. I can still see those handy paperbacks. On the cover were the bas-relief sculptures of scenes from various Shakespeare plays which adorn the outside of the Folger Shakespeare Library itself.

Back then I had never been to Washington, D.C. I never gave any thought to living here, much less working at the Folger, and even far less did I imagine the possibility of reading my own poetry at the Folger. Nonetheless, those books, those sculptures, that basement English class transformed me.

I was a very average student. I was lazy. I wanted to finish school work so I could play outside. No academic area grabbed my attention or my imagination. I just didn’t put much into it. Until this class. We had a kind and dignified teacher named Mrs. Carney. Somehow, she was able to crack through my indifference and I was utterly turned on to literature and writing.

At the teacher desk at the front of the room, she had an old record player and there she played LPs of the various plays we studied. We read along in our Folger edition paperbacks and she played the records. What an amazing experience. I recall being powerfully moved by the images of melting and decay in Julius Caesar. I remember my awe at the details of the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet. I remember her pointing out how Shakespeare used sloppy iambic pentameter to show various characters were drunk. Somehow all the layers of craft which William Shakespeare used, Mrs. Carney made real for us. I don’t recall any friends in the class or who else might have been in it. But I remember being absolutely transfixed by the words, the action, the characters, the power of those plays. From there, I went on to become an English major and then very shortly began to write my own poetry.

I always associated the Folger Shakespeare Library with that transformative experience. When I first moved to Washington, D.C. in 2000, I went there often for plays, for poetry readings. I would walk right up to those sculptures and ponder them. A couple of years ago, I was in awe when I was able to work there as the interim Poetry and Lectures coordinator, while my friend Teri Cross Davis was on maternity leave. I nearly had to pinch myself every day as I walked past those gorgeous sculptures and gazed at the looming Capitol dome on my way into work.

Now, to be able to read my own work there is a true honor. My friend Teri Cross Davis put together a reading of three writers who share a fascination with graffiti art. Novelist Adam Mansbach, poet Clinton Smith and me will read our work on Friday, May 17th in the Folger Theatre. Needless to say, I’ll be trying not to act like I’m bursting with joy. But  I will be. And I have no idea what ever came of Mrs. Carney, but I’ll be thinking of her and thanking her.

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