D.C. Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick Honored
5/1/2012, 10:21 p.m.
25th Anniversary Celebration of "The Women of Plums"
On Thursday, May 3rd, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities will present a special program at Busboys & Poets celebrating the 25th
anniversary of D.C.'s Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick's acclaimed book of poetry, "The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women,"
in observation of National Poetry Month, April 1st through the 30th.
The book, originally published by William Morrow and Company, sold more than 5,000 copies, a rarity for books of poetry. A few years ago,
it was in danger of going out-of-print, but through an editor friend, Dolores Kendrick now holds all the rights to the award-winning volume.
Kendrick was appointed Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C. in 1999 and has never turned back. She is only the second person to hold the title
- the first was renowned poet Sterling Brown.
Originally published in 1989 [so not quite 25 years, but close enough, according to the poet,] "The Women of Plums" was not a book that
Kendrick decided to write. "It decided me," she said.
The collection of poems was originally inspired by the story of a slave woman who killed all of her children rather than see them
enslaved which Kendrick found in a book she was reading; Gerda Lerner's "Black Women in White America."
"The book talked about the achievements of black women. When I read the story of Peggy, the one who killed her children, a poem came to me
so quickly," Kendrick recalled. She became interested in the stories of Black enslaved women, since
most of the slave narratives published were by men. "Someone gave me copies of slave narratives from the Roosevelt era," she said "I got
leave from Exeter and got a fellowship - actually two - from Yaddo, so I took a year off." Yaddo is a prestigious writers' retreat in
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Kendrick taught at the esteemed Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for 21 years, but during her time off from teaching, she
traveled to Louisiana, South Carolina, the Georgia Sea Islands and even Mount Vernon to do background research.
"I relied on the narratives to some extent. I would put the name on the top of the page and the poems began coming. Friends told me I was
channeling. I wrote in dialects that I didn't know, and used words that I don't use. The words came to me, like the story of Peggy, and I
had various instances like that so I know I was channeling. I was also alone and feeling their pain," she added. Often she used the original
names of the slave women, but at other times she used names from her family.
"I finished 'Plums' while at Exeter," she said. "One time, I was asked to read at the African Meeting House and stood in the very spot where
William Garrison brought the slaves in." William Lloyd Garrison was a 19th century abolitionist who published the newspaper "The Liberator"
and used the African Meeting House, the oldest church edifice in the United States in Boston, Mass., as a safe house for fleeing slaves on