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Tony Mancus on Washington, DC

Tony Mancus on Washington, DC

In early 00s, my brother would stare at the Pipe screen saver on his laptop. Reading Tony Mancus’s scene report has a similar allure… “How neat” just repeats in my head.

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What rain looks like in DC.

What comes to mind when you think of Washington DC? Cherry blossoms, politics, punk rock? It’s got monuments, sure. And bros galore with their polos layered three deep, all collars popped in the drunken Georgetown/Admo night. It’s got go-go and house shows and a bunch of free museums. It’s got half-smokes, a handful of breweries, stellar Ethiopian food, and a pretty buttoned up exterior that is countered by the culture that isn’t directly tied to the power-center.

After six years of living across the water from the blinking red-eyed robot penis built for George Washington, I’m still not sure of all the details of the lit scene, but I know it’s pretty lively and that poetry is still burdensomely (John Kerry*) alive (regardless of what the Post claimed in 2013) in the capitol. The lit scene is breathing its semi-southern, swampy, and allergen filled breaths from living rooms to coffee shops to bars and reified stages. From the brick and mortar institutions to the breathing kind, DC’s got the ghosts of a very storied literary past and a widely varied lit scene.

In the hesitating voice of Stephan, “This place has everything…” or at least a fair bit of what a reasonable person who wants to get their fill of words and books and drinks and banter and a bevy of good folk who may share some of your obsessions.

Institutions (both literal and figurative—listed alphabetically):

826 DC

The Museum of Unnatural History is located in Columbia Heights and will be moving to a new location across the street next year to expand its capacity to help kids across the city ramp up their writing – they’re hoping to work with 5,000 in the new space. There’s a reading series for 826 volunteers called lowercase which runs the first Wednesday of every month. It’s landed most recently at the Petworth Citizen, but has reincarnated in a couple different locations around town.

Beltway Quarterly

Journal and DC centered writing resource helmed by Kim Roberts, an institution in herself (check out the writing house tours she and Dan Vera began). Along with the quarterly publication, the Beltway Poetry resources keeps tabs on many of the reading series around town and recent publications of local authors as well as calls for submission for both writing and artist fellowships. It’s a really wonderful resource for folks in the area.

Black Squirrel

Located in Adams Morgan and host to some of the Ruthless Grip readings (helmed by Mel Nichols), which pulls in some astounding readers from all over the place (Jane Lewty, Cathy Wagner, Dana Ward, Alli Warren, DC expats – Alyse Knorr and Kate Partridge), as well as rumored long standing Thursday night poet watering hole featuring a really solid selection of beers and poutine that’s supposedly a good kick in the ribs.

DC Poet folk (Michelle Dove, K. Lorraine Graham, and Meg Ronan) having fun with Meg Ronan’s photo props, with Ryan Walker and Rod Smith to the right of the frame.

DC Poet folk (Michelle Dove, K. Lorraine Graham, and Meg Ronan) having fun with Meg Ronan’s photo props, with Ryan Walker and Rod Smith to the right of the frame.

Bridge Street Books

If you’re looking for contemporary poetry, this book shop in Georgetown is where you need to go. Rod Smith runs readings here and brings in some heavy hitters from across the country. (Donato Mancini, Corina Copp, Sommer Browning, Ben Fama, Laynie Brown). Rod and Meg Ronan and Buck Downs have been known to be behind the counter from time to time.

Sommer Browning Reading at Bridge Street Books.

Sommer Browning Reading at Bridge Street Books.

Busboys and Poets

The original busboys and poets is located 14th and V St. But now there are outposts in a number of locations around the city as well as in northern Virginia and Maryland. Different locations have different programming but they all present a wide array of voices every week – from open mics paired with featured readers, to totally curated readings as well as the best slam talent around.

Call + Response

Started in 2010 by William Bert and Kira Wisnewski, and currently living and breathing in Baltimore – this was one of the first multimedia collaborative arts projects id encountered when I first got to town. The 2010 version popped up in the Hamiltonian Gallery on U street and featured artwork that was inspired by written pieces. Last year’s iteration, coordinated by Kira, Dillon Babbington, and Mike O’Brien started with an instrumental track that was given to writers and that track and written work was then given to visual artists. This year’s version is going to fold in cuisine and I can’t wait to see what it yields!

Former DC residents and fiction writers Mike Sheehan, Nate Brown, and Mary Woo at last year’s Call + Response opening.

Former DC residents and fiction writers Mike Sheehan, Nate Brown, and Mary Woo at last year’s Call + Response opening.

Conversations and Connections

Yearly writers conference formulated by the good fellows at Barrelhouse that culminates in boxed wine happy hour and features no-bullshit panels on the writing life and speed dating with journal editors. It’s a one day affair and well worth the ticket price, given all you walk away with. And it’s been branching out to other cities like Philly and Pittsburgh over the past couple years.

DCAC/In Your Ear

Art space and great little black box theater across the street from the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan. It’s been home to the In Your Ear reading series every third Sunday of the month for the past 24 years, as well as a number of other theatrical and reading events. In Your Ear is hosted by Meg Ronan and myself and features 2-4 poets, usually one or two from out of town, recently: Morgan Parker, Tina Darragh, Marion Bell, Peter Gizzi, Joanna Fuhrman.

Kristi Maxwell reading and M. Mack setting up Milquetoast.

Kristi Maxwell reading and M. Mack setting up Milquetoast.

E Ethelbert Miller

The man has influenced a great number of people in and outside of the city. He is a stellar poet and apparently a wonderful teacher. You can read about how he was treated by the institution he worked for here.

Little Salon

Brainchild of Chris Maier, each little salon places a pile of people, some mix of literature, visual art, storytelling, and music into people’s homes all around town in the hopes of building connections across creative lines. These events have become some of the most fun midweek evenings a goof from the coal region could imagine. Think house party, but with folks interested enough in what’s going to happen that they’ll keep dead quiet for long enough to let performers get through their whisperiest stuff uninterrupted.

 Chris Maier introducing performers, and Thea Brown reading at two Little Salons.

Chris Maier introducing performers, and Thea Brown reading at two Little Salons.


The dreaded and loved interweb child of Maureen Thorson. For the month of April, Facebook and the interwebbings in general gets inundated with poets who normally (maybe) don’t share their work as readily and widely. So while it’s everywhere and nowhere for a month, it started here and it gives tons of people impetus to spill their words.

The Writer’s Center

Located in Bethesda, the poetry center offers classes for creative writing across the genres both online and in person. Laura Spencer has been building out the teacher logs there with some of the most interesting writers working.

Politics and Prose

Another stellar bookshop located right near Comet Ping Pong on Connecticut Ave in NW DC. They’ve had some heavyweights come through for readings and the coffee shop is nothing to shake a stick at, either. They also have a small bookmaking operation.

Split This Rock

An organization that’s focused on heightening social engagement among poets. It’s located here and they host a biyearly conference – the next one coming up next April. They run a number of contests, workshops readings and the regular reading series Sunday Kind of Love hosted by Sarah Browning and Katy Richey. Dan Vera chairs the board.

Upshur Street Books/Petworth Citizen Reading Room

A new bookshop that opened up this year and which shares a wall with the Petworth citizen. Home to Barrelhouse Presents – a semiregular reading series run by Dan Brady and featuring small presses from across the country. Also home to a number of other events as well as a very fine smoked manhattan and a pretty solid falafel sandwich, to help the words stay down.

Other Reading Series not already mentioned...

Other Reading Series not already mentioned…

La Ti Do on Mondays at James Hobans in Dupont. – hosted by Regie Cabico and Don Mike Mendoza – featuring a mix of musical theatrics, poetry and stories.

Sparkle, the first Sunday of the month, at Busboys and Poets 14th and V location featuing lgbtq authors and hosted by Regie Cabico and Danielle Evennou.

Inner Loop created by Rachel Coonce and Courtney Sexton, featuring 10 readers from a mix of genres. Readers are selected through submissions. Also working to pull together writers from different genres and across writing levels.

The Federal Poets is the longest continuously active poetry group in the DC area. They meet at Tenley Public Library the third Saturday of the month to talk poems and also host readings about town occasionally.

Iota Poetry Series hosted by Miles David Moore at Iota Bar and Restaurant in Arlington happens on the second Sunday of the month and features a set reading lineup followed by an open mic.

Arts Club of Washington on I St. hosts a reading series coordinated by Sandra Beasley (who is another rock-steady figure in the Lit scene) in the house that once served as the home of President Monroe.

DC is also home to larger, more institutional sounding institutions, like PEN/Faulkner, The Library of Congress (which just had – insert most recent…) and holds the inaugural reading for the poet laureate. Got to see Philip Levine’s reading and felt pretty damn lucky to be there for that. Georgetown’s Lannan Fellows, The National Book Festival (every September – this year Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, Ha Jin, Kevin Young, Jeffrey Brown, Claudia Rankine – to name a small number of the dozens of readers across just poetry and fiction), Fall for the Book – weeklong book festival and conference/writing panels at GMU each fall (Tarfia Faizullah and Tim O’Brien among the many readers and panelists).

There’s book arts at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, MD – to get your paper-making and bookbinding on. Literary-themed parties like to kill the duke coordinated by Amy Morse. Occasional readings at the monuments at night, when Mark Cugini feels like reviving the memory of the Three Tents series.

There are a pile of journals and small presses in the city proper and surrounding areas. Inner Loop, Phantom, Big Lucks, Beltway, Split Lip, lines + stars, Barrelhouse, Edge books.

If you made it through this catalogue, then maybe there was something of interest piled in here. Come to DC sometime and I’ll try not to be such a shitty salesperson… and there are probably dozens of other things that I either don’t know about or am forgetting. And I know this skews west in the city and doesn’t touch on what’s going on in MD too much. So DC folk, add more to this!

*Failed attempt at lingo coinage – I want the kids to all say John Kerry instead of jk because John Kerry signs his emails and his tweets jk, but we’re supposed to all believe him, right?

Rebecca Arrowsmith
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About The Author

Rebecca Arrowsmith

Rebecca Arrowsmith is an artist and writer living in Atlanta.

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