Kate Coleman: Big Read puts Poe en vogue

May 01, 2010|By KATE COLEMAN

I love to read.

I started a March 2007 column with that same sentence.

Then I wrote about author Helene Hanff, whose books I'd enjoyed so much I had to let people know.

I still love to read, but the works of Edgar Allan Poe - many of which were assigned and dutifully read when I was in high school - are not writings I've ever returned to. I acknowledge his lasting influence, but he's just not my cup of tea.

I recently saw the old gloom-and-doom-dark-and-dreary scribe in a brighter light. As the author selected for Washington County's third Big Read, Poe - bless his telltale heart - brought members of the community together and inspired creativity in young visual artists and writers.

Because she is my friend and because I was curious, I said yes months ago when Dale Stein, a volunteer member of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts advisory board, asked me to be one of the readers at the museum's awards ceremony for the young winners of a Poe-inspired writing contest. The contest was part of the local manifestation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) program, The Big Read.


The Community Foundation of Washington County has sponsored the local effort for three years. It was called a "month-long opportunity to feed your mind" on the agency's website. The events - most of them free - included living history presentations, discussions at all branches of the Washington County Free Library, talks by Poe experts, screenings of films based on his work and distribution of collections of the author's stories and poems.

Perhaps the most Poe-appropriate activity was a link to a blood donation opportunity at Hagerstown Community College: "Big Read Meets Big Bleed."

The Big Read is about "literary reading not literacy," Kristy Smith, program manager at the Community Foundation, told me. It is an initiative "designed to restore reading to the center of American culture" and to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment," according to information on the NEA website, .

To prepare for my participation last Sunday, I did a little research on Edgar Allan Poe. Whoa. The guy had a sad life. No wonder he wrote some of the things he wrote.

I re-read Poe's poem "Annabel Lee" because that was the work that inspired Krista Kirlew's poem "Dear Love," the piece I would read at the museum. Krista, a junior at North Hagerstown High School, won first place in the 11th- and 12th-grade category.

I worried a little that the top lip of my slightly nervous dry mouth would roll up and hinder clear speech. (This has happened before.) My reading glasses broke when I took them out of my purse, but I was able to borrow my friend's spectacles.

As each young writer had, Krista came up to the front of the room for the reading of her work and to receive her award. She sat beside me as I read, and I think I did OK.

I'm no literary critic, but I think Krista's poem is really good - and sorry, Edgar, I much prefer it to "Annabel Lee."

Her language is straightforward. There's nothing fancy or frou-frou about it. The poem's rhythm is natural - not singsong.

Krista told me afterward that she loves to read - everything. I told her I think reading is the key to writing. And, bonus for The Herald-Mail, I think I recruited her to write for Lifestyle's Pulse page.

Students' amazing artwork already is and the printed writings will be exhibited at the museum.

Alas, there will be no local Big Read next year. Instead of 286 communities across the nation, only 75 were awarded grants, Kristy Smith told me.

That's a sad sign of the times, surely worthy of a Poe-ish poem.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony Orchestra and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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