Q&A: Casper’s Capital Plans for Poetry

Catherine Richardson

Robert Casper has worn quite a few different hats during his still-young career in the literary arts. A cofounder and former publisher of the literary magazine jubilat, Casper has managed membership at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York City, held the poetry chair of the Brooklyn Book Festival, and, up until this spring, served as the programs director at the Poetry Society of America. In late March the forty-year-old set his sights on Washington, D.C., accepting the directorship at the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. The center’s mission is “to foster and enhance the public’s appreciation of literature” on a national scale, a task Casper is eager to tackle. As he settled into his new role, Casper spoke about what the Library of Congress has to offer and his plans for how to make the most of its resources and reach.

What does the Poetry and Literature Center do?
The Poetry and Literature Center started almost seventy-five years ago as the office for the poet laureate consultant in poetry [more commonly known as the U.S. poet laureate]. The center has had a history of celebrating the best writers in the country; it has created a text archive, an audio archive, and, more recently, a video archive, in keeping with the library’s mission to be the nation’s most important center for knowledge and creativity.

What are some of your projects in this new position?
I really want to use our programs to point back to the holdings of the library. For instance, I would love to continue with more birthday celebrations for writers—not just Shakespeare, but American poets and writers—to bring out audio recordings, manuscripts, and books from the archives to give people the opportunity to not only hear words by the writers, but also to see the materials that showcase them. I also want to celebrate the national reach of the Library of Congress. I mean, there are certain physical limitations, but the library has invested, through its Center for the Book, in connecting to all the states. I think that’s one thing the poet laureate does so effectively: In general that position allows for literature to reach outside the academy, outside the literary hubs like New York City, D.C., and San Francisco, and, hopefully, touch the lives of all sorts of Americans who might otherwise feel distant from the work writers are doing right now. The great thing about the library is it offers me the opportunity to show how literature is never operating in a vacuum. It’s connected to the world around it, but it’s also in conversation with the literature that came before it.

How will your past experiences inform how you go about this?
I’ve been doing all this work for a long time, but, as much as it’s been an important part of my life, I don’t exist in a vacuum either. I still have family and friends for whom poetry isn’t important. But sometimes the most astute comments on a poet or poem come from those people who are only thinking about a poem because of me, and who then, because they have this opportunity, say something really interesting that I haven’t heard before. They claim it in a certain way, differently than I would have, having dedicated my life to poetry. I think that’s really important. I feel it’s easy to talk about work that is difficult as if it doesn’t have significance to people who aren’t dedicated wholly to it, but I think difficult work has a real value to people who aren’t experts in the field. If I can offer them an opportunity to speak about that work, to connect to it, I think that would be really meaningful. Because poetry at its best is always a little hard. And fiction, too. We’ll see if I can convince anyone that that’s the case.               

Catherine Richardson is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.