More than 25 years ago, a group of women sat around a kitchen table in Columbia trying to figure out how they could meet writers they admired. None of them envisioned the day when Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners would come to their programs and a National Book Award winner would sit on their board.
Since 1974, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society has emerged as a powerhouse in regional literary circles. Better known as HoCoPoLitSo, the organization has brought dozens of high-profile authors and poets to the area while working to further the joys of literature.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly identified the book for which poet Lucille Clifton was awarded a National Book Award last month. The book was "Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1998-2000." The Sun regrets the errors.
Stanley Kunitz, the nation's 95-year-old poet laureate, is a fan.
"It certainly is the most active community association in the world of poetry," Kunitz said in a telephone interview from his New York home. "Poetry is both local and regional and universal all at the same time. So much of poetry depends on someone who is interested in gathering together the poets and passing on that love of poetry, and that's what HoCoPoLitSo does."
It was a different Howard County when the organization formed. At least four of the 10 village centers had yet to be developed, and with its rolling hills and farms, there was more open land than housing.
Poet Lucille Clifton was just emerging locally in November 1974 when she and fellow poet Carolyn Kizer strolled into Wilde Lake Interfaith Center to discuss their lives as women writers.
"We started out with a coffee in the morning for the women, and then there was a reading at Wilde Lake High School," said Ellen Conroy Kennedy, one of the organization's "founding mothers" and current president. "I remember that Lucille read a poem to the students that had a four-letter word in it, and I wondered if we had ruined everything."
Far from alienating people, HoCoPo- LitSo was off and running. Years later, in 1985, Kizer was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her collection "Yin: New Poems," and last month Clifton - who serves on HoCoPoLitSo's board of directors - won the National Book Award for poetry for her latest book, "The Terrible Stories."
The two join a host of participating writers who have gone on to win Pulitzers, Nobel Prizes and other awards. The list of guests throughout the years reads like an all-star team of literary success: Saul Bellow, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kunitz, Taylor Branch, Amiri Baraka, Derek Walcott, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
"We have had some of the most talented people read for us," Kennedy said. "Just wonderful writers."
That was the idea in 1974 when Kennedy sat with friends Jean Moon and Prudence Barry in Moon's kitchen in Columbia brainstorming on how they could attract writers to come to an area that was, at the time, hardly viewed as a literary hub.
"It formed out of a desire to bring writers to Howard County so we could meet them and talk to them," said Moon, whose husband is credited with jokingly giving the organization its nickname early on. "Because it was a passion of ours, we were evangelical in our efforts and our desire to share that with other people."
That first day with Kizer and Clifton reached only a few people, but it was enough to get Kunitz and Rod Jellema to town April 8, 1975, to discuss contemporary poetry with high school students. Kunitz, who was a consultant on poetry for the Library of Congress, became a friend of Kennedy and her husband, Padraic M. Kennedy, a former president of the Columbia Association.
Over the years, the organization has generated positive buzz in the publishing world as writers began sharing among themselves the welcome reception they received in Columbia.
Edward Hirsch, author of "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry," said he had heard nothing but good things about the group by the time he arrived to participate in last summer's event "A Day of Poetry: In Love With Words," sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo at the Columbia Festival of the Arts.
"I thought that the group was really exceptional," Hirsch said. "I found that what was remarkable was that the whole community came together around poetry."
Many say Kennedy deserves much of the credit for the organization's continued success. Running HoCoPoLitSo out of her Columbia basement crammed with books and pictures of authors, Kennedy has helped obtain grants to keep the group going and has developed relationships with writers across the country.
"Ellen Kennedy has worked tirelessly," said Roland Flint, Maryland's most recent poet laureate. "They are doing pretty much the same things they have always done, but they have been able to attract some really big names."
In addition to the readings at schools, the group has an annual Irish Evening, which celebrates Irish literature and music, and "The Writing Life," a cable television series picked up by the University of Maryland, in which writers interview other writers.
David H. Barrett, chairman of HoCoPoLitSo's board of directors, said the group has worked to bring a diverse group to Howard County.