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For Poet Laureate, Community Is in the Written Word

Though his goals as poet laureate are not yet concrete, Merrill Leffler has been an active community figure for decades.

In the span of 90 minutes, Merrill Leffler will quote 10 poets, a playwright and a philosopher. He’ll talk about the musical qualities of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and he’ll offer his take on why poetry has, as he says, an “elemental power.”

Those are all digressions from the topic at hand — his appointment as the third poet laureate of Takoma Park, but Leffler, 70, is far more interested in analyzing his art than listing the duties of his new role.

And why not? Though he’s only held the post since July 1, he’s been performing its duties for the past 30-plus years.

The goal of the poet laureate, according to a city release, is to “stimulate interest in poetry among residents of the city.” So, then, a quick digest: In 1976, Leffler helped found , which still operates today. In the ‘80s, after attending readings at in D.C., he would invite assortments of people back to his house to talk poetry.

Now, Leffler attends monthly readings in the city; he’s gone to a “favorite poem reading” for the past 12 years; he helped put together a poetry reading that broadcasted to the Sunday Takoma Park Farmers Market.

“I’ve been doing a lot of things,” Leffler said, simply. “I’ve been involved with various things for many years.”

Some more of those things: Though he’s retired, Leffler runs Dryad Press, which prints one or two books of poetry and prose a year. He’s printed three of his own books: Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love, Take Hold and, well, Oxygen Dynamics in the Chesapeake Bay: A Synthesis of Recent Research. (Leffler worked with Maryland Sea Grant for years. That one’s not quite a book of poetry.) He plans to print a third book of original poems, Mark the Music, early next year.

Leffler’s immersion in the world of local poetry was the main reason he was chosen for the position, said Sara Daines, director of housing and community development for Takoma Park, who oversaw his appointment.

“He’s wonderful,” she said. “He’s very thoughtful, witty, very creative and imaginative, and is interested in sharing the joy of poetry.”

Poet laureate candidates are chosen by a committee, who search for prospects in the city’s most versatile, community-minded poets. After nomination, prospective laureates submit a cover letter, work samples and their short- and long-term goals.

Don Berger was selected as the first poet laureate in 2005 and founded the Third Thursday Poetry Series, among other things, during his tenure. He feels that Leffler’s advancement of poetry in the community will translate well to this new role.

“He’s an engaged, serious poet,” Berger said, adding that Leffler often attends events in the area. “He does a lot in the town to draw people’s attention to poetry without being condescending.

“Often poets get kind of buried — there’s more high-profile stuff, like visual art or music,” added Berger, who teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland. “So poetry seems like the more private thing, and I think he publicizes it well.”

Leffler, who was preceded as poet laureate by Anne Becker, doesn’t have too many concrete plans about how to usher a stronger poetic presence into the town — at least, not yet. He’s set to attend gallery openings to read his work, and he noted that he was the force behind the 30 or so signs that dot Carroll Avenue, each one a placard, mounted on a metal pole, outfitted with a famous poem. He split Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into lines and stanzas, and the placard sits in the shadow of the Old Town clock tower.

But otherwise? Who knows. The position, Leffler maintains, is “an honorary one.” Whatever he does do, though, he knows needs to be in service to the community — to bring an often under-appreciated art to a wider audience. Or, at least, to show residents of Takoma Park that there could be an immense comforting power in the written word.

“I want to be stunned,” he said. “I want to be surprised. I want it to matter. I want poetry to matter.”

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