Welcome to the inaugural entry in our series, “What Poe Means to Me.” This series will ask people around the Baltimore region to reflect on the role of Poe in their lives and Baltimore. To kick off the series, we could think of no one more fitting than the President of our Board of Directors, Kristen Harbeson.
Name and Occupation – Kristen Harbeson – Poe Baltimore, Board President and Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Political Director.
What was your first exposure to Edgar Allan Poe? Like so many other people, my first exposure to Poe must have been in grade school, however I don’t have any clear “this began it” moment. For so much of my growing up, I spent most of my time chasing after my older brother and his friends, which introduced me to many stories and ideas before I would have otherwise found them. Is my fear of what goes bump in the basement a result of hearing the Tell- Tale Heart in some form as a small child? Or did Tell-Tale Heart speak to me because of my sometimes paralyzing fear of basements? The first story I think I can actually remember reading was probably Murder on the Rue Morgue.
What is your favorite Poe piece? My favorite Poe piece depends entirely on my mood: I’m something of a traditionalist, and so Annabel Lee and Rue Morgue are generally up at the top of the list. One of the great things about being involved in Poe Baltimore has been being re-introduced to Poe’s genius through the readings by some of our guest artists and in talking to visitors about their favorites. I’m probably most partial to the Black Cat, now, which is why I chose that as the theme title for our annual Halloween party at Mobtown Ballroom, the Black Cat Ball. Both because of the liminal state of sanity and madness in the narrator, which Poe does better than anyone else – and because I have a black-and-white cat who I always think might be trying to kill me. The Black Cat Ball is going to be on Halloween this year, by the way, and it’s going to be fantastic.
How has Poe influenced your outlook professionally? My professional life (which I love) tends to steer me into pretty stark realities of government policies and political realities, so Poe Baltimore gives me a chance to nurture my first loves of literature and history, as well as what is now probably my dominant love: Baltimore City. The more I learn about Poe, the more I find myself thinking about him in the same way that I think about Baltimore: creative, complex, a little dark, a little fantastic, deeply romantic, surprisingly scientific, somewhat flawed, but with a richness of experience and absolutely unique. I love Poe in much the same way and for most of the same reasons that I love Baltimore. It is why I believe, truly, that Poe belongs to Baltimore even more than to any of the cities where he has lived. He didn’t live here as long as he did in Philadelphia or Richmond, but all of the things that people first learn about Poe (his poetry, his short stories, his child-bride, his mysterious death) took root during his years in Baltimore. We have his house, we have his grave, we have his soul.
What is your favorite thing about visiting the Edgar Allan Poe House? My favorite thing about visiting the Poe House, honestly, is getting to meet the visitors who come from all over the world to see our tiny little museum, and talking with them about their relationships with Poe. But almost as much, I like being able to try to imagine what his life was like when he lived there: to understand what it would be for him to be living here with Muddy and Sissy – living with his biological family for the first time since he was a toddler, after such a tempestuous and wandering growing-up; to imagine him sharing his triumphant news at winning his first place prize money for a short story, and realizing that earning his money by his pen was a possibility within his grasp; and to try to feel the despair when Grandmother Elizabeth died, knowing that he would be – again – having to leave his family behind and move again. When he left, he didn’t know he would be able to convince Muddy and Sissy to move to Richmond with him, or that his marriage suit to his beloved cousin would be successful.
Any other reflections on the role of Poe in Baltimore or in your life? Starting a non-profit of any kind is always a risk, and the Board came together with a mission very much sailing into unknown waters. It has been immensely rewarding to have found such a depth of enthusiasm and support from visitors, the City and the cultural community at large. We all find ourselves challenged to go further and experiment with greater creativity with every passing season. We are excited and energized with every new Board Member, every new partnership, every new volunteer. It is also, of course, a tremendous honor and somber responsibility to be the caretaker of such an important property, and we take our stewardship very seriously. I think that everyone in the cultural community of Baltimore is feeling their calling to protect and preserve the heritage of each individual site, as well as the city as a whole. That quirky, somewhat pugilistic, always individualistic, and wonderful spirit that has been the hallmark of the City’s denizens since it’s founding will be what steadies the course for the City following the unrest this spring, and the celebration of the same will be critical to help us heal and move forward. It is a joy and a delight to work with so many interesting, talented people, with such a clear and exciting sense of purpose. We are actively seeking new members, new partners, new ideas and new opportunities. It is my dearest hope that this newsletter will help to create a dialogue between the Board and our supporters. It is for you that we do what we do, and we literally can’t do it without you.