By welcoming and engaging its citizens from all corners through literature, the city is spawning discussions that could help it tackle tough social issues from homelessness to substance abuse.
At a long conference table on the east side of Cleveland, Daniel Gray-Kontar listens closely as one of his students, a high school senior, starts to read her latest poem.
large brown eyes
blue skies speak during dark times
As the student performs, Mr. Gray-Kontar – poet, teacher, academic, activist – glances down at the text on his laptop. He smiles and nods his head. “Nice!” he says. “Mmm.”
Sydney Copeland, the student, listens to his feedback. Together they go over the rhythm and flow of her performance, and Gray-Kontar, who as usual wears a black pork pie hat and sports coat, taps on the table to indicate the pace he’s seeking. For Sydney, it’s a lesson in how to make her words connect with an audience. In time, she may become one of his stars, like the three adult students representing Cleveland at this year’s National Poetry Slam in Chicago. Gray-Kontar helped bring home the title in 1994, when his poetry career was taking flight and Cleveland was just beginning to rewrite its own gritty narrative of Rust Belt decline.
Now he’s passing the torch to the city’s minority youth at Twelve Literary Arts (TLA). The nonprofit is an incubator for young poets, playwrights, and rappers of color to learn and refine their writing skills in workshops and perform it publicly. Gray-Kontar launched the organization in 2016 as a response to the fractures he saw along racial, gender, and generational lines.
“We are, or have been, one of the poorest big cities in the United States. We are one of the most segregated cities in the United States,” says the activist poet. “What better place, what better opportunity, to dream a new world?”
Many cities have nurtured book clubs and literacy initiatives to build and bind communities. Cleveland stands out for its ambition and scope in using literature to empower marginalized groups, foster economic dynamism, and bridge social divides. From veterans groups and workplace book discussions, to female-student literacy and an annual book prize, Cleveland is increasingly finding new ways to connect its diverse population over fiction and verse.
“With all the different programs and activities, the city offers real opportunities for writers,” says Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor at large at the Chicago Tribune.
Extending those opportunities to everyone, and making sure their voices are heard, are part of the challenge that literary activists here are embracing. Could it be a model for other divided cities?