A journal like Little Patuxent Review requires a vibrant literary and artistic community to thrive–and even survive. In appreciation of the cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions.
The term “CityLit” kept coming up.
When Laura Shovan was tapped to be LPR editor some months before this blog went public, I put together a piece mentioning that her Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone was the inaugural winner of the CityLit-sponsored Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize. The subsequent winner was Bruce Sager, a contributor to the LPR Summer 2010, 2011 and 2012 print issues as well as this blog. Both their chapbooks were published by CityLit Press.
Then I noted that CityLit Stage at the Baltimore Book Festival had been the site of the LPR panel Poets for Social Justice and would serve as such for this year’s Little Patuxent Review: A Tribute to Lucille Clifton. So while discussing the upcoming event with CityLit Project Founder and Executive Director Gregg Wilhelm, I asked if he’d be kind enough to give our readers a proper introduction to CityLit.
Here’s what Gregg had to say about how the Project had evolved:
Our origins unfold like a good story, starting with a dark and stormy night. Actually, a dark and stormy weekend. When Hurricane Isabel washed out the Baltimore Book Festival in 2003, the literary arts community rallied, determined that two years would not have to pass without a celebration of literature in Baltimore. So we organized an abbreviated one-day event at Enoch Pratt Free Library for a December Saturday. Since CityLit Project had just been incorporated as a nonprofit, we agreed to call it “CityLit Festival.” Novelists, poets, workshops and panels on the writing life and issues of importance to Baltimoreans were scheduled. Then the season’s only snowstorm occurred that same Saturday, and again a celebration of literature in Baltimore was cancelled. We did not appreciate at the time how fortunate we were.
Rain, wind, snow. And then, lightning. We finally staged CityLit Festival in April 2004. Ten days before the Festival, headliner Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, capturing local and industry headlines and attracting a large audience. The Festival was so successful that CityLit agreed to partner with Pratt Library for an annual springtime event. Lightning struck again the following year when one of our guests, The Washington Post Editor Steve Coll, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, again 10 days before the start of the Festival. A joke soon circulated that if a writer wanted to win a Pulitzer, he or she should get on the Festival’s bill.
With the bar set so high, we wondered how to top it for the Festival’s third edition. Although he did not win a Pulitzer, humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina, whose story formed the basis of the Academy Award nominated film Hotel Rwanda, did debut his memoir. More than 1000 people showed up for his presentation on a day that attracted nearly 2500 people to Pratt Library. And the fourth edition presented both the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Junot Diaz, and the 2008 National Book Award winner for poetry, Mark Doty, attracting more than 3000 to the event.
Now regularly attracting thousands, the Festival has featured Afaa Michael Weaver, Edward Hirsch, Tom Lux, Tyehimba Jess, Andrei Codrescu, Thomas Glave, Dan Fesperman, Jabari Asim, E. Ethelbert Miller, Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, Madison Smartt Bell, Elizabeth Kostova, Masha Hamilton, Stanley Plumly and Jaimy Gordon. State poets laureate Marie Howe (New York) and Dick Allen (Connecticut) are scheduled for next year. The Festival also offers a bustling Literary Marketplace, where writers, editors, journals and small presses can interact with the community.
CityLit’s signature event, the free CityLit Festival, anchors a family of programs that has evolved to serve the region’s diverse population by instilling and sustaining a lifelong love of literature. From kids to adults, established authors to emerging voices, CityLit Project has become Baltimore’s literary arts center. We rely on our own hard work as well as the collaborative power of partnerships to generate that “lightning in a bottle,” which strikes whenever a young person cracks open a book, a new title is published or a literary artist receives a rousing round of applause.
I love the impact that a CityLit event has on our varied audiences: the wide-eyed enthusiasm of young people engaged with reading and writing as art rather than a classroom skill set, the professional development of artists who are often lost when it comes to the business of publishing, the riveting attention of the general public when an author discusses a topic of importance. Each time, CityLit audiences walk away changed. And isn’t that, to a greater or lesser degree, the purpose of all art?
See for yourself next weekend. The CityLit 2012 Baltimore Book Festival schedule not only includes our Clifton event on Saturday, September 29 but also a presentation by Michael Tucker, actor and author of After Annie: A Novel, on Sunday, September 30 and other worthwhile offerings. And check out CityLit Press publications, which not only include books by Laura, Bruce and other individual authors but also the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, recipient of a Baltimore Magazine 2010 Best of Baltimore award.