“The Rules,” a new poem by Anisfield-Wolf Fellow Leila Chatti, graced the inboxes of more than 350,000 subscribers, a landmark accomplishment for a rising poet. The American Academy of Poets has offered a daily dose of poetry, delivered digitally, since 2006.
Chatti reads “The Rules” in her mellifluous, thoughtfully inflected voice in the audio clip. She states that she “wanted to write about the walk I took . . . in Madison, Wisconsin, and the brief, vital moment of joy that indicated my year-long depression might finally lift.” To do so, Chatti knew she would need to break the conventions of her craft, the rules.
Fortunately, the poet is already adept at upending expectations. “This poem has no children; it is trying/to be taken seriously,” she writes in “The Rules” with characteristic puckishness.
Chatti, 28, splits her time between the United States and Tunisia. She is midway through her two-year term as the inaugural fellow in writing and publishing at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Copper Canyon will publish her first full-length collection, “The Deluge,” in 2020.
There will be no stars—the poem has had enough of them. I think we
we no longer believe there is anyone in any poem who is just now
they are dead, so let’s stop talking about it. The skies of this poem
are teeming with winged things, and not a single innominate bird.
You’re welcome. Here, no monarchs, no moths, no cicadas doing
they do in the trees. If this poem is in summer, punctuating the blue—
I forgot, there is no blue in this poem—you’ll find the occasional
pelecinid wasp, proposals vaporized and exorbitant, angels looking
as they should. If winter, unsentimental sleet. This poem does not take
at dawn or dusk or noon or the witching hour or the crescendoing
of our own remarkable birth, it is 2:53 in this poem, a Tuesday, and
everyone in it is still
at work. This poem has no children; it is trying
to be taken seriously. This poem has no shards, no kittens, no myths or
no pomegranates or rainbows, no ex-boyfriends or manifest lovers,
no mothers—no God, about which the poem must admit
it’s relieved, there is no heart in this poem, no bodily secretions, no
referred to as the body, no one
dies or is dead in this poem, everyone in this poem is alive and pretty
okay with it. This poem will not use the word beautiful for it resists
calling a thing what it is. So what
if I’d like to tell you how I walked last night, glad, truly glad, for the
in a year, to be breathing, in the cold dark, to see them. The stars, I
mean. Oh hell, before
something stops me—I nearly wept on the sidewalk at the sight of them
by Lisa Nielson
Sometimes when I need serious advice, I visit Edith.
Edith Anisfield Wolf, the founder of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, is interred in the mausoleum at Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. You’ll find her remains in the corridor to the right of the little chapel as one walks in: #321. I track down one of the battered folding chairs scattered around the mausoleum and sit in the humid quiet. She is one of the most influential women in my life who I have never met.
When I first started getting to research the poet and philanthropist, I was shocked by the paucity of information about her. The archives at the Cleveland Public Library contain nearly every book that won the Anisfield-Wolf award, but information about the founder herself is in just a few slim folders. The files consist mostly of copies of newspaper clippings and notes, but nothing original.
Wolf was wealthy and deeply involved in the Cleveland community her entire life: Where were her letters? Her business records? As an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Fellow and music historian by training, I wished to contribute in some way to her history. I wondered if Wolf would disapprove my rooting in her past, although I am shameless in my love for the thrill of the chase.
What began as a casual interest in Wolf quickly blossomed into a full-blown obsession. I spent hours in the Western Reserve looking for correspondence, information about the family business and the awards themselves. While on a research trip in Jerusalem, I dedicated a few days to researching the Cleveland Jewish population and the rich archives held in the National Library of Israel.
Through the archives and various genealogy databases, I skimmed the surface of her family. Her father, Jechiel Jonas Anisfield, became John when he emigrated from Poland to the United States, with a stop in Vienna for gymnasium in between. A respected businessman in the textiles industry, he included Edith in the family business from the time she was 12. He was well educated and spoke several languages, and ensured his daughter had the same privileges. Wolf’s sister, Lucie, died at age 9 in 1901, and the following year, she lost her mother, Daniella (sometimes Doniella or Daniela). Her father remarried Alice Strauss of the influential New York Strauss family two years later. He died in 1929, and Alice died in 1946.
Wolf graduated from East High School in 1906 and enrolled at the Mather College for Women, but did not graduate. In August 1918, she married lawyer and Cleveland native Eugene Wolf. He helped run the family businesses and served as president of Temple Tifereth.
In addition to her business acumen, Wolf was a poet and patron of the arts, unanimously elected to serve as a member of the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943. The Anisfield family has an elegant little crypt in the Mayfield Cemetery mausoleum. John, Daniella, Lucie, Alice, and Eugene, who died in 1944, are all there. The Wolf family is buried nearby. There is space in the crypt, yet Edith is conspicuously absent. That raises a question: Why?
Although an extremely private person, Wolf can be glimpsed through her philanthropic legacy. In addition to the book awards, her fund also endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Wolf left her books to the Cleveland Public Library, three paintings and other art pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and her house on East Boulevard to the Welfare Federation. The Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund provided a third of the funding to endow the Silver Chair in Judaic studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and gave $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to black history in Cleveland.
There is still so much more to know. When I visit her, sometimes I wonder if she would be annoyed by my prying. That is one of the questions I ask her when I visit, and I hope she would approve. I’m certain she would speak up if she didn’t. The July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer on her election to the Board of the CPL described her thusly: “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft-spoken, but she manages to have her way.”
Lisa Nielson is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
Photographer, filmmaker, poet and novelist Gordon Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93. But the 1998 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement continues to exert a centrifugal force on American culture, well into the 21st century.
Kendrick Lamar sampled Parks’ photographs for his music video “Element.” And a mesmerizing art exhibit, concentrating on Parks’ first decade of visual work, is now open to all at the Cleveland Museum of Art through June 30. There is no admissions charge.
The National Gallery of Art curated “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950.” It features many iconic images, perhaps none more arresting than Ella Watson in 1942 in a polka-dot dress, a charwoman who cleaned government buildings in Washington, D.C. She stands before a flag, with her mop and broom inverted. Much later Parks retitled the portrait “American Gothic.”
The photographer gives the viewer context, depicting Watson’s family, religious life and neighborhood in his first extended photo story, a craft he would hone becoming one of Life Magazine’s most important photo-essayists.
The exhibit features Langston Hughes in Chicago in 1941 in a somber door-and-window portrait taken during the Chicago Black Arts Renaissance, and Ingrid Bergman appearing haunted in Italy. The collection includes fashion shots and Tuskegee Airmen and a 17-year-old Harlem gang leader named “Red” whose gravitas and charisma translate across decades.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all kinds of wrongs,” Parks famously wrote in 1999. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Museum-goers will have the chance to consider Parks and his creations in a Salon Talk at 7 p.m. Friday, May 24 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Professor Gillian Johns of Oberlin College, Daniel Gray-Kontar, executive director of Twelve Literary Arts, and Tonika Johnson, a Chicago activist and photographer, will reflect on Parks’ genius and his ongoing relevance today.
Sophomore Elizabeth Metz was dismayed by students at Beachwood High School arguing whether slavery or the Holocaust was worse. Administrators say her student-led forums have improved campus race relations more than faculty and staff have been able to do.
Senior Jalen Brown saw the toxic mix of homophobia and racism in the hallways of the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine. He formed a student cadre called “Specific and General Acceptance” to explore this intersection. One of their goals: fewer suicides.
Senior Kye Harrell led a silent sit-in at Shaker Heights High School, gathering more than 400 protestors on the day of the nationwide Parkland demonstrations. They made visible the discrepancy between high school roadblocks to Black Lives Matter participation and the school’s green-light for the Parkland rally.
And sophomore Karson Baldwin founded a strong, ongoing alliance between the International Newcomers Academy in Cleveland and students from his institution, University School, under the banner “Oné Respé,” a Haitian greeting meaning “honor and respect.”
These four leaders took a bow for their activism, singled out by the Princeton Prize for Race Relations. It rewards anti-racist enterprise rather than the more staid student essay contests.
“At a time when racial hatred threatens to turn into an American export, the winners of the Princeton Prize focus on harmony, respect, and community to advance race relations,” said Sandhya Gupta, who chairs the Cleveland regional competition.
Princeton graduate Henry Von Kohorn founded the prize in 2003 partly out of his disappointment in his alma mater’s record in attracting students of color. Led by Princeton alumni, it grew from a pilot in Boston and Washington D.C. to 27 regional competitions, which culminate in a spring symposium at Princeton for the winners. Karson Baldwin, who represented Cleveland, was one of only two sophomores among the honorees this year.
He quoted Joe Cimperman of Global Cleveland who believes the biggest deficit humanity suffers is the one in kindness and compassion.
Danny Williams, president and CEO of Eliza Bryant Village, gave a witty keynote to honor the quartet in Cleveland. He put up diagrams captioned “This is Your Brain” and “This is Your Brain on Social Justice,” with the portions associated with empathy enlarged.
“Once you have taken that red pill,” he said smiling, “you are going to find it hard to un-ring that bell.” And he quoted Allen Kay: “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
But the evening’s award ceremony at the Hawken School’s Gries Center in University Circle belonged to the four honorees. Elizabeth Metz started her “Breaking Barriers Project” at Beachwood High School, in the wake of the Tree of Life shootings and the racist killings of two black people in a western Kentucky Kroger on the same October weekend.
She used the fear of gun violence to unite factions at her school who were adding racist captions about lynching to Instagram and characterizing students with families from the Middle East as terrorists. The first forum attracted 40 students; the second 150.
Jalen Brown characterized his work as “changing lives and saving them.”
“In America, being black is difficult, insanely difficult,” he said. “Black Americans are not allowed to wear their hoods up and walk down the street. And dealing with the homophobia inside a community dealing with racism is more than most can bear.”
Jalen Brown led a moment of silence for Nigel Shelby, a gay Alabama youth who killed himself April 18. “I was where he was at the age of 15.”
Those interested in the Princeton Prize on Race Relations can visit its website here.