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Kamden Hilliard — a poet who has lived in Hawai’i, southern California, New York City, Hong Kong, Iowa and South Carolina over their 26 years — will be the second Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Editing. 

Hilliard was chosen from among more than 100 applicants. The poet, who uses “they, them, their” pronouns, has yet to see Cleveland. That will happen when they start the two-year fellowship in August at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.

The new fellow will succeed Leila Chatti, whose first book “Deluge” arrives from Copper Canyon Press April 21. The poets have friends in common but have yet to meet. The fellowship combines writing, editing and community engagement.

“I was born in California to military parents,” Hilliard writes in their application. “We moved around most of my childhood and finally settled in Hawai’i in early 2002. The real and imagined traumas of 9/11, the violent mechanics of settlement and militarism in Hawai’i, and the ongoing condition of blackness sculpted my childhood. As such, my work is obsessed with the problems of inheritance, identity-based discrimination, and antiblackness.”

Hilliard graduated with an MFA in Poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop last spring. They took an AmeriCorps Vista position with the Greenville County Behavioral Health Coalition, which helps nonprofits in upstate South Carolina deliver mental health and anti-addiction services. Hilliard, who laughs easily and delights in language, specialized in connecting LGBTQ youth to these services.

“I’m not from a place where people spend a lot of time writing and reading,” Hilliard said in a phone interview. “So, after two years in Iowa City, I was attracted to a place where I could dream toward community and a different future, organize to get things done and think about the reasons we write and need literature.”

Hilliard’s own work is quick-footed and linguistically playful. It has been collected into three chapbooks — “Distress Tolerance” in 2016 and “Perceived Distance From Impact” the following year. Their third collection, “henceforce: a travel poetic,” was published in 2019. They helped edit Jellyfish Magazine for three years.

Last fall, the poet Tommy Pico singled out a Hilliard poem for praise: “It takes the play dough colors of modern languages and squishes them all together in a statement on the nature of communication and I, for one, am here. for. it.” 

That poem was runner-up for the Black Warrior Review Prize.

“We were especially drawn to the experimental force and verve of Kamden Hilliard’s poetry – which, as Craig Santos Perez has said, ‘transgresses the normative and secured border of nationalism, gender, aesthetics and language itself,’” noted Hilary Plum, assistant director of the Cleveland State Poetry Center. “In their application, Kam’s approach to literary community and diversity work combined the theoretical and the practical. We were struck by their ambition, the depth of their engagement and their sense of what’s possible.”

For their part, Hilliard said they were looking forward to shaping the fellowship and carrying it beyond the usual places.

“In our public conversations, we can attend to the places we inhabit,” they said. “’Ohio’ is not a British word. It’s an indigenous word.  The shape of the fellowship, the folk who put it together – I take all of it as a positive sign. I have a lot of gratitude and look forward to starting the next chapter with you.”

Hear Hilliard read their 2018 poem, “Ride W Favor.”

Pull up a chair at Case Western Reserve University’s new reading seminar for a hearty discussion of four Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, covering everything from the modern, urban Native experience to the consequences of political upheaval in Chile.

Organizers invite you to explore four Anisfield-Wolf award winning books:

  • “There There” by Tommy Orange (2019, fiction) — January 23
    Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, launched his literary career with :”There There,” a layered, multi generational journey of 12 Native American characters who converge on a fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.” Orange said during a recent stop in Cleveland.
  • “Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation” by Jonathan Kozol (1996, nonfiction) — February 20
    In “Amazing Grace,” Kozol examines the living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx, giving residents in his 300-page treatise space to discuss AIDS, drug addiction, prostitution, crime, dismal education systems, white flight and more.
  • “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” by Kevin Young (2018, nonfiction) — March 19
    “Bunk” spans nearly 200 years of fraudulent behavior, from the cruel spectacles of showman P.T. Barnum to modern day racist birther movement. Young, the current director of the Schomburg Center in New York, spent six years researching the book.
  • “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (2017, fiction) — April 16
    What began as a letter to Allende’s 100-year-old grandfather became “The House of the Spirits,” her debut novel that led to a career tally of more than 67 million copies sold. The story follows four generations of the Trueba family through political upheaval in Chile, Allende’s home.

Colette Ngana, a doctoral student in sociology, said the choice to begin with “There There” was an intentional one.

“I don’t think we highlight indigenous writers often enough,” Ngana said. “[There There] allows us to learn more about the historical perspective. If you didn’t know about the occupation of Alcatraz, for example, the book pushes you to look into indigenous history. What does that mean for our perspectives in resistance movements of the indigenous experience?”

Facilitators will provide historical and political context on the books, while participants are invited to discuss the larger themes these books present.

The reading seminar is open to the community, with organizers hoping for a mixture of students, staff and Cleveland-area residents to attend. “Often we don’t have many opportunities for people in the community to feel integrated into academic life,”  Ngana said. “[This first seminar] will be a test to see who comes. We want everybody to feel welcome.”

The first session will be held Thursday, January 23 from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Dampeer Room, 11055 Euclid Avenue. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Lisa Kollins at

Novelist Tommy Orange, cast in the warm glow of the lights at St. John Episcopal Church, brought his Anisfield-Wolf award-winning debut, “There There” to Northeast Ohio for Cleveland Book Week.

Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC) dancers – An Evening with Tommy Orange: Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards 2019 winner for Fiction for Cleveland Book Week 2019 – Photo © Bob Perkoski

The evening’s reading melded some new writing from Orange about fathers and sons playing basketball with dancers and drummers from the Lake Erie Native American Council, who performed traditional powwow dances and a drum circle. Their music and movement gave attendees a taste of the book, which follows twelve urban Native characters in advance of a fictious Oakland Coliseum powwow. More than 80 percent of indigenous Americans live outside reservations.

“I very much wanted to write about the place I grew up,” Orange told the packed crowd. “I love Oakland. There’s ten million New York novels and there’s very few Oakland-specific novels and I definitely wanted to contribute in that way.”

Orange was born in Oakland in 1982 to a white mother and Native father and is an enrolled member the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Growing up, he struggled with identity and embedded pieces of that discernment into each of the characters in “There There.”

“It was really important to me that the Native communities, especially the Oakland one, that people wouldn’t think that what I wrote was untrue to their experience,” Orange said. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.”

Watch the full event below and make plans to join us next year for Cleveland Book Week 2020.