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by Ali McClain

The beginning movements of this essay began with a complex question: Which author’s reading from the 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards would I choose to reflect upon? I describe the question as complex because while each award recipient—Jericho Brown, Marilyn Chin, Marlon James and Richard S. Dunngave memorable readings, I found myself wanting to reflect on the writer (a non-recipient of the award) whose work struck me the most with feelings of anger, bleakness and dignity.  I chose Joesiah Poulson, who commenced the readings with his unforgettable poem, “Am I Invisible?” He wrote this while still in fourth grade, using it to explore, document and investigate struggle and self-doubt.  I had to choose Joesiah.

Ronn Richards, CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, introduced Joesiah with the expected credits: the poet’s full name, school, grade level and title of poem. Audience members learned that Josiah’s presence at the 80th annual award ceremony was the result of a partnership with Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center.  When Richards announced Joesiah’s title “Am I Invisible?” an unsettling small ripple of laughter flowed throughout the audience.  

It was a disturbing beginning.  Had the audience just laughed at Joesiah’s title, finding it funny?  Did they laugh as a way to say, “Yes, Joesiah, you are invisible and it is comical that you’ve asked such a question?”  Perhaps the audience’s laughter was the result of discomfort in knowing a young poet, a child, is in tune with the disturbing themes Ralph Ellison explored in his novel Invisible Man — racism, limitation, stereotypes and self identity.

But, as usual, in moments of awkwardness and discomfort, the poet rises. Joesiah begins his reading and the speaker of the poem opens with testimony:

    I’ve been down long roads,

    said yes when I meant no.

    I lost control of the wheel.

This is not the kind of testimony I expect a boy of 11 to write about. Joesiah is prematurely expressing his awareness of hard times, insecurity and powerlessness. Joesiah‘s decision to begin the poem with a first person speaker creates an urgent transparent mood and emphasizes the personal testimony theme of the poem. Joesiah continues with a structure complete with questions and statements. The second stanza questions an unknown second person.  The second stanza asks:

        Do you ever wonder

        when you listen to the thunder,

        why your world feels so small?

The narrator quickly shifts the attention to the second person.  This shift forces readers and audience members to ask themselves a question.  It is as if the narrator is asking readers to consider the ideas of feeling insignificant and unimpressive.  And, perhaps the narrator is asking readers to consider the feelings of the unknown “I” from the preceding opening stanza, as in — put yourself in my shoes. Joesiah is ultimately asking readers to empathize.  

Joesiah’s poem is short and made of six stanzas (each stanza is a tercet). Joesiah decides to make his narrator continually ask questions throughout the poem. Four questions are posed throughout the poem (and let’s not forget that Joesiah even titles his poem as a question — “Am I Invisible?”). The third stanza is solely made of questions. Joesiah writes:

        Do you ever think

        what you’re standing at the brink of?

        feel like giving up, but can’t walk away?

The author creates a timely poem filled with one of our most important tasks: Delivering testimony and asking questions in order to create conversations around some of our most sensitive and challenging topics: race, identity, racism and hardship.  In the most haunting line (line 12) of the poem the narrator introduces the notorious “they” pronoun:

        Put yourself on the line,

        though you feel inside

        like they don’t know you’re alive.

Joesiah’s voice offered an unsettling timbre during this part of his reading at Anisfield.  His innocent and naturally child-like voice carried throughout the auditorium with an uncomfortable spirit of sadness and hopelessness.  It seems that one of Joesiah’s aims in writing “Am I Invisible?” was to announce his alertness of how distant we are from reaching the very goal and dream of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. There is very little to show as evidence that we are, as Joesiah writes, at “the brink of” change or close to solutions for diminishing racism and embracing human diversity.  Joesiah is clearly aware that “they” are mercilessness and cruel.  

Then there is a shift in the reading and in the poem.  By the fifth stanza of the poem there is a sense that something must change.  The solitary speaker turns the question on the self.  Joesiah writes:

        Night after night trying to decide,

        am I going to speak out

        or get lost in the crowd?

A decision has to be made. In the final stanza of the poem Joesiah decides:

        When the lights go down in the city

        I’ll be right here


Joesiah brings hope and determination even as he closes the poem with dark imagery, “Night after night” (line 13) and “When the lights go down” (line 16).  We are to believe that despite going through “long roads” and getting “lost in the crowd” — we must stay strong.  Joesiah ended his reading with a sudden and unpredictably confident and determined voice.  His message was clear: we must continue to shine even in hard times.  A woman sitting next to me responded to Joesiah’s reading with an erupting “Amen!” and the entire auditorium exploded with applause, cheers and whistles.

Joesiah‘s skill to take readers (and audience members) through a wide range of emotions: despair, hopelessness, angst and then back to hope is impressive.  A novice writer, Joesiah shows admirable control over the elements of diction, structure and rhyme.  The fifth grade poet has earned the ahead-of-his-time marker.  His poem forces us to get honest about the effects of racism and the damage that comes with denouncing human diversity. Joesiah answers his own questions and ultimately takes matters into his own hands.  He shows us how critical it is to rely on the self for answers, validation, and strength.

Ali McClain is a Cleveland poet and graduate student.  She directs an after-school program for girls ages 10-18 at West Side Community House. She is also a co-founder of acerbic, an artist collective.


Good evening. I’m Ronn Richard, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you to the 76th annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony.

I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see a full house for our opening night here in Playhouse Square.We will always think back upon our years at the Cleveland Play House with nostalgia. But the change in venue didn’t slow demand for almost 1,000 tickets, most of which were snapped up the first week. That’s a testament to the respect this prize commands – and to you. Never let it be said that any group anywhere can out-read Clevelanders!

I want to extend a special greeting to our internet audience. We’re streaming our ceremony live, thanks to a collaboration between Playhouse Square and Ideastream.The webcast will be posted on our retooled website,, which I urge you to check out. Also be sure to visit our new Twitter feed, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. I think you’ll be amazed at what you see.

The revamped site is a bookworm’s delight. You’ll find information on every winning title and author dating back to the first award in 1936. You’ll be able to access data you could never get before. If you want to know which winners have Pulitzer prizes or MacArthur fellowships, it’s right there at your fingertips.On our new blog, you can submit questions and comments as well. Whatever you want to do, it’s easy. We’re very excited about this upgrade, and we think you will be, too.

Introduction of Poet

For the last three years, we’ve celebrated not only our winning authors, but also an emerging young poet from our own backyard. This recent tradition continues tonight with Essence Cain, a sixth-grade student at Miller South School for Visual and Performing Arts, just down the road in Akron.

Essence will recite a poem she and her classmates wrote for “Speak Peace,”an international youth arts program created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. American children in the program wrote poems in response to paintings created by Vietnamese children.

You’ll see tonight’s poem and the painting that inspired it on the screen behind us. They’re part of an exhibit currently touring the United States. It’s my pleasure to present Essence Cain with “In the Flower Market.”

Thank you, Essence. Your parents, Terri and Doran, and your mentor, Nicole Robinson, are here tonight, and I’m pretty sure you’ve made them the proudest people in the room. Please join me in another round of applause for Essence and for the classmates she so ably represents.

Introductory Remarks

We gather here tonight, just days after the 10-year remembrance of one of the most villainous crimes in recent history, perpetrated against our nation and humanity – a mass murder that wiped out almost 3,000 innocent lives in less than two hours. I’m sure that for you as for me, the commemorative events of recent days reawakened the shock and horror we all felt as the smoke and debris from the collapsed Twin Towers blotted out the sun on what had begun as a picture-perfect day.

Back then, as details of the hijackers and their plot emerged, a simple question formed in our minds: How could anyone hate that much? Regrettably, the years since have shown that the hijackers and their co-conspirators had no monopoly on hatred.

Think about it: On September 10, 2001 – when most Americans had yet to become acquainted with Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – could any of us have foreseen the intensity of anti-Islamic sentiment that we struggle with to this day?

The bitter fruit of this harvest of hate is all around us. On this side of the Atlantic, it surfaces whenever some publicity-driven zealot threatens to burn the Koran, or some shameless politician spews sinister warnings of a stealth campaign to establish an Islamic Republic of America. Meanwhile, across Europe, violence flares. It would be far too simplistic to blame this summer’s street riots in Britain on multiculturalism, as some have done.

But few would argue that immigration has stoked popular fears and strident political rhetoric aimed at Muslims in particular. Bigotry and intolerance poison our airwaves. Each day, we’re bombarded with decidedly uncivil discourse that seeks to divide and discriminate according to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, political affiliation, even physical and cognitive ability.

These are the human rights issues of our time, here and now. We can trace their evolution through the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. In earlier decades, the winning titles dealt largely with racial injustice and anti-Semitism in America and Europe – topics that will never lose their relevance.  But in the last 15 years – and post-9-11 in particular – new voices have joined the chorus. They bring different experiences and perspectives that mirror the diversity of today’s global society. Thus, we get glimpses of the world through the eyes of immigrant and first-generation authors who trace their ancestry to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and Nigeria.

I think this inclusiveness would please Edith Anisfield Wolf. Edith loved literature, and she saw it as a catalyst to spark dialogue, which she believed was essential to bridging distrust and misunderstanding. In our contentious society, where opposing sides compete to shout each other down, Edith inspires us with her quiet, steadfast belief in the power of the written word to help shape a better world.

Taylor Branch, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf prize and a lifetime achievement award, put it far more eloquently than I could when he said, and I quote: “The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards … summon minds and hearts to ponder the relationship of human beings to those perceived as ‘the other.’ No purpose opens such vast heartache, and abiding hope, in the cause of democratic justice for our world.”

Edith’s vision endures. Now, it’s up to us to confront the prejudices that define our own times. Whether the current controversy is about the siting of a mosque, the accessibility of a public venue, a promotion denied due to sexual orientation, or yet another throwback to Jim Crow, the question our inner voice should be posing is: “Where is the Edith in me?”

Introduction of Guests and Winners

Before yielding the podium, I’d like to recognize a few special guests.

I’d like to salute Charles Bolton, the deeply dedicated chair of the Cleveland Foundation’s Board of Directors, and all current and past board members who are here tonight. Please stand and accept the community’s thanks for your outstanding service.

Finally, I have the great honor of sharing the stage with one of Cleveland’s leading ladies, in every sense of the phrase: Dee Perry, senior host and producer of WCPN’s daily magazine talk show, “Around Noon.” If you’ve spent any time around Cleveland, you know Dee. Her soothing voice has graced the local broadcasting scene since 1976. She’s made her radio home at WCPN, Cleveland’s public radio station, since 1989. Radio isn’t her only medium. Dee also hosts and produces “Applause,” the weekly arts and culture series on WVIZ/PBS.

Yesterday, we learned that our Anisfield-Wolf jury chair, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, was ill and would be unable to travel here to serve as our emcee, a role he has filled the past eight years. We needed a pro, and we needed one now. We immediately thought of Dee, who has long been a rock-solid supporter of this event. She graciously agreed to step in – and added that she was thrilled to have the opportunity. Dee, we are just as thrilled to have you up here. Welcome to the Anisfield-Wolf stage, and thank you.

Earlier this year, Dr. Gates and four nationally renowned jurors reviewed more than 200 submitted works before selecting just four that they deemed worthy of the prize. Tonight, we will listen to and celebrate the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf honorees:

Our lifetime achievement award goes to author John Edgar Wideman, whose body of work includes:

Now, here to tell you more about tonight’s winners, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in greeting tonight’s emcee, Dee Perry.


Thank you, Dee. To all six of our 2011 honorees, thank you for inspiring us with the beauty of your language, the rigor of your research, and your commitment to your craft. You’ve given us an unforgettable evening. I think our jury has outdone itself again. In addition to Skip Gates, this amazing group includes Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Simon Schama. Our thanks to them for helping us sustain the legacy of a cherished daughter of Cleveland: Edith Anisfield Wolf.

I also want to acknowledge Mary Louise Hahn, the prime mover behind this event. Each year, she brings her passion for literature, her deep knowledge of the prize’s heritage, and her delightful sense of humor to steer us to safe harbor. Mary Louise, please stand and be recognized. Mary Louise would be the first to say she gets by with a little help from her friends. Thanks to the Cleveland Foundation board and staff, with a special nod to Cindy Schulz, Elizabeth McIntyre, and Terry Pederson of our Public Affairs team.

We’re fortunate to partner with some first-class organizations that have rallied around this event. To begin, many thanks to Playhouse Square for accommodating us this evening. We value our close tie with the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, where David Eltis and David Richardson lectured yesterday. Afterward, the center hosted a reception for them and for Lisa Nielson, the first Anisfield-Wolf/SAGES fellow, who will lead several classes dedicated to issues of race and diversity. Welcome to Cleveland, Lisa. We’re so pleased to have you here. For many years, we’ve enjoyed strong support from the Cuyahoga County Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library, which houses the complete collection of Anisfield-Wolf winners. A Cultural Exchange is our hard-working, award-winning book sale partner.

I hope you caught our honorees today on Ideastream. Our nonfiction winners were hosted by Mike McIntyre on “The Sound of Ideas.” Our fiction winners and John Edgar Wideman were guests on “Around Noon” with none other than Dee Perry. The community interaction continues at noon tomorrow when Isabel Wilkerson – whose book made President Obama’s vacation reading list – will speak at the Cleveland City Club’s renowned Friday forum.

Presentation of Prizes

Now, it’s my pleasant duty to present our honorees with their 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. In addition to a monetary stipend, each winner receives a signature glasswork hand-crafted exclusively for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards by the artisans of Streets of Manhattan, a creative glass studio in Cleveland. Our winners’ glass mementos reflect the colors of their book jackets.

Please stand for a final round of applause as our honorees receive their prizes.Thank you for being here tonight. We hope to see you again next year. Please travel safely.

Since 2009, an emerging young poet from Northeast Ohio is celebrated along with the winning authors at the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony in Cleveland.

At the 2011 ceremony, Essence Cain, a sixth-grader at Miller South School for Visual and Performing Arts in Akron, Ohio, recited “In the Flower Market,” a poem she and her classmates wrote for “Speak Peace,” an international youth arts program created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. American children in the program wrote poems in response to paintings created by Vietnamese children. The exhibit of paintings and poems is traveling nationally through 2013.

Essence has appeared in plays and musicals at venues throughout Ohio. She was a contributing writer and reader for the animated e-greetings of the 2009 Traveling Stanzas series, Peace Stanzas. She has performed poetry with the Wick Poetry Center Outreach program at the 2011 Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs national conference in Washington D.C. in 2011.

Visiting the Flower MarketEssence Cain

In the Flower Market

Tiger lilies roar in the cold April rain.
Tulips seek friends with their spray of pollen.

Sunflowers flash in the night,
Illuminating the world like a candle.

Bluebells drip with dew—
They love just being themselves.

Marigolds sing, mango trees ding.
Orchids fly like birds in the wind.

Flowers from all over the world
Spread their colors like peacocks.

Peace is what puts them all together.


Here is a video of Essence reading “In the Flower Market” as part of the “Speak Peace” program.

Hello everyone! My name is Kevin Ritter and I was the featured young artist at this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. This meant that I got to perform a poem that I wrote for the live audience, as well as the virtual audience on the internet. Over the summer, I participated in a summer arts job program through Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio called “ArtWorks.” For six weeks I ventured to University Circle’s Wade Oval and studied theater under teaching artist Jimmie Woody. Each day was a new adventure. We listened to guest speakers, took a tour of the Case Western Reserve University campus, and practiced the craft of acting every single day. During this time, I also focused a lot on my writing.

The past two years, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards had featured a young poet. The Cleveland Foundation wanted to continue the tradition for the 75th anniversary and contacted Young Audiences about finding a young artist for the occasion. They recommended me! Jay Albert asked me if I would be interested in performing at the awards ceremony. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement.

I went through every single poem I had written in the past few years, trying to find something suitable for the occasion. Eventually, I decided that a new piece was in order. During my college road trip the following week, I tried to think of what I wanted to say in my poem. We were looking at some schools in Boston, and as I walked around the city, I kept hearing people speaking in all different languages, some of which I couldn’t even identify. We also went to the Mary Baker Eddy Library and Museum, which features a giant Mapparium.

I walked into the room, which is a giant stained glass sphere with a political map of the world circa 1935. I thought about how fragile the world is. It’s a surreal experience to look at the world from the inside. As opposed to the pictures of the planet seen from space, which make you feel small and inconsequential, the Mapparium makes you feel a part of a big whole. There were several people speaking in different languages. I didn’t know exactly what they were saying; I still felt this connection to them. I was taken back to a time before the tower of Babel, when we all understood each other so easily. When I got home, the first thing I did was look up the story of Babel in the Bible. The poem ultimately took the title of the final verse in the story: “11:9.”

The day of the awards was very exciting. I met my supervisor, Kathleen Cerveny, in the lobby and she showed me backstage, where I was fitted for a small lavaliere microphone. I was told that I would be going on first thing. I was asked if I wanted to go meet the winners. Surprised at the fact that this was even a question, I agreed and was taken down a hallway to where Elizabeth Alexander, Kamila Shamsie, and William Julius Wilson were sitting and talking to each other. I had read all of their books in preparation for the event and told all three of the writers how much I enjoyed their work. Everyone there was so incredibly kind to me and supportive of me. They even signed the sheet of paper that my poem was printed on, which is now hanging in my room.

After Ronald Richard introduced me to the audience, I walked across the stage after shaking his hand. Nervously, I grasped onto the 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper and began to say my poem. As I went on, the hours I’d spent practicing my poem for Jimmie Woody, Kathleen Cerveny, and my dog kicked in and I was able to relax. But I finished it, and I felt great. Dr. Gates and Mr. Richard shook my hand again.

The rest of the awards ceremony was beautiful. All of the speakers were captivating. What I realized is that there is nothing more powerful than the written word in order to get a message across. It allows the reader to be introspective while also providing a clear message.

Afterwards, at the dessert reception, everyone was so complimentary of my work. Some people even said that they were looking forward to seeing me win the award in the future. I said that I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and that I was looking forward to graduating high school and going to college.

Performing at the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards was an amazing, inspiring experience. It made me realize that I really do love writing and that I want to continue to create things. I’m so grateful to have been afforded this opportunity and had an absolutely great time.

For more information about me, you can follow my blog, which I update very sporadically at