An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.
Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”
For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.
“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”
With the William G. Mather steamship providing a nautical backdrop, poet Tracy K. Smith brought her work to the shores of Northeast Ohio as part of the 2019 Cleveland Book Week festivities.
The 2019 Anisfield-Wolf winner for poetry opened her reading with a few selections from “Wade in the Water,” her 2018 award-winning collection. She began “The Everlasting Self,” a short meditative poem on identity and legacy, before segueing into “Declaration,” an erasure poem taken directly from the Declaration of Independence. “Please speak to me,” she recalled asking of the document. “Please show me something I haven’t already seen.”
Later in the reading, she explained the significance of the title poem, which came to her during a visit to a small Georgia town. A woman, part of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, approached Smith and greeted her with an “I love you.”
“That felt like the most beautiful gift that someone could chose to give,” Smith said. ‘I see you. You are meaningful. I don’t know you but yet I love you.'”
During her just-finished two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, she strove to bring poetry to rural communities, appearing in Alaska, South Dakota and Maine, popping up in rehabilitation centers, libraries, prisons and community gathering spots.
“I wanted to get off the beaten path but I also felt like this is a moment in America where all we’re inundated with is ideas of division,” Smith told the crowd on the harbor. “I knew that poetry could help get past that narrative. Because poems make you stop and pay really close attention. ‘Someone else is speaking here’ and it feels like it matters…And it gave me so much hope about America at a time when very little else did.”
Currently, Smith is the host of The Slowdown, a bite-size poetry podcast that delivers five-minute episodes every weekday. She is also a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
Watch her full remarks below and make plans to join us in 2020 for Cleveland Book Week.
For the past decade, Northeast Ohioans gathered for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremonies have celebrated a young poet alongside the winning authors. This year Logan Greer, 10, a fifth grader at Campus International School, set the tone with her poem, “City of Growing Up.” She wrote these lines in the spring of 2019 during a class exercise with teaching artist Nicole Robinson. Logan took her inspiration from “Ash” by Tracy K. Smith. Campus International is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
City of Growing Up
City of pleasant party people City with gangs City with learning City before cruelness before being anxious City that believes in God City like a flower growing in the ground City trotting around Lake Erie City paralyzed from moving City with depression City examining the streets City of a long road that I walk down City with my family City of angry people fighting to live City of the taste of my grandma’s macaroni A city of my life
Watch her recite it below and leave a comment for Logan. We’ll make sure she sees it.