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Cleveland's Literary Scene is Loyal and Strong

Daniel Gray-Kontar's made a new home for Twelve Literary Arts in Glenville [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Cleveland may not pop into your mind as a center for literary activity, but a recent report points out that the city has a long tradition of supporting writers and their work.  

The report, “ Inside the Margins," describes a network of writing groups, libraries and independent bookstores that foster a vibrant literary arts scene in the city.  The study was released by the advocacy group Arts Cleveland.  CEO Megan Van Voorhis said the local writing culture grew from grassroots efforts.

“Cleveland has always had a strong support infrastructure for writers,” she said. 

The Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland – later known as The Lit – started as a grassroots organization in 1974.  In more recent years, support for area writers has blossomed, including groups like Literary Cleveland, A Guide to Kulchur, Lake Erie Ink, Brews and Prose, and the Sisterhood.

“I think that climate and those activities to help one another is something that’s really exciting,” said Van Voorhis.

National literary lights such as Dan Chaon and Thrity Umrigar are part of Northeast Ohio’s writing community.  Former Clevelander Huda Al-Marashi, whose new memoir is attracting national notice, got her start here.

Huda Al-Marashi is one of many writers who show off their stuff in front of a live audience at the monthly Brews and Prose readings at Market Garden Brewery. [photo / Carissa Russell]

“I look back on this as some of my fondest creative years,” Al-Marashi said.  “I have yet to find a creative writing community that rivals the people that I met in Cleveland.  It truly made me a writer.”

Though she now lives in California, Al-Marashi still stays in regular touch with her Cleveland influences, exchanging work over Skype. 

Former Plain Dealer book editor Karen Long said that a city like Cleveland can’t compare to literary giants like New York or San Francisco, but it is right-sized for collaboration.  Long, who currently manages the 83-year-old Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, added that a prime source of that nurturing is an unusually large network of libraries across the region.

“I don’t think anybody can do any kind of writing without being a reader – and a passionate reader,” she said.  “We are blessed with nine library systems within our footprint, and two – the county and the city – who are five-star-rated.”

But, Cleveland’s history of support for writers hasn’t always been universal.  Poet Daniel Gray-Kontar didn’t find help so easily.

“Opportunities for me as a young writer of color came from opportunities that I had to create,” he said.

Gray-Kontar and fellow African American poets didn’t feel local writing groups spoke to their needs, so they formed the Black Poetic Society in 1994.  The members found fellowship, exchanged ideas and created performance opportunities in area clubs to take their work to larger audiences.  Gray-Kontar said he used that experience to pay it forward for a new generation by creating an organization, Twelve Literary Arts, in 2016.

“The reason that Twelve Literary Arts exists is precisely so that young writers of color don’t have to make their way in the same way that I did,” he said.

Over the past two years, Twelve Literary Arts has set out to provide a safe space for marginalized writers of all stripes who come from the inner city. The young organization is moving into the first floor of the recently rehabbed Madison building on the Glenville Arts Campus.  Gray-Kontar has a makeshift office in one corner, surrounded by freshly painted dry wall.  In the middle of their new digs is the counter for a soon-to-come café.

“So, we’re in the process of creating that nurturing environment,” he said.  “And it’s going to take us some time to really jell and coalesce.”

But, Gray-Kontar said he has no doubt that it will.  It’s the Cleveland way.  

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.