In the days leading up to his scheduled Sept. 16, 2001, visit to the Cleveland Public Library, acclaimed poet Robert Pinsky was stranded in Los Angeles after air travel was restricted following the attacks of 9/11. He was in L.A. taping lines for a guest appearance on The Simpsons, and though he was anxious to return to Boston to meet his new grandson, Pinsky honored his commitment to CPL. And on the first Sunday after 9/11, when churches, synagogues, and mosques around the country were struggling to come to grips with the tragedy and loss of life that had just occurred, the poetry selections Pinsky read for us at CPL transcended grief and offered our community a vision of hope and peace.
I will never forget that day, because I saw firsthand the power of poetry, and because I got to share it with my father. My dad had been visiting Cleveland on 9/11, and he too was stranded, unable to fly back to New York. As part of my job, I oversaw the Sunday programming for the library, and Dad was curious to see whether people would actually attend. He was surprised by the size of the crowd, and even more surprised at how moved he was by Pinsky’s reading. The signed volume of poetry he purchased that day sat at his bedside until his death.
If my first meeting with Pinsky hadn’t been so charged with emotion, I might never have recognized the gift the American people received when he was appointed the 39th poet laureate of the United States in 1997. His Favorite Poem Project inspired more than 18,000 Americans to share their favorite poems and set a new standard for the role of laureates, and writers-in-residence. A brilliant and powerful poet, he also excels as a curator and anthologist. People across the nation, like my father, discover and rediscover the pleasure and power of poetry because of Pinsky.
I recently asked Pinsky about his work as poet laureate. What is it about that position that Americans seemed to appreciate? “On the one hand, we Americans are suckers for anything that sounds British and high-class,” he quipped. “Love them royals! We seem to get more thrill from the sound of ‘laureate’ than ‘consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress,’ which is actually the more democratic, nobler, and more American part of the title.”
Certainly, the Library of Congress, which oversees the poet laureate position, is a unique institution—a treasure trove of national culture. But 46 states and the District of Columbia also have poet laureate positions, and poet laureates and writers-in-residence are also valued at the local level, including in my community.
At my library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in Ohio, nurturing these roles has long been a priority. And in recent years, my dream of creating a dedicated writing center in one of our branches came to fruition with the support of the William N. Skirball Foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, and Dominion Foundation. Led by librarian and writing program specialist Laurie Kincer, we’ve successfully built community collaborations and programs to activate the space and engage professional and aspiring writers. And among the best ideas for our William N. Skirball Writers’ Center has been the writer-in-residence program.
Our inaugural writer in residence was David Lucas, currently poet laureate of the state of Ohio and part of the faculty at Case Western Reserve University. He is also a born teacher on a mission to help people appreciate the poetry in their lives. In his essay “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry,” his opening gambit is, “I don’t want to convince you that you should love poetry. I want to convince you that you already do.”
In Cleveland and across the state, Lucas’s goal has been to connect people who love language and words to a larger set of experiences. For example, he created Brews + Prose, a regular reading series hosted at a popular Cleveland bar since 2012, bringing a sense of fun to stereotypically stuffy events.
Following Lucas as CCPL writer in residence was Claire McMillan, author of The Gilded Age, and The Necklace. McMillan is a member of the board of trustees at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., and has also been in residence as a writer there. But a library residency was a different experience for this solitary writer.
“Being a writer-in-residence offered me an outlet to interact with the community and get out in the world,” she says. “Through teaching quarterly classes and holding monthly office hours, I got a chance to meet with and engage writers at many different places on their writing journeys.” McMillan is also a natural teacher, and the community of writers was better for her involvement in their work.
CCPL’s third writer-in-residence is David Giffels, who is best known for his books of personal narrative, All the Way Home and Furnishing Eternity. Giffels’s humor permeates his view of his writer-in-residence title. “It implies that I will be moving into the library, which is problematic, in part, because I snore,” he says. “For another, it suggests that the holder of the title is somehow elevated. After the announcement of my appointment, somebody tweeted in protest that this post should have been given to a less established writer, likening the gesture to swag bags being given to already-pampered celebrities at awards ceremonies.”
Giffels is another outstanding teacher. And he sees the post as an opportunity to share the grittier story of being a writer and navigating the publishing world to those in the writing community. He explains his focus for his time in residence as “a platform to convey such realities of the writing life to readers and writers who can themselves benefit from that understanding.”
Although Giffels was joking about living in the library, CCPL did host playwright George Seremba in residence from 2011 to 2013, during which time he lived in a small house owned by the library. Seremba came to CCPL through a program that assists asylum-seeking writers. During his residency, he held community workshops and also taught at Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities.
A Ugandan political refugee, Seremba was forced to leave his country in 1980 after an attempted assassination by Milton Obote’s military intelligence. He lived in Canada and Ireland before landing in the Cleveland area as an established playwright and actor. We were lucky to have him. And the Baker-Nord Center was an ideal partner. As the library’s writing programs were not fully formed in those years, we learned that leveraging the talent of strong local writing and theater communities created the best opportunities for broader engagement.
The writing programs at CCPL are evidence that libraries can sit comfortably in that place between creator and consumer, fostering both individual and community exploration of the literary arts. We can also demystify the writer and the writing life by bringing authors to our libraries and enabling aspiring writers to meet people who make their living through writing.
And it’s an increasingly vital contribution. For libraries, it’s important to constantly breathe life into the otherwise static volumes sitting on our shelves by celebrating the creative experience and actively supporting the people who create. The role of the library as a link between writer and reader is critical if we are to stem the decline of recreational reading in our nation. And really, who better than libraries?
The great director Steven Spielberg actually said it best when he said, “only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.”
PW libraries columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of the Public Library Association and of the American Library Association.