In the late 1960s, literary centers began springing up throughout the country, beginning with Beyond Baroque in Venice, Calif., encouraging people of all ages to write. The U.S.’s premier center, the Loft, opened in Minneapolis in 1974 and was soon followed by Just Buffalo Literary Center in Buffalo, N.Y., which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Though the goals of all these centers are similar, each has taken a different path to meet the needs of its community. According to artistic director Barbara Cole, Just Buffalo was inspired by the Loft, which she regards as “the beacon for literary centers to think about what [they] can be,” and the workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City. Cole, as well as Debora Ott, who became the founding director of Just Buffalo, were drawn to Buffalo as college students by Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley, who began teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967, and who helped inspire the creation of a literary center there.
What distinguished Just Buffalo from the beginning was its emphasis on working with young people. In 1982, it began offering in-school creative writing programs for children from kindergarten through high school. Cole praised the quality of writing and depth of thinking that she encountered in students as young as first grade. “It’s moving to see kids from abusive homes and foster care be able to speak their stories,” she said.
Two years ago, Just Buffalo consolidated its operations, which included offices and a space for poetry readings, and opened its first writing center. While it continues to offer some in-school programs, it uses the writing center for free after-school and summer youth writing workshops aimed at writers ages 12–18. Just Buffalo publishes student writing in its annual Wordplay anthology, which juxtaposes poetry such as “On the Bus,” by Sincere W., a fifth grader at PS 81 Highgate Heights (“I remember everybody/ was talking and it smelled like/ summer and wood polish”), with “City” by Anya Schulman, a 12th grader at Nichols School (“Blurry—a rearview mirror, eclipsed by/ someone’s brights”).
Just Buffalo began by offering author readings, beginning with Diane di Prima at the Allentown Community Center. Since then, Just Buffalo has gone on to launch the Studio Poetry series as well as the Silo City Summer series in which poets read in abandoned silos. A decade ago it added Babel, a reading series that brings well-known authors from around the world to Buffalo and regularly draws audiences of roughly 1,500 people to the Kleinhans Music Hall, home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Many of the authors also appear at the 92nd Street Y in New York City and Seattle Arts & Lectures on the West Coast, but Just Buffalo’s series is the only one to require writers to meet with high school students the day after their talks. Cole said that a high point for her was seeing Patti Smith talk with kids about how she carried around a notebook as a teenager to record her thoughts.
Just Buffalo has also had an impact on local bookstore Talking Leaves... Books. “The bookstore and literary center are roughly the same age and have been collaboratively involved since day one,” said Lucy Kogler, bookstore manager, who serves on the Just Buffalo board. “It’s symbiotic: writers, books, and literary centers. We have each other’s backs, and in a world where alliances are tested daily, it is a comfort to trust that the one between Talking Leaves and Just Buffalo is solid.”
To fund its programs, the center applies for grants from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and also partners with it on its Literary Presenters’ Technical Assistance Program (LitTap), which offers technical advice, networking opportunities, and other services to the state’s literary presenters and publishers. The latest Just Buffalo/LitTap partnership, according to Kathleen Masterson, director of literature and theater programs at NYSCA, gives grants to mature literary organizations.
“Buffalo is not just chicken wings, football, and snow,” Cole said. “Creeley was famous for signing letters, ‘Onward, Bob.’ ” In that spirit, as Just Buffalo heads into its fifth decade, it has embarked on an ambitious public art initiative and recently received approval from the City of Buffalo to create a literary corridor along Washington Street. Among the projects that are in the works are a mural based on Creeley’s poem “Love Comes Quietly”; a sculpture honoring poet Lucille Clifton, who grew up in Buffalo; and a project to honor poet and activist Ishmael Reed, who was raised in the city.