A Conversation with Baltimore Writer and CityLit Founder Gregg Wilhelm by Malka Herman
“I’m working on a new book,” says Gregg Wilhem to the bartender at Atomic Café located in the celebrated alternative bookstore Atomic Books in Hampden, “You’re gonna really dig this one, Benn. It’s this poetry anthology and it’s going to be great. This friend and I, we had this idea over beers as many bad ideas happen. We asked ourselves, if we could do a poetry anthology about any album what would it be? We thought of the band, the Clash. We just sent the book to the publisher. It’s forty poets from around the country and every track is covered from the album London Calling.” Clearly this is a man passionate about his work.
Wilhelm is rightly proud of his accomplishments. He has spent his life editing, publishing, writing, and teaching. He is eager to share information about CityLit Project, a program he founded in 2004 that promotes the literary arts in Baltimore. He jokes that the true founder of CityLit Festival was Hurricane Isabel. In 2004 Isobel made it impossible to hold the Baltimore Book Festival. The first CityLit Festival was held that April so “two calendar years would not pass without a celebration of literature in Baltimore.”
Gregg’s marketing savvy and previous experience in the publishing world helped make the festival a huge success. Today, the annual CityLit Festival boasts an audience of thousands and has become a “can’t miss event” in Baltimore. Gregg, who in his role as Executive Director of the CityLit Project has expanded the CityLit brand to include programs like City Lit Kids, the imprint City Lit Press as well as the Write Here, Write Now workshops. The next CityLit Festival is coming up on Saturday, May 2.
Gregg’s love of Baltimore has played a large role in his career choices. As a Baltimore native, he decided not to move to popular publishing cities and instead help Baltimore develop a more cohesive literary community. He describes Baltimore as “open, non-judgmental, and collaborative.” He criticizes communities like New York, which are filled with literary “cliques” and “numerous barriers that simply do not exist in Baltimore.”
While grateful for the series of “lucky” events that he feels helped him get to where he is today, he is proud he has managed to carve a quality career in the notoriously challenging world of literature.
Nearing the later part our interview, after a beer or two, he slows down and becomes more introspective. “My advice is not to stop writing. What I’ve found—is you will get embroiled in a career. Part of what inspired me to go back to school in my forties is because I stopped writing… but that took twenty years. I kind of lost that time. I would write for Hopkins alumni magazines, but I never really got serious about it.”
He says he is writing more than ever now and the quality of his writing is the best it’s ever been. After graduating with an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Tampa in 2014 he found that he has kept the momentum that he returned to school to revive.
“But I haven’t been as productive as I would like. I can’t get a teaching position because I didn’t publish a book with my name on it.” I pipe up and add “yet” to the end of his sentence.
After all, this is a man who has been named ‘One to Watch’ by Urbanite Magazine as well as one of ‘40 under 40’ by the Baltimore Business Journal due to his tireless work on various aspects of CityLit. It is amazing that someone who has accomplished so much still feels unsatisfied. But that is what makes Gregg tick. There is always another author to be discovered, another project to be tackled, and another event in the works.
“I like to think that even though I haven’t written anything in the last 20 years and I haven’t published anything of note when it comes to fiction, I feel like I’ve been part of a very long apprenticeship.”
Malka Herman is a Baltimore based writer with an unhealthy interest in music, theatre, and art that makes her uncomfortable. You can check out more of her writing at Brine.
Upcoming festival: NINTH ANNUAL CityLit Festival at Pratt Library
Saturday, May 2, 2012, 10 am – 5 pm
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
CityLit Project info:
120 S Curley St
Baltimore, MD 21224