CityLit Festival 2022: Free Programs for Baltimore’s Literary Crowd

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A really inspiring book talk or reading or panel, at its best, offers a peek into the writer’s mind and process, reigniting a desire to get back into your own creative endeavors. Baltimore’s CityLit Festival offers a month full of such conversations, affirming the interconnected importance of great storytelling, sharp craft and form, and strong community. 

CityLit Project is based upon the notion that artists need relationships, resources, advocacy, and opportunities to sustain their creative work. In the literary world, it’s helpful to see your peers not as competitors but as comrades; this dynamic can help alleviate the sting of rejection, demystify the pathway to publishing, and generate entirely new collaborative structures and outlets to share your writing with the world. It is the kind of energy we need, especially as the publishing industry collapses and consolidates—as newsrooms are gutted, as cultural publications and journals struggle to survive.

Those behind Baltimore’s CityLit Project understand these dynamics intimately, and for almost 20 years they’ve nurtured a community of writers throughout the region. Founded in 2004 by Gregg Wilhelm, the literary nonprofit is presently run by a sole staffer, executive director Carla Du Pree, whose work is supplemented and supported by an enthusiastic board and volunteers. Historically, CityLit has been able to accomplish a lot with fewer resources than many of the big-name organizations that host conferences that cost hundreds of dollars to attend, while offering transformative opportunities for writers. Its annual cornerstone event, the CityLit Festival, is filled with both practical advice and inspiring talks, readings, and workshops featuring locally and nationally renowned authors, and it is largely free.

This year, the organization has taken its lessons from two-plus years of enduring a pandemic. Its March 2020 festival was supposed to be the biggest one yet with 85 writers packed into the single-day event, but it became one of the first major local events canceled due to COVID concerns. For Du Pree, this decision was “devastating,” she says, but “it also gave CityLit a chance to reflect on what’s next.” It was clear that CityLit’s offerings were still necessary: “People needed poetry in their lives more than ever,” Du Pree says. “People needed words—whether they spoke those words or heard them.” Subsequent programs in 2020 and the 2021 festival were conducted virtually on Zoom. 

The 2022 CityLit Festival will be spread out over the month of March, offering both live and virtual events with a host of great writers. (Now is a great time to disclose: BmoreArt is a media sponsor of the 2022 CityLit Festival. Additionally, I am participating in a “craft intensive” panel on creative nonfiction which also features BmoreArt contributor Angela N. Carroll, and a few more contributors are part of various events this year as well.) Most of the live events will be streamable for those staying at home, and the virtual events will be “meeting-style” rather than webinar-style to encourage attendees to actually get acquainted and talk like they would in person.


CityLit Festival 2022 Keynote: Confronting Hard Truths, featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones and Martha S. Jones


Under the theme “How We Break Free: Confronting Hard Truths,” the festival’s March 12 keynote address features Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine journalist and editor of The 1619 Project, the multimedia reorientation of America’s origin story that focuses less on the myth of exceptionalism and more on the realities of white supremacy, slavery, and domination. Hannah-Jones will be in conversation with historian Martha S. Jones, a Johns Hopkins University professor “whose work examines how black Americans have shaped the story of American democracy.” 

“We’re beyond thrilled to feature Nikole Hannah-Jones’ groundbreaking work that revisits, reframes, and confronts this nation’s past and its legacy of slavery,” Du Pree said in a CityLit press release. “We’re also ecstatic by the burgeoning enthusiasm surrounding this work, how it has fostered a wider, more cohesive creative community that exists in Baltimore.”

Throughout the month of March, renowned authors and creators will present their work through various timely themes. The March 1 kickoff event, a virtual talk entitled “Navigating Solitude,” features artist-writers Kristen Radtke (author of the graphic novel Seek You) and Natalie Eve Garrett (author of The Lonely Stories) in conversation with Nguyên Khôi Nguyễn, author of Bittersweet: A Pandemic Sketchbook. “How often do we actually talk about being alone and what that feels like?” Du Pree says. “It’s far more than just the pandemic.”


CityLit 2022: Navigating Loneliness, featuring Natalie Eve Garrett, Nguyên Khôi Nguyễn, and Kristen Radtke


The following week, on March 8, is the festival’s first 90-minute craft intensive, with the virtual discussion “Writing, Revising & Editing Your Story.” Authors Matt Bell, Melissa Febos, Dean Smith, and Nguyen Phan Que Mai will talk about “writing the body through trauma and desire.” Along with the philosophical aspects of their work, the multidisciplinary group (featuring a poet, two novelists, and a memoirist) will also delve into practical matters of writing and revising for publication.


CityLit Festival 2022: Writing, Revising & Editing Your Story featuring Melissa Febos, Matt Bell, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, and Dean Bartoli Smith

Saturday, March 12, boasts a full day of programming, some live on-site at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s central branch and some virtual. At the Pratt, curator and writer Saima Adil Sitwat presents her series “Becoming American,” featuring vignettes and videos of ten immigrant women who live in Maryland, along with writers Eman Quotah and Nadia Hashimi, business owner Mariam Thakkur, and Maryland State Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk. 

At noon, a live/virtual panel, “Black Girls: Bone Black & Breathing,” will discuss the “interior and public lives of Black girlhood” and coming of age through works of poetry, film, and story. This panel features filmmaker and poet Nia June with writers Glory Edim, DaMaris Hill, and Kai Harris, in conversation with Jamesha Caldwell, the co-director of A Revolutionary Summer.


CityLit 2022: Black Girls: Bone Black and Breathing, featuring Glory Edim, Nia June, DaMaris Hill, and Kai Harris, moderated by Jamesha Caldwell


Also at noon, in person at the Pratt, is the 90-minute craft intensive entitled “The ‘Real’ Business of Writing Creative Nonfiction: You Can’t Make It Up,” featuring Angela Carroll, Ron Cassie, Kristina Gaddy, and me. We’ll be presenting our own work and discussing how we craft engaging nonfiction essays and articles through research, investigation, and close observation. The keynote conversation with Hannah-Jones follows, from 2-4 p.m., both live and virtual.

Attendees who plan ahead can sign up for one-on-one 30-minute critique sessions, occurring throughout that day, with editors Bret McCabe, Karen Houppert, Nora Belblidia, Rosalia Scalia, Laura Ballou, and Chelsea Lemon Fetzer. 


Then you get a few days off to absorb all of that. On Tuesday, March 15, the award-winning novelist Kiese Laymon leads a master class called “Keeping It in the House,” which will explore “virtue and villainy in our writings about home.” Through reading and writing exercises, Laymon and the attendees will be challenged to think through not only “the harm we might have experienced at home, but the harm we might have caused.” 


CityLit 2022: Masterclass with Kiese Laymon


Avoiding conflict with the AWP Writers Conference, there’s a gap in programming the week of March 20-27, but it picks back up with a live finale at the Motor House theater. “How We Get Free: Birth of Promise” features authors Christine Platt, Chloe Dulce Louvouezo, and Kristoffer Carter in conversation with Alanah Nichole. The first half hour features a coaching session with Carter, followed by a talk with the authors “on ways to clear space and closets for the good coming, for ways to embrace self-examination.”

Lastly, to mark the start of National Poetry Month, on Friday, April 1, CityLit hosts “Killing Rage: A Festival of Poets” at the Baltimore location of Busboys & Poets, with musical guest Like Water and poets Jasmine Mans, Burji Zenhaeusern, Marjan Naderi, Dora Malech, and many more.

All but two of the 2022 CityLit Festival programs are entirely free for attendees, and all live events require proof of full vaccination and masks. The one-on-one critique sessions and the Master Class with Kiese Laymon cost $10 to attend, but Du Pree says that CityLit doesn’t want cost to be a barrier for writers eager to learn: “If they contact us directly, we will make it happen.”

Many of the challenges during the pandemic have ultimately helped CityLit “grow up,” Du Pree says. As it grows, Du Pree wants CityLit to provide more resources for more writers, while still remaining accessible. Knowing that the organization can adapt and change—going from a jam-packed single-day festival to a monthlong hybrid one and managing all the logistical details this requires—makes Du Pree excited for the future. “It means we get to take a few more risks,” she says, adding that maybe one day they’ll incorporate music, dance, and visual art into the programming. “There are so many ways to be more innovative to bring literature front and center to our arts community. It doesn’t belong in one box.”


CityLit 2022: How We Get Free: The Birth of Promise, featuring Chloe Dulce Louvouezo, Kristoffer Carter, and Christine Platt, moderated by Alanah Nichole


This article was made possible with support from CityLit Project. BmoreArt is a partner of the 2022 CityLit Festival, along with partners Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland Centers for Creative Classrooms, Maryland Humanities, Arts Education in Maryland Schools, Motor House, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Busboys and Poets – Baltimore, and the Ivy Bookshop.


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