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Principle of Abundance: Carla Du Pree and CityLit Project

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Carla Du Pree lives for the day where there’s only reading and writing. No work—just the sheer joy of curious study. This dream is a key driver for her work as an arts advocate. “I rarely think in terms of lack,” says Du Pree, executive director of CityLit Project. “I always think of how much, how high, and how something can get done that has yet to be seen or encountered. I have been warned about wanting to do too much with few resources.”

Du Pree’s profound surrender to the principle of abundance has allowed her advocacy to flourish, especially CityLit Project, a Baltimore literary nonprofit founded by Gregg Wilhelm in 2004. CityLit Project offers three annual signature events, including CityLit Festival, CityLit Stage at the Baltimore Book Festival, and CityLit Studio—a space for published authors to talk to serious writers about the craft and profession of writing. CityLit Project has given a platform for 80 authors for one signature event to share their work, including Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo, and MacArthur “Genius” grantees Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Claudia Rankine, just to name a few.

 

From an early age, Du Pree didn’t just love art, she devoured it. Drawing, playwriting, singing, and dancing—you name it, she dabbled in it. Her father was in the military, so her big family lived all over the world, from her birthplace of El Paso, Texas, to Aschaffenburg, Germany, before eventually settling in southern New Jersey. The family saw themselves as a loving, free-spirited unit. “We were rich in the culture of family and our identity, [and] that abundance ran wide and deep,” Du Pree says. “We were who we had.”

With five imaginative siblings and two encouraging parents, Du Pree’s creativity thrived. The Ashanti Queens, a theatre troupe formed with her sisters, performed on army bases, at the New Jersey Arts Council, and other special events. Their dance troupe, The Willingboro Afro-American Ballet Troupe, choreographed performances inspired by contemporary dance, ballet, theatre, and poetry.

Du Pree always had a knack for identifying people’s potential. “My sister Des and I had a way of spotting talent and teasing out the gifts in people we met,” she remembers. “We took them in and breathed possibility and promise into each and every one of them. We had the most popular and the least suspecting in our arts collective.”

 

What a travesty for a child who loved words to be 11 before she saw herself in a poem.
Carla Du Pree

Along with performance, poetry was always at Du Pree’s window. To her, anything could be a poem—the way somebody walked across the street; the clouds moving while she lay on her back. At the tender age of 11, she discovered a trove of Black writers. Browsing the bottom shelves of the New Jersey Willingboro Public Library, skinny knees on the carpet, she discovered Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Carolyn Rodgers, and Sonia Sanchez, among others. It was also at that library that she stole the only book she’s ever stolen—Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement by Nikki Giovanni—and never looked back. “What a travesty for a child who loved words to be 11 before she saw herself in a poem,” Du Pree says.

Throughout her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Du Pree wrote poetry. After graduating in 1978, she began a professional career as a trader at Mellon Bank, staying connected to the literary scene as founding fiction editor of the lit mag Shooting Star Review, freelance writing, and through writers groups.

She left Pittsburgh in the early 1990s to pursue an MA at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. In Baltimore, Du Pree began to identify as a fiction writer. Though she may no longer write poetry, she cherishes the words of her late friend, Lucille Clifton, who told her, “once a poet, always a poet.” When Clifton passed, Du Pree spoke about their friendship at the poet’s service. There she met Joanne V. Gabbin, co-creator of Furious Flower, one of the first academic conferences on Black poetry. Gabbin was impressed by Du Pree and soon invited her to join the Wintergreen Women’s Writers’ Collective, co-founded with Nikki Giovanni.

Du Pree was awe-struck upon meeting Giovanni. She called her family and said, “Nikki Giovanni is frying chicken in the kitchen!” It was a wonder for her to meet the same Black poet in whose words she had seen herself so deeply that she snuck them out of the library as a little girl.

 

These formative experiences showed Du Pree the power and stability that a creative community provides. This inspires her current work advocating for artist opportunities, funding, and resources—despite the constant challenges inherent to the job. Grant writing is an exhausting yet necessary obstacle. Paying artists fairly also proves difficult in an economy that does not value artists’ labor. Promoting programs and reaching diverse audiences is another hurdle. And it all goes back to one thing: money. But Du Pree does not let these challenges discourage her.

Instead, her abundance mindset has helped her seek sustainable solutions for CityLit since becoming executive director in 2016, when Wilhelm retired. Though she is the sole staff member, she is aided by her board: Francis G. “Bunky” Markert, Dana Harris-Trovato, Aditya Desai, Brian Davis Lyles, Chelsea Lemon Fetzer, and Tracy Dimond. Du Pree speaks proudly of her board members, saying they’re a “boss team of spirited people who, because they are writers, get this work.”

Despite 2020 being one of the most difficult years on record for working artists, CityLit was able to secure a grant from three major literary organizations: the National Book Foundation, Academy of American Poets, and the Community of Literary Magazine & Presses—with the acknowledgement that the larger national literary community recognizes and is proud of the work CityLit, a small Black-led organization, is doing in Baltimore.

During the pandemic, CityLit continued to play an active role in supporting artists in Baltimore and around the world. The 18th annual CityLit Festival—traditionally held over a weekend—was expanded into a month-long virtual program. George Saunders taught the largest ever masters class, reaching folks as far away as Singapore, New Zealand, and Brazil. The Writers Room featured informal conversations with notable writers such as Nikki Finney and Terrance Hayes. And the speaker series, The Invisible Invincible Asian American: Telling Our Stories, celebrated Asian American writers, poets, playwrights, and graphic storytellers.

 

Why can’t we invest more heavily in artists’ retreats in such a way that if an artist took three weeks off from their paying job to nurture their talent, they would still get paid, have adequate health and child care?
Carla Du Pree

CityLit also helped found the first-ever Scribente Maternum retreat, an annual fall residency for writers who are mothers. While virtual in its infancy, this retreat has already connected 43 women writers all over the nation, further building upon both their community and craft. A “you deserve to be here” fund was also created, for writers to donate and help those who otherwise would not have been able to attend.

Today, Du Pree’s writing life is nurtured not only by working with and for other writers but also by attending writing residencies, including Hedgebrook, Rhode Island Writers of Color Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. These retreats have been pivotal to Du Pree’s growth as a writer, helping her build community, affirm her writing gift, and produce work alongside other artists of all disciplines. Du Pree believes that higher investment in artists’ retreats is crucial and that more can be done to nurture Maryland’s artists.

Lack of philanthropic support for artists’ retreats troubles Du Pree into asking serious questions, challenging the paradigm of the “starving artist.” Du Pree asks, “Why can’t we invest more heavily in artists’ retreats in such a way that if an artist took three weeks off from their paying job to nurture their talent, they would still get paid, have adequate health and child care?”

These long-held concerns led Du Pree to deepen her understanding and commitment to artists in this state by accepting an invitation in 2012 to join the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC). Her time as chair of the MSAC Diversity Outreach Committee was pivotal to her journey as an arts advocate. During and beyond this time, she has continued to create spaces that highlight and support artists of marginalized communities by establishing equitable grant-making policies and weaving diversity, equity, and inclusion policies into the fabric of MSAC’s work.

Fortunately, Du Pree’s 11-year-old knees on the carpet of that New Jersey library left an indelible scar on her creative psyche. She used that early confrontation with the need for representation to catapult her into a career that serves her creative community. Creating abundance for artists throughout Maryland—despite a pandemic and other systemic barriers—has allowed Du Pree to mold lack into plenitude. “When you have art in your life,” she says, “you are continuously awakening to what’s possible.”

 

*****

The 2022 CityLit Festival is ongoing through the month of March. Check out BmoreArt’s preview of the hybrid festival’s events and programs, which includes a full day, in-person, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Branch on Saturday, March 12. For more info on the events, go to CityLit’s website.

 

This story is from Issue 12: More is More,

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