On Writing, Representation, and Baltimore’s 20th Annual CityLit Festival

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When I first moved to Baltimore from New York, as a writer, I had one question above all. Where will I find my people? Within weeks, I heard on my car radio that there was a free literary festival coming up, hosted by an organization called CityLit Project. I thought it sounded worth a try.

I had loved attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP), but was a new mom that year and couldn’t make the registration fee or manage the travel. So I was a bit in awe when after only a short drive and for no cost at all I found, in the CityLit Festival, a comparably legit bliss of writers and book lovers. 

James McBride, who had just won the National Book Award, was reading from his new novel. I caught a poetry panel with Lia Purpura. D. Watkins introduced himself to my kid with a generous smile and invited us to his reading, turning me into an instant fan. At the festival’s marketplace, I got to talking with local publications, other literary organizations, and authors. This is when I knew Baltimore could be home to me. 

The possibilities of community connection are not always straightforward when it comes to the literary arts. Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. But when we come together—to hear how a story or a poem sparks new as an author reads it, to talk through the hard and the magic process of writing, to celebrate— it can be transformational. This is what CityLit makes easy. And its accessible, inclusive mission was such a salve to me that nine years since my first festival, I am on the working board of the organization. 

Founded by Gregg Wilhelm in 2004 and powered since 2016 by Executive Director, Carla Du Pree, CityLit Project is a small, grassroots organization. Its signature festival is always free. Yet it has never compromised on bringing the most to our city’s writers and readers. 

Flier for CityLit Festival 2023
Flier for CityLit Festival 2023
Flier for CityLit Festival 2023
Full Flier for 2023 CityLit Festival

This year marks the 20th annual CityLit Festival. And for the first time since the pandemic, the panels, readings, and performances will be fully back in person. It will be a three-day, three-venue event taking place March 25th, 28th, and 31st. And, as is Du Pree’s way, she saw fit to make it big. Huge actually, by my measure, as this year, among its lineup of local and nationally renowned writers, the festival will include a reading and conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

Harjo is the author of ten books of poetry, two memoirs, three children’s books, several plays, and seven music albums. She has been recognized with a landslide of awards and honors including the Guggenheim Fellowship, Academy of American Poets Leadership Award, and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Since my first encounter with her poem, “She Had Some Horses” in my early twenties, I have turned to her books countless times: to cast away fear, to take a breath, to “Remember the sky…” Harjo joins Du Pree upon the top tier of my literary heroes. And so, what an honor it was when both agreed to have a conversation with me. 

Photo by Schaun Champion
Photo by Shawn Miller

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

Chelsea Lemon Fetzer: Carla, you have been steadfast in finding the way for Joy Harjo to come to Baltimore. What about connecting her to our city inspired this invitation from CityLit?

Carla Du Pree: I met Joy many years ago, 2005 I think it was. And it was clear to me that she was a poet for the people. It’s one thing to read a poet’s words, but it’s another to see a poet speak their poems. And for me, Joy was an experience. I’ll never forget how she claimed that stage. It was magical for me as a writer. Joy brought a depth and energy to her work. When you meet a writer like that, a poet like that, you don’t wanna keep it to yourself. It’s a gift you wanna give to everybody. And I wanted more people, in fact, more people of color to know Joy’s work. It’s very important for me to get her to be in a city audience of young and old poets and poets from different cultures. 

Joy, you served three terms as the 23rd Poet Laureate in the United States from 2019 to 2022. That was square in the pandemic and an especially isolating and divisive time both in our country and in the world. What do you hope you brought to our national understanding of poetry through these life altering years?

Joy Harjo: People came to understand how really important poetry was in their lives during those three years. Not because of me, I was just the person holding the door open. But it was because of the pandemic, earth changes, political unrest, racial inequities, and struggles. All of that was coming to a head during that time. And then we were sequestered.  I suppose we were supposed to have a timeout. It would’ve been worse, maybe in a way if we hadn’t. It was a scary time in our [Muscogee Creek] culture. We lost a lot of people to COVID. A lot. And these are people that knew things that they took with them.

So during my tenure [as Poet Laureate], I also wanted to make sure people knew I wasn’t the only Native poet. That there were many. Because people were surprised. There was a study done recently by a group called Illuminative. They went out to gather statistics about Natives and Native presence and, you know, about 20% of the people they interviewed thought we’d all died. 

There are over 570 federally recognized Native peoples and communities all over. But maybe we hide out. I know a lot of our traditional tribal cultures hid, to save culture. But I hadn’t realized how, one: important images are and also, the dearth of images of Native people as human beings. So, to see a Native poet in a position was important.

Deb Haaland—in the position of [United States] Secretary of Interior—that was [also] a big one. And Deb, by the way, was my poetry student at the University of New Mexico. And we’ve been friends for years. I watched her come up as a young Native student writing and as a single mother. And I watched her sacrifice, and I watched her follow a vision that she carried even when people thought it would be impossible for her to affect any kind of power.

Carla, you fiercely prioritize diversity and inclusion in CityLit’s festivals and programs. You’ve spoken about your experience as a little girl, not seeing yourself reflected in books until the age of 11, when you found on a bottom shelf in your local library, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez among other Black poets. 

CDP: I laugh when people talk about diversity because people have been writing for years. But never a place to publish. Never a journal that invites them in; because sometimes voices have to be invited in. So it’s important to me to represent that. And that means investigating it: going to readings that I might be the only person of color there; or being the Black person at an Asian event. I have to be comfortable with discovering. I reach out to other Native American writers and say, okay, who do we need to represent? Because we can’t take one person and celebrate them without acknowledging all these other writers. And they’ve been around. So my thing is championing those voices that are not heard. They have stories that we need to hear. 

JH: That’s why I did the poetry project, Living Nations, Living Words—to show that there are a lot of Native poets. Coming up, all the people we read were mostly white men from New England or England. I remember catching a [Paul Laurence] Dunbar poem once or twice but that was it.

Then I was at the University of New Mexico, which was also in the early seventies. There was a huge divide in the department then. But I remember Leslie Silko was teaching a semester and she brought Ishmael Reed in.

Ishmael stirred it all up. He was a major part of the multicultural literary movement in the US which said “Look, America isn’t just these writers looking back to England. Look at all of us here. There are many peoples and cultures here. And why aren’t they in the literature that’s being taught? They’re just as important.”

And so, he broke ground that way. And he invited me to New York for the first time. That’s where I heard Jayne Cortez. And that’s how I started doing poetry with music. People think it’s John Trudell, but it was not. It was Jane. And Jane and I became good friends and I miss Jane. She was my inspiration. But, you know, that shifted things. 

Things have shifted. The publishing gatekeepers in the US seem awakening to the demands for more representation. Today, a Black or brown child in Baltimore will likely find all kinds of reflections within reach in their local library. How do you both see where we’ve come? 

JH: Now younger people, they get to read everyone. There are all kinds of different Native writers, different tribal nations, people from all over. A Black writer from Detroit is going to write differently. Everybody writes differently. But there’s such a diversity… It’s interesting, this generation. The last few months I’ve talked to a lot of people and been a lot of places and almost everybody is talking about this next wave: this generation of young people, of students. How incredible they are. Incredible writers and poets. They are born at a crucial and kind of scary but potent time for human development.

CD: And I think in this day and age, we can’t afford to just listen to one voice and one story because there are so many.

JH: There are so many. I went to Indian school, but it was an arts college. It was an experiment. But even then, it’s really struck me recently, how when I went to school and I later taught there for a while, there were still stoves surrounding one of my classrooms where just a generation before the curriculum was to teach young Native women to learn how to run stoves and to clean for people in town. 

I've always wanted my work to be useful. I had no plans to be a poet at all. It just took over. But I'm motivated by healing. 
Joy Harjo

Looking back at your incredible and influential life as an artist, Joy, what’s the path you’ve hoped to cultivate for these new generations of poets and creators? 

JH: Well, I’ve always wanted my work to be useful. I had no plans to be a poet at all. It just took over. But I’m motivated by healing. 

Carla, as the force that runs City Lit, you support and advocate for writers in our region and beyond it. But you’re also a writer. Can you talk a bit about your own creative work?

CDP: Yes, I’m a writer, thank you for asking. My novel’s called Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. In a way, it’s my parents’ story, but more so a representation of all military families who are unspoken for; all military Black families, I have to say. It’s a story about the interior lives of an ordinary Black family during an extraordinary time in the sixties…

You know, for a military family, home is hard to classify: always traveling on assignment, always moving, picking up one life to join another… And it’s a little bit about how families have skeletons in the past. The buried ones that you need to worry about. The ones that nobody wants to talk about. So that’s my story I’ve been working on for years. It’s one of many I’m trying to get out. 

JH: I want to read that. And also, if you grew up in that military family, it’s given you skills that you’re using today to be able to work with a lot of different kinds of people in community. That’s where you learned it. 

CDP: Exactly where I learned it. It was a different experience and it marked me in some ways. But I don’t think we hear enough about those stories. So I plan to write that story.

JH: I just finished well, I’ll do some more revisions, but I finally got the whole story together called, “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented.” It’s a story of a young band who are mostly Muskogee Creek. It’s a musical play. I started on it ten years ago and I love the characters in it. All kinds of characters.

CDP: I’m thanking you for saying you started it ten years ago. Because sometimes we think we have to hurry up a story. But, you know, the story comes when the story comes.

JH: That’s right. And finally, it’s together and I like being with the characters. It has to take its own time to ripen. And you have to be in a certain place to be able to get down how it needs to be.

CDP: Absolutely. I don’t know if this happens for you, Joy, but when I’m writing and I’m really, fully in it, it’s magical what happens. The way people come to me, they’ll come to me in dreams. Or phrases do. The way to end a chapter. 

JH: Yeah. It does. You’re a real writer Carla. That’s what happens. 

Photo by Schaun Champion

I wonder if you both can remember the first thing you wrote just for yourself. What compelled you to put pen to paper and what did it do?

JH: Well, I didn’t really start writing poetry until I was in my early twenties. And it’s been fifty years since I first published. At Indian school I was always a note passer, we used to pass notes. This was before phones and texting and all. We would get in our English class and the teacher had us reading fourth grade readers. And we were so bored out of our minds because our lives were so much richer in experience. So we would write, pass poems, and notes. Everybody. I remember writing limericks, silly limericks and stuff about teachers, which got me moved to a different class by myself. That was the first poem I think that I remember. I remember having fun with writing a limerick.

CDP: I have a large family and we always gathered in the kitchen while my mom and aunties were cooking. I always had a notebook in my hands and I’d write down what people would say. The idea of playing with words I always paid attention to. I remember when I first learned the power of a poem, I wrote one in high school, or it may have been middle school. And it was about the idea of seeing God. And, you know, at that point in time, every image of God was white man. Long hair. And that wasn’t my image. So I wrote a poem about that image, and he just happened to be brown and had thick hair. And that poem got me an award from the University of Rutgers.

Joy, you said you are working on a musical play. Many will know you as a poet, but you’re also a playwright, musician, performer, and memoirist. You have a third children’s book coming out this month, Remember. It’s from a poem I love reading to my daughters. 

JH: Yes. And with incredible artist, Michaela Goade. She got a Caldecott award for We Are Water Protectors. When she came on to do this one, she said, “I can research and draw images of people from your culture, but would you mind if I went with mine?” She was inspired. And so it’s Tlingit. It’s beautiful. One of my poetry ancestor mentors was poet Nora Dauenhauer, also Tlingit from Alaska, the same tribal nation as Michaela. And so I think this is great because it honors Nora and her gift to the world and to me. And I miss her. When I see this book and see the illustrations I think, “This is for you, Nora.”

Photo by Karen Kuehn
And to me, especially as a creative, you never just witness. You're always a participant. Because the way you feel about something that's happening on stage, it's going to resonate with you in some kind of way. And that's the connection part.
Carla Du Pree

It inspires me, all the different forms of work that you’ve brought to the world and the ways these have flowed for you. Carla, in a similar way the CityLit programs you develop are inclusive of all forms of the literary arts. And in addition, they always make space for performing artists, musicians, and dancers to join in the conversation. Why is this connectivity important to you both?

JH: Well, they are all connected. I think when poetry came into the world, music and dance were with it. I mean, they get lonely. And so it’s a natural thing. They’re all connected: image making. It’s all part of the same spirit.

CDP: You’re never one thing. Who said you had to be one thing? I know when I was growing up, people said, oh, are you a poet? Cause you couldn’t be a novelist if you were a poet. And my thing is, how dare you contain me. Right? I grew up with music in my ear all the time. We danced in the small of our bedrooms. And when I would listen to poetry, I’ll never forget, especially during the seventies, we would get together with congas, and we would recite poetry by drums. There’s no way an artist can be contained to do one thing. That music and those words, they belong together.

JH: That [disconnect] comes out of a society that thinks art isn’t participatory—where you are audience only, rather than art belonging to everyone and everybody having an ability to participate in one way or the other.

CDP: Absolutely. And to me, especially as a creative, you never just witness. You’re always a participant. Because the way you feel about something that’s happening on stage, it’s going to resonate with you in some kind of way. And that’s the connection part. And that’s why I tell people, you cannot only read poetry. You’ve got to hear it in your ears. Cause you hear it differently. The biggest joy is bringing someone who’s never been to a poetry reading. And there are people like that.

JH: Yes. I get a lot of them at my readings.

CDP: I don’t know if you know, Joy, CityLit is a very small organization. A grassroots kind of group. Four people that love stories got together and decided they wanted a book festival. And we’ve been operating since 2004. We have huge festivals and they’re entirely free. It’s always accessible and it’s always with emerging and established authors. We make it a point to have writers that look like the people in our city. We’re clear about that. So, it’s unique because our audience is usually very inclusive too. And we’re excited about you being here so you can enjoy the CityLit vibe where you get to just be yourself. Be the poet that you are.

JH: Thank you.

Joy, after the CityLit Festival, what else is on your Baltimore must do list?

JH: I always want to see the water… And you know, I’m going to rest.

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