21st Annual CityLit Festival Takes On “Dismantling the Culture of Silence”

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Hearing the excitement in Carla Du Pree’s voice when she talks about the 2024 CityLit Festivalyou just know it’s going to be incredible. 

“This is a love letter to Baltimore,” says Du Pree, executive director of the CityLit Project, describing the annual festival, now in its 21st year. The line-up of events began with a poetry reading featuring Mahogany L. Brown at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company on April 12; continues with a masterclass by Jami Attenberg at Greedy Reads (Remington location) this Friday, April 19; and culminates with a full-day festival at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday, April 20th.

True to Du Pree’s intent, the itinerary does read like a love letter, with many of the festival’s featured writers having roots in the city—including poet and educator Kwame Alexander, one of CityLit’s founders, who gave the festival its name. Baltimore-centric panels, like the returning “The ‘State’ of Baltimore” and the new Greater Baltimore Alliance’s showcase of the 2024 BAKER Artist Literary Finalists, fit within the festival’s 2024 theme, Dismantling the Culture of Silence.

 “It was really, really clear to me… that we had to manage the silencing that’s taking place… with women, with different cultures, with AI showing up, with book bans,” Du Pree reflects. She hopes this year’s festival is opening the door for those conversations.

One reason CityLit keeps Baltimore’s writers engaged year after year is this close attention to what’s going on not only in the literary world but also in Baltimore and the world at large. This year’s festival includes panels on contemporary trans poetics and Palestinian-American writers in conversation. Another reason is that the festival’s signature all-day event remains free, breaking down barriers to attendance and making it possible for writers in all stages of their careers to come together. Most of all, CityLit exhibits one of the best things about Baltimoreits interconnectedness. 

I first attended the festival years ago when it was held at The University of Baltimore, where I was in the MFA program, and this year, one of my professors from that program and its former director, remarkable poet Kendra Kopelke, is participating in the CityLit Writer’s Room talk, “Writing While Aging: We’re Not Done Yet.”

While remaining true to its mission of fostering Baltimore’s literary community and bringing readers and writers together, the festival has also evolved over the years. 

“It’s become a lot more diverse,” Du Pree explains. “It speaks to the audience that we serve. We realize Maryland is an emerging majority state… We want to pay attention to who’s in our audience… We’re trying not to leave people out; it’s a huge task.”

Each spring, I eagerly await the CityLit lineup announcement and every year, I am astonished by the amount of local and nationally recognized talent I get to hear in conversation in my hometown for free. This time, I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to ask two exceptional writers and participating authors about their journeys as storytellers, their recent books, and the importance of local literary festivals like CityLit. 

Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, publisher, Emmy-Award-winning producer, and The New York Times bestselling author of 40 books, including This is the Honey, Why Fathers Cry at Night, The Crossover, and The Undefeated. His books have been shortlisted for the prestigious UK Carnegie Medal, nominated for the National Book Award, named the Newbery Honor Book, and won the Caldecott Medal.

Jami Attenberg is The New York Times bestselling author of eight books of fiction, including The Middlesteins, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the memoir I Came All This Way to Meet You, and, most recently, the USA Today bestselling writing guide 1000 Words. She is also the founder of the annual #1000WordsofSummer project.

Jami Attenberg, photo by Bryan Tarnowski
Kwame Alexander, photo by Rowan Daly

As a writer, I am always curious to hear the origin stories of other writers. Kwame, could you please tell me when and how you came to write?

Kwame Alexander: My first book came out in 1991. I’d been writing a lot of love poems and submitting poetry to journals and magazines and got a lot of rejections. I grew up in a house with a father who was a book publisher, so I knew how to publish books. I decided, instead of being sad or complaining that my poems weren’t being published, that I would publish them myself. So I started a company and began publishing my own books. After a few years of doing that, I moved from DC to Baltimore and lived in an apartment called The Marylander in Charles Village, where I began to publish other writers as well.

The name of the company was Black Words Press. I think it was 1993 or ‘94 that I lived in Charles Village, 3501 St. Paul Street. And in the basement of The Marylander, there was this office space that was empty. I talked to the management about renting it, and they rented it to me for $300 a month. So I set up my publishing company in the basement, in this office, and we began to publish other writers. I’d write my own stuff and then publish other writers, especially Baltimore writers. And that was sort of the beginning of my professional career as a writer and as a book publisher.

Jami, what was your journey as a writer and how did you first become interested in storytelling?

Jami Attenberg: Oh I’ve always been a writer, since I was very young, just naturally drawn to writing down stories and reading everything I could get my hands on. And then I went to school for it; I was a Writing Seminars major at Johns Hopkins. After graduation, I was always making zines and putting stuff out online, and I worked in advertising for a long time, until I finally pulled a story collection together. 

Kwame, one way I’ve heard you describe This Is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets is as a place to find not just the woe but also the wonder, the beauty, and the everyday of Black lives. How did the idea for this book come about, and how did you choose which poems to include among the brilliance of contemporary Black poetry?

KA: Well, you know, when you curate an anthology, and answering that questionhow did you choose?that’s a whole book in and of itself. 

I’ve spent thirty years as a writer. I’ve spent fifty years as a reader. The culmination of all of that work and passion and development of craft and enjoyment of literatureit all feeds into this moment where I am trying to decide what are the themes in the anthology that I want to explore. What are the kinds of poems that I want to include? It’s not really a simple kind of approach where you just decide, oh, I’m looking for this. You’re looking for the things that have inspired, empowered, engaged, entertained, informed you over your entire writerly career and your life. And so you know what you know, and you know what you want, and you just approach it like that. 

What I can tell you is that I knew that I wanted renowned poets in the book. I knew that I wanted my peers, people I’ve been working with, or reading, or knowing for thirty years. People like Reginald Harris, whom I met in Baltimore thirty years ago. And I wanted new writers who hadn’t had an opportunity to be exposed on a national or international stage like that. I knew I wanted that sort of triumvirate of writers to be included in the book.

But in terms of how I chose the poems and how I decided, that’s a lifetime of reading and writing that has informed me in a way that allows me to create a book, an anthology that I would first love, and then hopefully, the readers would as well.

Kwame Alexander, photo by Rowan Daly

Mahogany L. Browne, whose poem “This Is the Honey” gave the anthology its title, is also part of CityLit this year, a festival that you helped found. Can you discuss the importance of fostering a literary community, some ways you do this, and the impact of local events like CityLit?

KA: I love to write; it’s my job, but my mission has been to give as many writers as possible opportunities that I always wanted for myself. 

And so, whether it be publishing books, whether it be starting a book festival (I also ran a book festival in DC called The Capital Book Fest), whether it be hosting writers’ retreats (I’ve hosted writers’ retreats in the States, in Tuscany, in Brazil, and Ghana), whatever it is, I’m all about that collective writerly work. I feel like it’s my responsibility. And I also know that if you want to change the world, you can’t do it by yourself. So I spent a great deal of my time trying to foster community because I know how valuable it is and how valuable it’s been to me. And I want to make it a big part of my work.

Jami, I am so excited that #1000WordsofSummer is happening again in June. Could you talk about how this accountability project led to your creativity book, 1000 Words: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Long? How did you know it was time to write this book?

JA: It was just a fun thing to do online for a few years. But soon enough, we had thousands and thousands of people joining in. And people started making real strides in their life because of their participation in it: getting agents, selling books, building cohorts. I never would have thought of doing a book out of it because writing fiction is my real job. But somewhere around year five of doing the project, I began to have a real understanding of how it worked and why it was helpful to people. So making the book is just an extension of something that is already helpful. I consider it an offering to the community we’ve all built together.

How will your Master Class at the CityLit Festival relate to this year’s theme, Dismantling the Culture of Silence, and what do you hope the attendees take away from it?

JA: Well, the title of the class is “Shut Up & ‘Speak’: Ways to shut down the noise and write your next best thing.” So I hope to inspire people to value their stories and think about ways to work through the distractions, either external or internal. Because I believe that everyone’s story is important, and we all deserve the freedom to speak.

What do you enjoy most about participating in literary events, and how do local literary festivals like CityLit’s contribute to the broader cultural landscape?

JA: I like to meet peoplereaders and writers alike! I work at home by myself most of the time so it’s great to see that there’s a real world out there of people engaged in literature and culture and thinking. Literary festivals are so important! They bring people together so we can all exchange ideas and connect with our community. We would be nowhere without our community.

Jami Attenberg, photo by Bryan Tarnowski

Kwame, I’ve watched video clips of you speaking at schools and interacting with kids. There’s a real mutual sense of excitement and joy! How does it feel to be a literary hero to kids? What do you hope that they take away from these meetings? Did you have literary heroes that you had the opportunity to meet?

KA: My parents were my literary heroes. My father wrote sixteen books. My mother wrote a couple of books. As a kid, I wasn’t that excited about it because I wanted to play video games and play with my friends. But of course, when I look back on it, there’s no way I am who I am without my parentswho nurtured and raised me to become the writer I am. I think of my college professor, Nikki Giovanni. I think I’ve strived to do for young readers what Nikki and my parents have done for me. The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child. And if you want to create beautiful, smart, connected, empathetic human beings as adults, you start with them as kids. And I had a lot of that kind of literary love in my life.

I understand that my responsibility with this talent or gift that’s been bestowed upon me is to do the same thing. So that’s what I try to do. I take it as a responsibilitythis job that I have, this work that I do. It so happens I love it, so it doesn’t feel like work. I think what you’re seeing when you see these pictures is these kids are reflecting the joy and the excitement that I have of being able to do this thing that I love doing and hoping that it has an impact on them, like it did on me.


Visit CityLit Project’s website for more information on the 21st Annual CityLit Festival.

You can find an overview of the events upcoming on April 20th HERE.

Header Image: Jami Attenberg, photo by Bryan Tarnowski and Kwame Alexander, photo by Rowan Daly

Images courtesy of Jami Attenberg, Kwame Alexander, and CityLit Project

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