The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fiftieth post on Cleveland, Ohio, by Michael Croley. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor
Even these days, with all the talk of Ruin Porn and Rust Belt Chic and the great renaissance taking place across the burned out factory towns of the great Midwest, mention Cleveland and it’s more often than a not as a punch line. In a recent issue of The New Yorker America’s newest sweetheart, Lena Dunham, wrote about an an “ironic” trip she and her friends took to Cleveland while in college to visit the Salvation Army.
But as someone who lived in Cleveland for three years and who met his future wife there, I don’t know what’s so ironic or funny about Cleveland (much less a Salvation Army). It’s a great old city that hangs onto its history. Yes, the river is crooked and, yes, it burned. But let’s get past the smoke. Clevelanders are proud, noble people and have a vibrant arts culture that boasts world-class talent, all within the city’s University Circle Neighborhood. In a matter of minutes residents can walk from the Cleveland Museum of Art to Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra (one of the “Big Five”), and then down the street to the brand new onyx gem built by the Museum of Contemporary Art. Cleveland also boasts the nation’s second largest theater district at Playhouse Square, and there is a vibrant restaurant scene across the city’s many neighborhoods east and west.
There’s a lot more to the city than Ralphie’s house from A Christmas Story—based on the story by Jean Shepherd. The literary tradition is long and storied—and growing—and includes Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Susan Orlean and Andy Borowitz.
Cleveland is blessed with storytellers of all stripes. They include: Dan Chaon (@DanChaon), Imad Rahman (@ImadRahman1), Paula McClain, George Bilgere (@GeorgeBilgere), Phil Metres, Dave Lucas (@DWL929), Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle), Mary Doria Russell (@MDoriaRussell), Claire McMillan (@ClaireMcMill), Alissa Nutting (@AlissaNutting), Michael Garriga, Loung Ung (@LoungUng), Thrity Umirigar, Sarah Gridley, Catherine Wing and Michael Oatman among others.
Beside the ones mentioned already, Mark Winegardner’s Crooked River Burning is an ode to the city he still calls home, and Dave Lucas’s first book of poems, Weather, is one gorgeous love song about his hometown. Salvatore Scibona’s The End fictionalizes the city’s Italian immigrant community. For lovers of graphic novels, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series called Cleveland home, as did the author. And Drew Carey’s show was set here, but I don’t think Clevelanders are very happy when that’s brought up to them. I’d avoid it—and the reruns.
Where to learn:
The area hosts four colleges, with working writers at each: Baldwin-Wallace, Case Western Reserve, Cleveland State, and John Carroll University. The Northeast Ohio MFA (NEO-MFA) is a consortium of four universities—Cleveland State University, Kent State University, The University of Akron, and Youngstown State University. Students can study with an array of writers, rotating campuses throughout their time in the program.
For the career set, Ohio City Writers is a nonprofit entity located in this near West Side neighborhood known for its microbreweries. Ohio City Writers sponsors readings at the Happy Dog Café (I like the kimchi dog) and offers classes in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
Where to find reading material:
Visible Voice Books in Tremont is a boutique shop that has both new and used books. Buy a glass of wine upon entering the door and then browse the cozy and well-organized shelves. There is a small reading room upstairs and acoustic concerts, wine tastings, readings and signings take place on the patio in summer.
Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights is a bibliophile’s dream. Lots of space and lots of first edition and rare books here. You can still find bestsellers, but if you’re hunting for something rare, this is the place to start. They also happily place special orders.
Mac’s Backs on Coventry has a pass through to Tommy’s, where you can get one of the best milkshakes on planet earth (I like peach). The sellers here know their literature and are always friendly and helpful. No other bookstore in the area promotes local writers as well as Mac’s. Readings are held downstairs in the basement.
Where to get published:
The best place to publish is with the CSU Poetry Center. From its website:
The Poetry Center is committed to acquiring, through first-book and open-book competitions, stylistically distinctive and skillfully crafted collections from an aesthetically diverse range of authors. The Poetry Center is proud to have published works by such poets as David Baker, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Thomas Lux, Claudia Rankine, Tim Seibles, and Franz Wright. Recent and forthcoming titles include collections by Helena Mesa, Mathias Svalina, Allison Titus, Liz Waldner, Allison Benis White, Eliot Khalil Wilson, and Sam Witt.
Also housed at CSU is Whiskey Island Review, publishing poetry and prose.
Where to write:
If you like working in coffee shops, my favorites are Loop in Tremont, which also sells vinyl albums (really good ones) and other music. It’s a great break from the usual coffee and laptop crowd and they usually spin great songs here too. Civilization in Tremont is also another fine place to work, but it can be busy. On the east side of town Luna Bakery Café has great scones and coffee, and during its quiet hours can be a productive and vibrant scene. But they have no outlets for plugs, thus limiting your time in the shop.
Lastly, Phoenix Coffee on Lee has the traditional coffee house vibe replete with comfy chairs, workspaces, and hipster baristas. When you’re done with your Joe (and work for the day) head to Tavern Company (TavCo) across the street and have a burger.
If coffee shops aren’t your scene (they aren’t mine) my favorite place to work is the Cleveland Museum of Art, where you can look at one of the world’s finest art collections for free. There are two cafes with lots of seating that are rarely busy.
The most vibrant reading series is Brews and Prose, which takes place at Market Garden Brewery in Ohio City. The once monthly series is held the first Tuesday and has sought to highlight local authors living in the Cleveland area. Many of the writers mentioned above have appeared or will appear in the future. Co-founded by myself and Dave Lucas, along with Matt Stipe, one of MGB’s general managers, the reading series regularly hosts 100 guests, to listen to two readers a night with an intermission. Guests eat and drink from MGB’s own in-house beers, creating an environment where literature was meant to be enjoyed: In public with friends and drinks.
The local colleges have acclaimed reading series as well, particularly John Carroll and CSU, but the public library’s Writers and Readers series brings the best of contemporary journalism and literature to the area. Past guests in recent years include, Jodi Kantor, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, Rebecca Skloot, and Temple Grandin. Not to be outdone, the Cuyahoga County Library system’s Writers Center Stage features award winners at Playhouse Square. Still to come in this year’s lineup are Ann Patchett, Rita Dove and Erik Larson. Past writers include Jhumpa Lahari, Emma Donaghue, David Rakoff, Richard Russo, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Lastly, when you don’t want to do any more reading or writing, and when you’re filled up on coffee, be sure to check Cleveland Institue of Art’s Cinematheque, which offers the best in foreign and cult films.
Michael Croley was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Corbin, Kentucky. A graduate of the creative writing programs at Florida State and the University of Memphis, his work has won awards from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Key West Literary Seminars and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His stories regularly appear in Narrative, where he was named to their list of “Best New Writers” in 2011. His other fiction and criticism has been published in Blackbird, The Louisville Review, The Southern Review, Fourth Genre, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released in 2013. He lives in Granville, Ohio and teaches creative writing at Denison University.