Daniel Thompson, Cuyahoga County's poet laureate, realizes he could be sweeping floors Saturday night instead of doing a reading. But as he once told a judge who had assigned a fellow bard 300 community service hours: "This guy's a poet -- he shouldn't be sweeping floors!"
Instead, Thompson will be aboard the Coventry Magic Bus, administering a free reading to passengers en route to Cain Park's Glory Bound folk music tribute. He's a beneficiary of his own social works program, which allows artists to log community service hours by doing art.
"I'm like an indentured poet," Thompson admits. "I keep getting traffic tickets, and I keep doing community service hours."
At 66, Thompson has a long history of social work. A graduate of Kent State, with degrees in English, philosophy, and sociology, he worked for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s before returning to Cleveland Heights in the '70s. That's when he got involved in the criminal justice system "as a participant" -- when he was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Since then, he has amassed a résumé on the right side of the law that includes work as a rehab counselor, a "people's bondsman" (he created a community bail fund), and the founder of a hotline for inmates. He currently works with the homeless and is the community service liaison for Cleveland Public Theatre, the only local agency that facilitates Thompson's art-as-service plan.
"We have non-artists doing community service here as well," explains James Levin, the theater's founder and artistic director. "If they're a painter, then that's what we have them do. If they happen to be artists, we just hope they can do their thing."
CPT's long involvement with community service programs inspired Thompson to center his work-service concept at the theater. And in hindsight, Levin sees Thompson's program as much more than just a community service.
"I see it as a community need," he says. "On the day that we no longer have live performing arts, we may as well collectively . . . roll over and die."
The opportunity to read on the Coventry Magic Bus -- a Cleveland Heights shuttle that ferries people to events -- came about when Thompson, emerging from another stint in court, ran into the bus's operator. He suggested Thompson read on the shuttle, and Thompson suggested he clock the hours for the court.
"Wherever I work, I involve my poetry," Thompson says. "And I'm a community activist kind of person -- I just have to do community things."
He had to find a way to keep himself out of trouble, too. On the way home from his last court date, Thompson got another ticket -- right in front of his house. "I don't know, it's like I'm on a bad streak," he laughs. "I made an illegal right turn. Now that Bush is in, I didn't think there was an illegal right turn in America."
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