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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A Young, Politically Engaged Group of Cleveland Poets is Building Community Through Art, On and Off the Page

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 9:42 AM

click to enlarge From left to right: Brendan Joyce, Katy Ring, J. David, Brendan Joyce, Billy Lennon, Matt Mitchell, Kevin Latimer - PHOTO BY KARIN MCKENNA
  • Photo by Karin McKenna
  • From left to right: Brendan Joyce, Katy Ring, J. David, Brendan Joyce, Billy Lennon, Matt Mitchell, Kevin Latimer

At its most basic and foundational level, an artistic movement is a shift in ideological persuasion. The disposition of the field is contrary to some position and a group, or many groups, will push back against it.

But I would argue, however, that there is a fractal nature to ideologies, that many are occurring in many disparate places. Therefore an artistic movement’s philosophical architecture is formed by the expansion or addition of its ideology into the prevailing culture, as well as the interactions that occur as a result.



This is precisely what’s happening in Cleveland, where there is an emerging cohort of young poets interested in writing outside of the institution. Their poems are ecstatic, inventive, and challenge the poetic establishment in ways reminiscent of The New York School. As a group, they prioritize collaboration, innovation, and service to the community. These poets, to name some, include Noor Hindi, Kevin Latimer, Brendan Joyce, Geramee Hensley, Katy Ring, DT McCrea, Angelo Maneage and Matt Mitchell.

Explicitly political and interested in dismantling the prevailing culture, The Cleveland School has already established a multitude of opportunities for the community to engage in poetry—The Starlight Elsewhere Reading, This Series is not on Netflix, the Joyland events, and more. In addition, their work extends to creating opportunities for writers themselves: founding independent literary journals that pay their writers, like Flypaper; running workshops for writers outside of the academy; engaging in a plurality of mentorship positions; creating Grieveland, a radical poetry press whose practices include paying authors 70% of each book sold; and the formation of The Cleveland Review of Books, run by Billy Lennon—one of the few regional book reviews paying authors professional rates and focusing on small presses.

Though the individual poets within the cohort differ in subject matter, their philosophical underpinnings all include the intent to dismantle the racist capitalist hetero-patriarchy and its associated systems. On the whole, the group believes in Leftist politics along with imagining and building better futures for marginalized communities. Their poetics transparently communicate this.
Noor Hindi, in her poem “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” observes the following:

Colonizers write about flowers.
I tell you about children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks
seconds before becoming daisies…

I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something dies.
Metaphors about death are for poets who think ghosts care about sound.
When I die, I promise to haunt you forever.
One day, I’ll write about the flowers like we own them.

Her poetics, while at times mistaken for a poetics of witness, does something far more useful—it participates. Hindi’s poetry engages in a decolonization of language and imagery as is clearly evidenced in the above section. A journalist by trade, Hindi spent the summer covering protests throughout Northeast Ohio with an incisive purpose of reframing the way media reports on society and illuminating the ways in which the journalistic endeavor has fallen short. This purpose leaks into her poetry as well (“Breaking News”):

In interviews, I frame my subject’s stories through a lens to make them digestible
to consumers.
I  become a machine. A transfer of information. They  become a plea for empathy,
an oversaturation of feelings we’ll fail at transforming into action.
What’s lost is incalculable.
          And at the end of  summer, the swimming pools will be gutted of  water.
          And it’ll be impossible to swim.


Hindi’s poems concern themselves with a politic of belonging, what constitutes home, decolonization, and reclamation of spaces.

In a similar vein, Geramee Hensley’s work examines the particulars of relationships — whether that be our relationship to a nation, our relationships with others, or our relationships with ourselves. While Hindi’s poetry exists often as an elevated lingual narrative, straight-forward and interested in conveying information, Hensley’s is experimental and variegated, intent on a poetics of excess and generosity (“One Million Pound Cloud”):

Hello I have a knife and I won’t stab you for resources…

Hello I have a bigger knife, it is growing now and I don’t know how to make it stop. Soon it will outgrow my hand then cleave whatever is in front of it…

Imagine you work for a living, imagine you have more than you need to live and someone says hello I have a knife and I won’t stab you for resources. Imagine a person attempting to delay their death by holding a knife and saying they deserve to live. Imagine what they were denied so someone you don’t know can own a private jet…

Suppose a private jet is a knife…


The ways in which this Cleveland School harkens back to the New York School are interesting and informative.

That school—a group of poets, dancers, painters, and musicians finding themselves in close proximity during the 1950s and ’60s in New York City—was, rather than a cadre of scholastic prominence, a loose association based on co-operation in similar fields around similar principles. The New York School, to put it as simply as possible, was a group of friends building community around art.

Their communal artistic interests were as varied as their members, and poets such as Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and Alice Notley found themselves collaborating with experimental painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning. Their poems also interested themselves with experimentation and alternate avenues of presentation, which found the artists surveying everyday moments, inserting levity and humor into work, consecrating the personal and intimate, and centering conversations with pop culture. They loved using quotations and names in their work, enjoyed documenting personal interactions, and stirring conversation between disciplines.

The poets in the group lived not simply non-normative lives, but anti-normative lives: John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara were explicit about their queerness in their work and lifestyles, Joe Brainard curated a practice of faux-naiveite, Alice Notley fashioned for herself a poetry of disobedience and a freedom of sexuality that was at that time a radical notion, and other members of the group participated in the construct of deviance in their own ways.

It was, in many ways, an island of misfit toys, but together became one of the most prominent groups of poets and artists in modern history. And though fame followed, it wasn’t that these poets became widely lauded and admired which made the movement special; it was their interest in community and collaboration.

Here, and now, it’s also what has separated and distinguished the Cleveland School. Take for example the work of Kevin Latimer, another experimental poet working in concert with Hindi and Hensley. He, along with Brendan Joyce, both of whom have long histories of organizing and activism, founded Grieveland—an independent poetry press focusing on radical art while avoiding labor exploitation and paying its authors a higher percentage of sales than any other press in the country.

Outside of the work done with Grieveland, Latimer is a prolific writer. His debut, ZOETROPE, formally restless and adventurous, takes on the task of reimagining grief, lineage, and the future (“TO THE BOYS IN THE WOUND IN THE GROUND”):

a hole opens up in the ground. no one dares go near it.
they call the site
condemned. little did they know in the depths
          of the night, boys dance casually around the hole’s iris; praying
in ritual. praying for the sun. for new beginnings. they pray for the rain to fall
& dance off their fingertips & fall into the nothing. every night these boys pray…


Latimer’s work deals with disaster—personal and societal—creating a compendium of imagistic renderings that collaborate with each other in an effort to create new realizations and futures (“NOTES”):

GOD: what are they doing up there?

BOY: surveying.

GOD: for what?

BOY: light.


Whereas Hensley and Latimer choose to enact a broad and expansive poetics, Hindi and Joyce carry a thoughtful and tactful specificity into their work. They are interested in observing and naming, in uncovering narratives that center everyone being silenced. Joyce is a master of poignant specificity, of drawing connections, elucidating within his work the architecture of our oppressions (“WEEKLY CLAIMS”):

…The conspiracy
of a dying empire is only to
kill faster…

The workplace & unemployment compensation
are different sides of the same grave…


These poets, like the New York School, also find themselves actively collaborating with visual artists, among them Angelo Maneage and Matt Mitchell, both of whom are exciting poets as well. Mitchell’s work, like that of Frank O’Hara and many of the other New York School poets, integrates pop culture along with tender poems directed at the rest of the cohort. His work demonstrates the ways in which art impacts the prevailing culture and seeks to work in the liminal spaces drawn between disciplines. There is a reckless abandon in Mitchell’s poems, one that enters with its hair ablaze and begins ripping apart the room until the discovery of something monumental (“MERRY CLAYTON BURIED HER CHILD IN A THROAT OF STARS”):

Merry Clayton carved a whole life out of a song she never listened to. Because that is what it’s like to inhabit the space of someone else’s grief: to fear hearing your own voice echo off the walls.

Though its members are colored by their particular obsessions and styles, the connective tissue among the Cleveland School poets is vast and encompassing. It includes a desire to re-communicate histories honestly, centering excluded voices and philosophies; reimagining better futures for excluded and oppressed communities; prioritizing activism and community-building; and fostering a culture of collaboration. But above all else, the group demonstrates a palpable understanding of the personal as political, this becoming the propulsion for their poetics.

The personal has always been political, and this is something the New York School believed. But don’t take their word for it, examine the facts—it is hard to escape notice that we live in a country inextricably tied in a global capitalist system devolved into corporatism; a country whose democracy is influenced by western values and individualist mores; a country infiltrated by perpetual data and technological monitoring at every incidence of opportunity. Because of this, I find myself unable to believe in any distance between the personal and political. We are an irreducible part of the system and take part in the corporate—whose influence in the political is both insidious and understandable in a capitalist system. This reaches into each aspect of our lives: when we wake, how we choose to rest, what we devote our time and energy to, what we spend our money on; these, just a minuscule sampling of our existence, will find ways to impact who is elected, fluctuations in various spectrums of personal rights, and even which people have what rights and when. Every action we take has political ramifications.

How can any poetry exist outside of this system? It can’t.

Poetry, though it resists commodification, and though it be an art, will never be apolitical. Whether you believe it to be an alternative form of knowing or just a cute occurrence of word-play, poetry will enter the world through an individual mind. And that mind is colored by its perceptive capabilities, its memories, and its societal placement. Each person brings to the table their socioeconomic standing; their privileges or lack-of in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and etc.; and their knowledge of disparities in the world. These factors color our expression every second of the day, and even too, despite the best of intentions, color our writing each time we enter into the possibility of the blank page to create poetry.

What turns up on the page can be many things — an action of community building, an action of documentation or journalism, a shepherd through grief, a template for emotional understanding, a call to direct action, a linguistic cudgel to change someone’s mind.

A poem is useful in the right circumstances, and for people living on the verge of financial collapse or an environmental apocalypse or civil rights violations, it is becoming increasingly necessary that we participate in radical change. Art can be a part of this radical change. However, it cannot be the sole form of participation.

This is where I believe the two poetic schools differ. On the whole, both groups believe in radical art—often times overtly political—but I feel their opinions diverge on the topic of activism, which was what the New York School hoped to inspire and believed art participated in. On the other hand, the Cleveland School believes activism to be separate from art and that it must be actively practiced as a radical form of expression in addition to the creation of overly political art.

I find myself siding concretely with the Cleveland School, being reminded of this quote by Toni Cade Bambara: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” This is the artist’s role, yes, but the artists too must participate in revolution as well.

Whenever I sit down to write, I think, as Noor Hindi says, “who is going to need this poem,” and the answer is becoming increasingly clear: immigrants, disenfranchised people, people of color, sick folks, queer individuals, those who are disabled, those who suffer from mental illness, and those languishing in poverty, to name but a sampling.

The guiding philosophy of the Cleveland School may still be developing, but it has always included the belief that community must sustain those who are most vulnerable and in doing so transform us in such a way as to be capable of creating a better world.

“Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now,” says Audre Lorde, and the Cleveland School is already at work.

Read selected works from some of the poets mentioned here.

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