In the heart of the Collinwood neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, I was sitting on a sofa in Twelve Literary and Performance Arts Incubator chatting with Poet Daniel Gray-Kontar about manufacturing and poetry. In our conversation, I brought up the poetic words of Erin O’Brien, editor of Fresh Water Cleveland, from her blog post “Tears and steel:”
I mourned for the Bridgeport milling machines as they carved a jagged skyline over this splendorous field of iron and steel. I mourned for the lathes waiting by patiently. I mourned for the stoic presses, so many silent soldiers. Clients browsing grinders and cutters eyed me curiously, then looked away when I set my camera upon the bed of a 20,000-pound press brake, removed my glasses and wiped my eyes with my sleeve. I mourned for all of it, but mostly I mourned for the men who wore heavy boots and carried their midday supper in a brown paper sack. They drank Carling’s Black Label at Joe’s Bar after a day spent machining things to a thousandth or better.
Daniel and I were brainstorming the idea of hosting a poetry event at his venue that showcases Cleveland’s history, old and new. In his words, “Cleveland history is all but gone. There’s the old Cleveland and the new Cleveland. There’s a new zeitgeist. Let’s launch the conversation between the post-industrial poets and the post-modern poets.”
The next challenge: How to find the post-industrial blue-collar workers who may not even identify as poets? There are a number of local poets who are known on the scene and who write about manufacturing and industry in The Rust Belt, including Larry Smith, Ray McNiece, Michael Salinger, Dave Snodgrass, Milenko Budimir, Mark Kuhar and Maj Ragain.
But, I mentioned that years ago I had seen some steel-mill poets read out at The James Wright Poetry Festival at The Martin’s Ferry Public Library on the border of Ohio and West Virginia. These weren’t well-known, published poets. These were salt-of-the-earth guys who worked in the steel mills, or used to work in the defunct steel mills. They wrote poems of grit and grime, hard work, family, loyalty, their roots, their teams, and the women who took care of them.
That’s in stark contrast to Generations Y and Z who are self-inventors, open to possibility, constantly reinventing themselves, technologically driven and have a compulsion for change and agility, and often are accused of an attitude of self-entitlement.
We talked about how to start a poetic conversation in Cleveland between these groups and about what unifies both post-industrial and post-modern writers, where they intersect and cross-pollinate, what their commonalities are. These are different people facing the same challenges with similar goals.
Daniel mentioned a great musical illustration: hip hop. According to him, “It’s the music of recycled sounds.” You take music that’s already there and repurpose it to find a unifying sound. What unifies these poets? Their voices. The importance of what they do. Their part in Cleveland’s history. The issue of uncertainty.
Then, a light bulb went off. What is Collinwood? What is the Waterloo Arts District? An old, residential area that housed factory workers and is in the process of reinventing itself as a modern arts district full of makers.
We’re looking for the machinists, welders, engineers and technicians who go to work every day then come home to write about it. We know you’re out there. If you’re interested in being part of a poetry event in Euclid where we have an intimate poetry reading then a panel discussion, give a shout out. If you aren’t able to make it, are shy or not in the area, feel free to share your poem here. Keep it clean, since this is a company blog!