On April 13, 2012, at 10:30 AM the first floor of the beautiful Enoch Pratt Library is buzzing with people choosing where to go first at the CityLit Project Festival—the rows of tables with books, author sessions or the welcoming rooms of books to be borrowed.  Also in the lobby is Congressman John Sarbanes who quickly introduces himself—great to see local politicians supporting events such as these in Baltimore.

The event looked just as busy at 4 PM as it did at 10 AM—despite the beautiful day outside, this was the place to be.  Many library visitors chose to remain for much of the day once they saw the wonderful authors and speakers scheduled.

Letters About Literature Awards Ceremony with Kwame Alexander

On the 3rd floor there’s standing room only in the Wheeler Auditorium as Kwame Alexander reads from his new children’s book, Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, which was nominated for a 2012 NAACP Image Award. The Board president graciously (though unexpectedly) turned pages while the audience enthusiastically completed the lines as Alexander read.

Students (grades 4-12) from all over the state were honored for their placement in a national essay program sponsored locally by the Maryland Humanities Council/Maryland Center for the Book. Level Three, first-place winner, Adam Antoszewski of Catonville High, read his eloquent letter to Herman Hesse as he made nuanced connections between his grandmother’s dementia and Siddhartha. Similarly, Claire Jenkins of St. John the Baptist Catholic School, the Level Two first-place winner, read her letter to the author of The Little Engine That Could, describing how this book inspired her struggles with reading through her dyslexia. The youngest young author, Jisoo Choi of Ellicott City, shared how Someone Named Eve resonated with her own experience holding onto the language of her parents. Years from now some of these and the many more next-generation authors may very well be presenting their own sessions at this festival!

Benjamin Busch and Tom Hall

Benjamin Busch read passages from his new memoir, Dust to Dust, sharing his first connections to Baltimore through his acting career on Homicide and The Wire. Busch quickly acknowledged that the Baltimore portrayed in these two shows is completely different than the Baltimore community featured at the CityLit Festival.

The two Baltimores continually wrestle with one another, which echoes my own experience living in this charmed city. As police sirens outside threatened to overtake the room at one point, Busch explained with aplomb that this was an “interactive reading with the city of Baltimore,” lyrical prose set against the background of urgency and alarm.

Busch’s anecdote of one of his first experiences with Baltimore painted a hilarious picture of him walking from the Homicide set (where he played a dead man) to a local church wearing only a bathrobe, slippers and a prominent bloody hatchet wound on his forehead in the dead of winter.  He was so focused on wanting to be a professional and not wanting to move until he was directed that he ended up being left on the set alone without any transportation to the catered site for the crew.  After walking the winter streets, smiling at curious passersby, he finally reached the location and inadvertently walked into the wrong room—a classroom of African American children all stopped and stared at this strange, dead white man with a hatchet sticking out of his forehead.  Quite the image! I’m looking forward to reading the extended account of this incident in his memoir.

After reading the passages from his memoir, Tom Hall, the Music Director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, asked Busch to focus on the role of memory. At one point, Busch connected his early training as a stonemason to his desire for permanence, beginning when he was eight on a trip to England where he was surrounded by stone history up to seeing so much stone during his tour in Iraq. Extending this connection, Busch shared that when he first began writing, his father, the late novelist Frederick Busch, told him that he needed to “type something that will last forever.”

Busch consciously chooses to live within the ambiguity of life as survival and our inevitable demise. While recognizing that we’re all doomed—essentially we all will die, Busch also holds to the belief that “the immortality of our efforts is still possible.” Each moment in life counts and we can make a lasting impact, however small.

Busch’s life journey has taken him to some disparate places. His time at Vassar as a studio art major, making prints, drawing in charcoal and making sculpture in steel and stone may have helped him on his goal to create something permanent, but seem less connected to his time in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer through two tours in Iraq.  Busch comments about his time at war: that “You hope for a noble mission but you get what you get,” implying that the war in Iraq may not have been as noble as he would have wanted.  His remark that “there is no reversal of damage in war” hit home with many.  Curious to see what this actor, writer, soldier, photographer, stonemason and film director does next.

Edward Hirsch and Thomas Lux: Two American Masters Share Their Love of Poetry

When Michael Salcman, Chair of the City Lit Project, introduced Edward Hirsch and Thomas Lux, he shared personal anecdotes about the influence these two great American poets had on his own work.  His advice to  “love poetry, love it hard” set the tone for the presentation.

Edward Hirsch, who mostly recently published The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2011) and is perhaps best known for How To Read a Poem, shared his appreciation for the work the CityLit Project has done in keeping American Literature alive and well before he appropriately began with “Branch Library” and then moved to “Poet at 7,” “A Partial History of My Stupidity,” and “Early Sunday Morning.”  Before reading “Green Couch,” Hirsch acknowledged that Thomas Lux had complained multiple times about this very couch over the years; Hirsch and Lux have been friends since 1975.  After continuing with “The Sweetness,” and “A New Theology,” Hirsch kindly obliged a gentleman in the audience by reading  “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad.”   To the audience’s delight, Hirsch also read several new poems, “After the Stroke,” “God’s Insomnia,”  (when church bells rang uncannily at the perfect moment!)  “To Poetry,” and “Last Saturday.” Hirsch eloquently ended with “Ocean of Grass,” another audience request. Hirsch claimed that he’s “only reading in Baltimore from here on because no one ever requests poems elsewhere!”

Thomas Lux, who wrote at least 18 works of poetry including God Particles, followed Hirsch after a glowing introduction by Salcman. Lux began with a tribute to Baltimore’s Poe, “Edgar Allen Poe Meets Sarah Hale,” and then read the hilarious persona poem “Autobiographical.”  He continued with “The Republic of Anesthesia”  “The Happy Majority,” Like Tiny Baby Jesus in Velour Pants Sliding Down Your Throat,” and “The Joy Bringer.” Referencing one of the images in this last poem, Lux added the personal footnote that “newly mown hay is one of his favorite smells.”

Lux also read from galley pages of his new book coming out this fall: “Hat Rack,” a funny litany of family and friend nicknames, “Soup Teachers,” an elegy to Lux’s mother, and “Lady’s Slipper,” a poem about a protected flower of his childhood.  Lux then concluded with other two published poems: “Dead Horse” and “Outline for My Memoir.”

When asked, Lux acknowledged Frost as an influence, explaining that Frost was more than a bucolic poet, rather he was  “the great poet of terror,” as he was called on his 80th birthday.   Instead of the “meaning of a poem,” Lux likes Frost’s reference to the “ulteriority of a poem.”  As a former English teacher, Lux’s desire not to box each poem into a simple meaning resonates because my students always seemed to want to do just that.

In response to an audience question about formal and free verse, Hirsch shared his belief that part of our patrimony of America is our capacity for inclusiveness and that there’s more than enough room for formal and free verse. Lux also stressed that he and poets like him do pay attention to craft, including sound, rhyme and rhythm, even if the rhymes don’t fall at the end of an iambic line.

Prose poetry also arose during the discussion. Lux defined a prose poem as having to follow all of the rules of a poem except the rule of line breaks, and that it should be closer to poetry than prose.  Hirsch took the discussion further by proposing that a prose poem always raises the question of what makes a poem.  He quickly walked the audience through a comparison of the American and French history of the prose poem in its relation to free verse poems, arguing that the prose poem followed different trajectories across continents.

Walter Isaacson, Best-Selling Author of Biography Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, former managing editor of Time Magazine and Chairman and CEO of CNN, now President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, is perhaps most famously known for writing the biography of Steve Jobs.

Working closely with Jobs caused Isaacson to recognize that biographers rarely have the opportunity to truly know their subjects, to spend time with their subjects the way he did. The project made him rethink his work as a biographer and the importance of capturing “the first draft of history.”

When Steve Jobs first asked Isaacson to write his biography, he didn’t realize that Jobs was ill. He felt Jobs was a bit audacious, to say the least, to place himself in the same category as Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein (subjects of Isaacson’s other books), especially given the early stage of his career.  Through continued conversations with Jobs, Isaacson came to understand his health situation and secured a promise from Jobs that he would not micromanage the project. In fact, Jobs agreed not to read the book until it was published. Isaacson did share that despite the promise to allow an unbiased account of his life, Jobs did suggest several thematic strands of interpreting his life. Unfortunately, Jobs didn’t have a chance to read the book before he died. Isaacson did read the last 6 pages to him aloud–the parts that were Jobs’ own words.  Jobs just nodded.

Isaacson stated clearly that his intent was not to defend Jobs who was clearly a genius but most definitely not a saint.  His singular focus often trampled other visions and prevented him from caring about issues outside his own personal vision. While sometimes Jobs was a major jerk, he also engendered fierce loyalty.

Still, Jobs transformed multiple industries—the home computer, the music business, the film industry. He reinvented the creation myth at large of the Silicon Valley garage startup; he gets kicked out of his own company and then is brought back, both times bringing the company to a force in the world. Isaacson saw Steve Jobs’ impatience and petulance were attached to his passion for a product.  His mantra of wanting to make great products not great profits often delayed projects about a month—just to make sure each was perfect, beautiful and ready.

Perhaps most fascinating was the connection Isaacson made between the intersection of counterculture and electronic culture.  Jobs believed that creativity would occur at the intersection of humanities-types and science-types.  Gates was recognized as a better coder and programmer, but he didn’t have that counterculture feel that Steve brought.  The time that others see as Jobs’ lost years possibly fed the success of Jobs and his company.  His time spent in ashrams in India and experimenting at Pixar taught him lessons that ultimately shaped Apple when Jobs returned. In the end, Jobs wanted his company to remain at the intersection of technology and the humanities.

Isaacson ended with sharing what he saw as the hardest thing we do in life and hardest to learn: knowing when to stay true to your passions and when to find common ground and compromise. Steve Jobs, as we all do, wrestled with this tension to the end of his short, impressive life.


The event looks just as busy at 4 PM as it did at 10 AM—despite the beautiful day outside, this was the place to be.  Many library visitors chose to remain for much of the day once they saw