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CityLit Festival shifts focus to social justice

It may be too late to meet with Edgar Allen Poe, H.L. Mencken or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but citizens of Baltimore still have a chance to meet with the latest and greatest literary minds in the area. The 13th annual CityLit festival, held April 15-16, featured writers from all across Maryland, many of whom hosted workshops, attended readings and signed autographs for young fans. After a new partnership with the University of Baltimore and their greatest number of featured authors to date, the CityLit Project boasted a much better turnout than their 2015 event.

Held in the aftermath of the unrest last April, the 2015 CityLit Festival was far more political than previous years and emphasized a correlation between art and social justice. However, the event drew in half of what was expected. According to CityLit Project Director Gregg Wilhelm, there was – in spite of poor attendance – a strong sense of camaraderie between the writers and the attendants. The decision to add social justice to the theme of the event had been a last minute one and event organizers decided to play up this aspect for this year’s festival from the very beginning.

The enthusiasm of the volunteers and writers was palpable. National award winning poet and playwright Claudia Rankine was the guest of honor for this year’s festival, making numerous appearances between the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Enoch Pratt Free Library, just near the epicenter of last years riots. Numerous writers, including Rankine, brought forth works that focused on social injustice, merging art with societal critique in complex and interesting ways.

Wilhelm founded the festival in 2004 in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, which quite literally washed that year’s Baltimore Book Festival away. Unwilling to let go of all of the work and organizing that had gone into the event, Wilhelm and a few others worked together to move the event to the spring, where it has been held ever since. In the years following, it has been hailed as a “must-attend” by newspapers and magazines across the Mid-Atlantic and has drawn in up-and-coming authors such as Junot Diaz.

The festival covered a wide variety of subjects, ranging from politics and social justice to music in literature and pop culture in poetry. Literary magazines from around Maryland, including The Baltimore Review, The Loch Raven Review and The Light Ekphrastic, made an appearance. They showed off some of their greatest pieces, read aloud by the authors, with events such as book signings, dancing lessons, poetry slams and workshops for aspiring writers.

With panels focusing on modern writers such as Paul Lisicky and E. Ethelbert Miller and other panels about the classics, like John Keats and Jane Austin, the festival covered a wide range. For lovers of poetry, there were constant poetry events to attend and for those more interested in the technical aspects of publication, there were informative events and even some workshops that allowed attendees to bind their own books. With attendance up significantly from 2015, there’s plenty of promise for what the 2017 CityLit Festival may hold.