Written by Darby Ratliff
Photos courtesy JBLC, Kevin Thurston

On Saturday, June 1, poet Bob Hicok joined a menagerie of talented artists – vocal, visual, and otherwise – whose voices have echoed throughout the one of Buffalo’s grain silos. Others who have ventured into Silo City for the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Silo City Reading Series include Natalie Shapero, Ocean Vuong, and Maggie Smith. Both the artists themselves and the audience have agreed that this is a unique experience, one that centers Buffalo’s literary scene deep in the heart of its Rust Belt roots.

Speaking of the Rust Belt, Just Buffalo was also recently awarded a grant from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to partner with InsideOut Literary Arts, a literary center in Detroit, MI, on a project called “Writing Across the Rustbelt: A 3-year Initiative to Elevate the Literary Arts.”

This initiative is an opportunity for the two literary organizations to not only share best practices but also to talk about evaluating and improving the work that they’re doing with the youth. Just Buffalo has a long history of serving young adults and introducing them to poetry, as well as advocating for literature as art.

Kevin Thurston, the Communications Coordinator for Just Buffalo, noted, “We constantly have to remind people that this thing is really important, and, you can, for lack of better terms, you can walk a mile in a person’s shoes by reading a novel and come away from that, and studies show that there’s real empathy you gain from reading.”

Thurston also cited that this can be tricky because “the composition of a book is generally a private act, and the consumption of a book is generally a private act, and that’s where its greatest strength lies, but that’s also the least marketable aspect of it.”

Yet, Just Buffalo keeps working to bring people together into these “solitary acts” with all of its programming. The Silo City Reading Series is a big part of this, and so is the organization’s signature speaker series, Babel. However, the center also keeps expanding its list of projects by hosting writing invasions during the summer and offering an adult workshop series in addition to the weekly youth workshops.

Just Buffalo came into existence in 1975 when it was founded by Debora Ott after hearing a Robert Creeley reading, and like all nonprofits, it’s had its ups and downs. Yet, the Queen City has provided a place for it to thrive. When asked why it works here, Thurston commented, “I feel like there’s a strong education component to this town…there’s obviously an interest in learning.”

And with Just Buffalo, it all started with learning. The organization would immerse writers into schools to partner on projects. Now, the Just Buffalo Writing Center gathers students after school for writing workshops with exercises using erasure for poetry, disposable cameras, and whatever fun and thought-provoking activities the visiting writers can cook up for them. There’s been huge successes for this program, with many students having left to go on to college. One alumna, in fact, just had her first chapbook accepted for publication.

While the brick and mortar of the organization is closed for renovations this summer, Just Buffalo is still putting on events for youth and adults alike, and the new space will welcome folks back in September with new ways of providing education for both the center’s longtime followers and newest friends. Check out some of the great things hosted by the Just Buffalo Literary Center, from the Writing Invasion on July 11th to the Silo City Reading Series on July 20th and August 24th. And watch too, as it continues its mission “to create and strengthen communities through the literary arts.”