2015 EMERGING PRIZE IN LITERATURE
One of Mary Weem’s fondest memories is leafing through the giant dictionary she couldn’t lift at her grandmother’s house. That elevated the future first African American Poet Laureate of Cleveland Heights (2007-2009) by building her vocabulary so she could soar on the wings of words.
“I would say, ‘Granny, what does this word mean?’” she recalls. “She would always point me toward the dictionary, until I got into the habit of reading it on my own.”
Mary wrote her first poem at 13, when she saw the body of a young man killed by a car near John Adams High School being lifted into an ambulance. The poem, “Death,” won her second place in a poetry contest at school that year, and she also took first place for her memorized recital of Longfellow’s
“The Day is Done.” Of her first public appearance, she says: “When I walked out on the stage alone, it felt like home. I guess I’ve always absolutely loved performing and being the center of attention!”
Cleveland State University, where she earned her BA in English and her MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, enhanced her career options. First, a playwriting class taught by
Sandra Pearlman introduced her to theater and an approach to writing that she credits with freeing her ability to write and create. Another professor, Nuala Archer, confirmed her belief that she was a poet with an original voice, eliminating her intention to pursue a career in law and commit to a writer’s life.
In graduate school, Ted Lardner, her master’s thesis advisor, dropped the thought of pursuing a PhD. He sent her to Carolyn White, a professor in the Education Department, who connected her to her alma mater, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She went on to study with Norm Denzin, one of the founders of the style of scholarship she made her own, interpretive methods, that fosters expressing your research and ideas creatively instead of academically. Mary used her dissertation to articulate her own theory.
“I want people to be creative, critical thinkers with the kind of social consciousness that moves them to make a positive difference in this world that pertains to social issues,” she explains. “As someone who lived through the ‘60s, to see where we are not when it comes to race and gender is disappointing.”
She returned to Cleveland and went on to teach at CSU, John Carroll University and Ohio University. She also edits a series of books entitled What’s Going On? Black Studies and the Arts. Mary has authored and/or co-edited 13 books, including Cleveland Poetry
Scenes: A Panorama & Anthology, Working Hard for the Money: America’s Working Poor in Stories, Poems, and Photos, and An Unmistakable Shade of Red and the Obama Chronicles, which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award for poetry in 2009.
Mary won the Wick Chapbook Award for her collection White in 1996, and in 1997, her play Another Way to Dance won the Chilcote Award for The Most Innovative Play by an Ohio Playwright. Most recently, her play Purses was performed at Karamu House and received rave reviews. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild.
“Mary brings together a very learned and academic approach to her work, while not losing the voice of urban Cleveland and black people,” says her friend and fellow poet Douglas Hoston, now pursuing his PhD at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. “She is able to bridge the gap between audiences of any color, and make it accessible in a way that lasts throughout time.”
Currently, she is writing a book called Don’t Be Afraid to Fly about her six years with the Upward Bound summer students at Ohio State University and overcoming low self-esteem, as well as a new play entitled Gunfight, as a response to random acts of gun violence. She is also in the midst of a national tour of her one-woman show, Black Notes, to promote her recently published book Blackeyed: Plays and Monologues.
In addition to enjoying the life she shares with her husband James and her daughter Michelle, Mary says: “I get so much joy out of creating. So between performing, teaching, creating and editing, the creation of the work is what gives me the most pleasure.”