Raymond McNiece (Lifetime Achievement)


2021 Literature


Raised by “working-class but extremely bookish” parents who loved reading, theater, and music, Ray McNiece was on track to become a poet early in his life. However, it was his grandmother Zelma who first enthralled him by reciting her favorite secular verses and the Book of Ruth from the Bible. 


“She would recite it to me,” he recalls. “Not read it, recite it. She had it verbatim. Word for word. As a kid, I was like, ‘Man, that’s magic!’ ” 


He started writing his first poems in high school, and then as a scholar-athlete won a scholarship to Ohio University to play hockey and golf. One of his professors, Calvin Thayer, encouraged him to pursue writing and recommended him for OU’s honors college, which enabled Ray to focus on reading and writing independently. He commenced writing a novel, but the effort didn’t last long. 


“Poetry is a jealous muse,” Ray states. “I have a couple novels started, as every poet does, but back then, once I started writing poetry, that was it for me.” 


To advance to the graduate level, he earned another scholarship to the University of Houston. He studied with a Whitman and Dickenson scholar, but when he was about half way through his thesis about Whitman, Ray came to the realization that the last thing Whitman would want him to do is write a paper about him. He knew he wanted to be a poet, not a scholar. He left graduate school, became a social worker helping people who were homeless or dealing with alcohol and drug addictions. 


Ray also continued to write poetry, learned how to play guitar to complement his singing, and began to put a more serious emphasis on performance. In the classical oral tradition, he began performing his poems, songs, monologues, and stories live in a variety of locations coast to coast, and he started traveling the country to perform at schools, libraries, theaters, bars and festivals. Using the model of Cleveland’s Poets League, he founded the Boston Writers League. 


Introduced to the growing poetry slam movement in the early ‘90s, Ray began to compete and win on a regular basis, including a national championship with a team from Cleveland in 1994. In 1997, he decided to get off the road and return to Cleveland. 


“I’m just trying to popularize poetry, so that you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand it,” he explains. “I want it to be readily accessible to everyone, so whatever form it takes my mission has always been to get poetry off the page and out to a bigger audience and make it a popular art form, make it part of everyone’s life, just like it’s been so much a part of mine.” 


He still travels whenever he has the opportunity to perform or teach. In the late ‘90s, he toured Italy twice with legendary Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which included a chance to perform in the Roman Forum backed by an Italian jazz band before 10,000 people. Soon after in 2000, he toured Russia with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, appeared on Good Morning, Russia and performed at the Moscow Polytech, the Russian Poets’ Hall of Fame, where he was described as a born poet and performer. 


He has performed programs for Young Audiences in New Orleans and Cleveland. Today, Ray is a writer in residence for Ruffing Montessori School and fronts the band Tongue-in-Groove. Currently, he is Poet Laureate of Cleveland Heights. Among many awards, he received a Creative Workforce Fellowship and residencies at The Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Jack Kerouac House. 


Ray has authored eleven books of poems and monologues and CDs, most recently Love Song for Cleveland, a collaboration with photographer Tim Lachina and Breath Burns Away, New Haiku. The Orlando Sentinel reporting on Ray’s solo theater piece “Us — Talking Across America” at the Fringe Festival called him “a modern day descendant of Woody Guthrie. He has a way with words and a wry sense of humor.” “


Ray has always committed his life to the artistry of poetry and bringing language to life for an audience,” says fellow poet, playwright, author Mary Weems, Ph.D. (CAP 2015). “He’s one of the poets, and I’m talking about in the state, nationally, etc., that I most admire in this world. It’s one thing to say you’re a poet and have a full-time gig and do it on the side, but this is Ray’s life’s work, and he is so deserving of this lifetime achievement award.”















































































































Cleveland Arts Prize