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Building Babel; Michael Kelleher transformed the literary landscape of Buffalo with his outrageous proposal to bring the world's greatest authors here for a lecture series

Michael Kelleher never thought it was going to work.

In fact, when the former artistic director of Just Buffalo Literary Center cooked up his quixotic plan to launch an international reading series in 2006, he was almost certain it would fail.

Just Buffalo was in rough financial shape. Its public programming, though ambitious and widespread, rarely drew more than a couple dozen people per reading. The organization was on the verge of closing its doors. So its board and new executive director Laurie Dean Torell, searching for new ways to sustain themselves, turned to Kelleher.

"I said, 'I really don't want to do this, but, if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it my way.' And my way means we're only inviting literary authors," said Kelleher, 43, who left his job at Just Buffalo this month to take up a literary post at Yale University. "The way I thought that I would make sure that we never got funding for the series -- and that I would never have to do it -- was that we would only have foreign literary authors. I'm dead serious. And I thought, 'Nobody will ever fund this.'"

Fortunately for Buffalo, for the struggling literary center and for Kelleher's own career, he thought wrong.

The Oishei Foundation -- Buffalo's largest foundation and a driving force behind many of the city's major cultural projects -- bit on the plan, in a big way. With a three-year fund of $330,000 behind it, the series launched Nov. 8, 2007. Its first reading featured Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, then the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.

In his grant proposal, Kelleher made the optimistic prediction that the series might draw 300 people per performance by the end of its three-year test phase. Much to his surprise, nearly 1,000 people flocked to the first Babel reading alone.

Thus was Kelleher's skepticism about hosting a challenging international reading series in Western New York cured. The longtime artistic director, who came to Buffalo in 1997 by way of the University at Buffalo's respected poetics program, spent the next four years building Babel into one of Western New York's premiere cultural events.

In the brief history of the series, Kelleher has brought other Nobel laureates to Asbury Hall and to Kleinhans, where the series moved in 2009 to accommodate increasing demand. The list of Babel authors is drawn from the very upper echelons of global literature: Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, A.S. Byatt, V.S. Naipaul, Zadie Smith. The final roster of Babel authors Kelleher had a hand in selecting, for the 2012-13 season, includes Russell Banks, Nuruddin Farah, Alexandra Fuller and Julia Alvarez.

In 2007, Kelleher launched another innovative project. The monthly series Big Night, co-conceived with local poet and writer Aaron Lowinger, brings together poets, musicians, foodies and artists for a cross-cultural salon in the Western New York Book Arts Center.

Just Buffalo, now with headquarters on the upper floor of the building that houses the Book Arts Center, is financially healthy once again.

Babel and Big Night -- along with the other programs Kelleher launched and oversaw during his 14 years at the helm of Just Buffalo's artistic programs -- have greatly expanded the reach of what used to be an active but somewhat insular literary scene.

Even more than that, wrote The News' poetry writer R.D. Pohl, the programs Kelleher fostered at Just Buffalo "have elevated the organization and the entire Buffalo-area literary community to unprecedented levels of visibility and support on the national, and even international, literary scene."

At Kelleher's final Big Night in late March, Lowinger recited a poem he wrote in tribute to Kelleher's time in Buffalo.

"It's really easy to take the relationships in one's life for granted/ to not fully appreciate the things closest to you," Lowinger said. "I think Mike appreciates Buffalo as deeply as anything/ and while the Mayor isn't here to give Mike a key to the city/ I think it's clear that the appreciation is mutual."

>'Books change you'

Kelleher's blunt but honest description of the birth of Babel speaks to his general distrust of the establishment wedded with his desire to serve the greater good -- qualities central to his art and to his career.

Kelleher, the product of a Jesuit education, discovered his love for reading at Fordham University, where he encountered and imitated the British romantic poets. Reading, he said, became for him a genuinely transformative experience.

"For me, what was always important about literature was not necessarily the content of the work, although that was part of it. It was not necessarily the formal innovation or daring of the work, though that was part of it, too. It was the fact that, at some point I had an experience or several experiences where I felt that reading changed something inside me," Kelleher said. "That experience of the way literature and books change you is what I have always been after personally in reading. I know from my own personal experience that that is a possibility, but I wouldn't like to make a prescription to anyone that you should read and it will change your life, because I don't know if that's true for everyone. But it certainly was for me."

After his graduation from Fordham University in New York City, Kelleher's healthy anti-establishment bent emboldened him to teach the forbidden work of Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski to schoolchildren during a two-year teaching stint at a Catholic high school in New York City's East Village. He was eventually fired from the job, not for teaching "Howl" or "Ham on Rye," but for attempting to form a union.

That led him to Buffalo in 1997, where he entered the Ph.D. poetics program under legendary poets Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, not so much out of a burning desire for a doctorate, but because he "wanted five years of being paid to read books and write poetry."

He never did get the Ph.D., but he did spend several years reading and writing poetry with his idols and honing his love for poetry as a communal activity.

Kelleher started as a part-time program director at Just Buffalo the year after he arrived in town. With one foot in the UB poetry world and the other in the city, he saw a big gap in Buffalo's literary scene begging to be filled.

As a curator of various poetry series, he and a few others in the poetics program set out to bring Creeley, Bernstein and Howe -- along with other visiting poets -- into the city for readings more frequently.

"Exposure to that kind of work is the basis for the possibility of a literary community. If all you're doing is writing poems and getting up onstage at an open mic, you're not really getting a chance to look at the rest of the world, and you're not getting a chance to see the world the way other people see it," he said. "You're really just performing a raw expression of your emotions. There's nothing wrong with that. But in terms of really creating a literary atmosphere in Buffalo, you need to expose people to the world of literature, and that was what I really wanted to do."

And with Babel, Big Night and the many other projects large and small that Kelleher oversaw during his 14 productive years in Buffalo, that's precisely what he did.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com