Banners honoring local literary luminaries line Washington Street in Buffalo. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Buffalo has been the stomping ground for many literary luminaries, and now downtown Washington Street is celebrating them.

Double-sided banners on the six blocks between Clinton and Goodell streets display the names and likenesses of Mark Twain, Lauren Belfer, Ishmael Reed, Lucille Clifton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Howe and Joyce Carol Oates.

Also among the 15 diverse novelists, poets, playwrights and essayists on the "LIT CITY" banners: Carl Dennis, William Wells Brown, Robert Creeley, Alexis De Veaux, Raymond Federman, Leslie Feinberg, Emanuel Fried and Eric Gansworth.

"I feel incredible awe for the legacy each of these writers hold for us," said Barbara Cole, who launched the project in her role as artistic director for Just Buffalo Literary Center. "We want students coming to our after-school program for teens to know that they are walking in the footsteps of great writers."

The project draws attention to the Washington Street "literary corridor," which is home to the Central Library, Just Buffalo, WNY Book Arts Center, Plurality Press and Old Editions Bookstore.

"You're always thrilled to be recognized in your hometown," Reed said when reached by phone at his Oakland home. "I"m really pleased of that, very proud of that."

Reed, who has had two books nominated for a National Book Award and a book of poetry nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, said he felt thrilled to be joined by Federman, Brown and Clifton, and he put in a plug for the late Carlene Hatcher Polite, who taught creative writiing at the University at Buffalo, to join future honorees.

Susan Howe lived on Park Street in Allentown before moving away as a young girl after her father enlisted in World War II. She returned in her 50s to teach at the University at Buffalo.

"Shock, and awe," Howe said about the honor. "I'm happy I suppose."

The poet, who last week won the prestigious Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement, called teaching 19th century English literature and poetics at UB's English Department critical to her work.

"It was one of the major times of my life," she said. "With this huge absence in the middle, Buffalo is just of prime importance to me. I wouldn't be the poet I am had it not been for those years, particularly the latter years in Buffalo, but the early ones, too."

Deciding who to select proved difficult, Cole said.

"We had an embarrassment of riches in terms of who to choose from," said Cole, who made the selections with the others from the nearby literary institutions. "We wanted to select a range of writers that would show the full diversity of the many different types of writers that have lived here."

Lauren Belfer said the acknowledgement in her hometown meant a great deal to her.

""I'm thrilled and a bit stunned to be included with such extraordinary, Buffalo-connected literary luminaries," said Belfer, whose current book, "And After the Fire," received the 2016 National Jewish Book Award. "As I was growing up, walking to Public School 64 and then the Buffalo Seminary, the city's history and landscape sparked my imagination. I hope the LIT CITY banners will encourage and inspire Buffalo's young people today."

Dennis, who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2001, was also touched by the notion of a banner with his likeness hanging from a downtown lamp post.

I'm honored by being included. It's good for young writers, too, to see that writers are thought of as being important to the life of the city," Dennis said.

"I have been thinking about Buffalo recently as a city that has a had a strong tradition of promoting poetry and the arts, which it should be proud of since it's not a large city."

The project, which cost $12,000, is the first phase of the LIT CITY campaign that will include a mural honoring Creeley, a sculpture celebrating Clifton and poems and writing excerpts engraved in sidewalks, or possibly metal to acknowledge Buffalo's industrial roots, Cole said.

The public art raises visibility for the literary arts for Western New York residents and visitors alike. For more information on the writers selected for the banners, visit www.justbuffalo.org.

"There are a lot of reasons to be proud of Buffalo during our recent renaissance, but we also want people to think of Buffalo as a great literary city," Cole said.

Grants will cover the expected $110,000 cost of The LIT CITY campaign. The funds come from a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Regional Economic Development Council, and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

 

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