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Create Charlotte Lit and They Will Come

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Every year since 2004, Central Piedmont Community College's Sensoria Festival has presented the Irene Blair Honeycutt Award. This year, Honeycutt, who founded the celebration of literature and the arts 25 years ago, will be the recipient of the honor that bears her name. And though Sensoria — initially known as the Spring Literary Festival — has been bringing literature, theater, dance and a host of other arts to CPCC for some time now, one of the sponsors of the Honeycutt award this year is a newcomer to the Queen City lit scene.

Charlotte Lit cofounders Paul Reali and Kathie Collins
  • Charlotte Lit cofounders Paul Reali and Kathie Collins

"Irene has been a good friend," says Paul Reali, co-founder and co-executive director of Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, or Charlotte Lit. "She is an early founding supporter of Charlotte Lit and a good friend of ours, so we'll also be helping to honor her. I think we'll be sponsoring the IBH award going forward as well."

Sensoria continues to draw notable creators and works to CPCC: this year alone, the visual arts exhibition "We See Heaven Upside Down" addresses questions of migration and displacement; performances range from opera ("Tosca") to plays exposing the exploitation of African-American musicians ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"); and speakers include poets, writers and Holocaust survivors.

Charlotte Lit's mission is similar to Sensoria: the new nonprofit may operate on a smaller scale, but it works year-round to celebrate local literature and bring intriguing creators to town. Reali and his co-founder and co-executive director Kathie Collins, along with a team of authors, poets, editors and songwriters, offer workshops, readings, master classes and a local literary calendar featuring everyone's events — not just Charlotte Lit's. The group's aim is to become a nucleus for, well, Charlotte lit.

Dance, music and theater are prominently represented year-round in local arts, after all. So why not books?

"People say there is no current literary movement in Charlotte, but there are many published writers and novelists here," Reali says. "We want to be able to showcase them."

One Charlotte Lit initiative is the Authors Lab, a sort of MFA-lite program for authors who want to complete a full manuscript in one year. During that time, participants meet once a month. They take classes, get coaching, share discussion time; and they workshop their drafts in a peer community. The inaugural class of 10 has been at it since January. For next year, Reali is looking to bring in a few sponsors so Charlotte Lit can offer scholarships to writers who can't afford the yearlong program.

Charlotte Lit provides a comfortable space for writers to collaborate. - PHOTO BY PAUL REALI
  • Photo by Paul Reali
  • Charlotte Lit provides a comfortable space for writers to collaborate.

They balance this with one-off classes and workshops, such as an April 7 master class with poet (and returning Sensoria guest) A. Van Jordan, and a local literary calendar designed to bring cohesion to Charlotte's literary events, whether Charlotte Lit-related or not. There are participatory and mixed-media events, as well as public art installations: 4X4CLT, an art and poetry showcase series curated by poet and editor Lisa Zerkle, releases four posters featuring four poems and four works of art four times a year. Its fifth installation, also featuring Jordan, will be unveiled on the evening of April 6 when he reads at Sensoria.

"Almost everybody who doesn't write poetry is intimidated by poetry, so we wanted to make that accessible," Reali says. "We don't want literary arts to feel stiff or inaccessible. We hear that reading is on decline, but people still read. They pick up novels. They read longform journalism."

Indeed, reading — like writing — is often done in private, which is one distinction between the way literature engages audiences and the way the performing arts do. Appropriately, Charlotte Lit's mission from even before its genesis was to give readers and writers a common space.

"I opened the space here in Midwood International and Cultural Center in 2014," says Collins. "I intended to open this space as a writers' co-op. I was tired of writing in isolation."

Writing in coffee shops and libraries wasn't a good solution, either: those places can be noisy and aren't especially conducive to establishing a peer community. So Collins tried to start a group. Her idea was a kind of co-working environment for literary types: they'd work, talk shop and have happy hours together. Several people came to check it out, but Reali was the only one who stayed.

It was exactly what he needed at the time.

"I've been self-employed in a form for almost all my career," he says. He provided corporate training while being the primary stay-at-home parent for his two daughters. It gave him the flexibility to be home with his family, and also to run his business and take the work that he wanted. All this time, he was also a writer, publishing books about creativity and creative thinking. He had a novel in the works, but it was on the back burner. In 2012, that changed.

"The week I turned 50, my father was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer," Reali says. "That was kind of a wake-up call, an epiphany. I realized that if I wanted to spend enough time focused on my writing, I really needed to do that now."

So he pivoted. He put more attention toward his novel and started looking for likeminded writers. Then, he saw a notice Collins had published in Creative Loafing and reached out. The two realized they had a lot in common, and soon the writers' co-op condensed down to just the two of them. Their brainstorming sessions eventually led to Charlotte Lit, which officially launched in February 2016.

Charlotte Lit cofounder Kathie Collins
  • Charlotte Lit cofounder Kathie Collins

"What we are learning is that the reaction is either very enthusiastic or invisible," Reali says.

He and Collins are realists: they know Charlotte Lit is a newcomer on the scene, and they're still finding their footing when it comes to "getting butts in seats," as Collins puts it. Some classes and readings are well-received or packed, while others draw sparse crowds. About 150 paid members joined the first year, while the subscriber list for the weekly newsletter grew to about 500 in that time. It's good growth, but the email list needs to be larger to really get the word out, Collins says pragmatically.

"We're young," she says. "It's just going to take more awareness."

So she and Reali are touring other literary arts groups to find out how they grow their audiences; they're collaborating with theater groups — because theater, Reali points out, is already part of literature anyway — and hanging bold 4X4CLT posters around town. They're fine-tuning their offerings in 2017 — all to connect writers and readers in a city that they insist already has a healthy literary tradition.

"We have had many people, more than a dozen people, say to us, 'We didn't know Charlotte needed this until you created it,'" says Reali.

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