The journey of a reluctant blogger

IMG_1575 (1).JPGBlogging isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I’m a perfectionist, which sucks if you want to write more than one blog post per year because you’ll never put it into the world. Blogging isn’t about waiting until you have a perfectly polished gemstone, it’s about getting your work out there (well, not too out there) and can also be about developing ideas still in formation.

The truth is, I’m kind of afraid of blogging. I’d rather sit behind a pretty wall of words than be exposed in a raw vulnerable state. When blogging first became popular it was considered “lesser than,” books and magazines still the most valuable content. I wanted to put my writing out there in some permanent, aggregated way, but I also wanted it to be validated by someone else.

Blogging can be a way to build an audience and try out new ideas. Blogging appeals to me now because it’s entrepreneurial and you can write and publish quickly. You can see how people react online, creating a quick feedback loop that allows you to develop ideas or gauge interest in a topic. Sharing your ideas makes the work less lonely.

Tonight I went to Lit Cleveland’s “The Craft of Blogging” with Jill Miller Zimon, Nikki Delamotte and Darlene Norwood English. I was inspired by how Jill leveraged a political blog into all kinds of work, including speaking, teaching and writing; how Nikki published her first words on her blog and now works at, in part because she has a keen grasp of writing online and social media; and Darlene’s personal blog that has powerful posts about embracing her natural hairstyle, how Sandra Bland’s death affected her, and other topics.

Over the past year, I’ve been blogging more. Maybe with the inspiration of these social media mavens I will complete my goal of writing a post a week this year. Or maybe I’ll just get sucked into the next season of Homeland.

On being a middle child in a pragmatic family

I’m writing this post from my “office,” which is a corner of our bedroom with a nice, comfortable desk near a window. Not that I’m complaining. The kids aren’t here, and I’m sneaking in a few minutes of writing before work.

My new book “The Shape of Home” deals a lot with growing up and navigating the influences of childhood to find your own identity. I was the third child in my boisterous, often chaotic family, and the daydreamer artistic one at that, something I write about in my poem “In Medias Res”:

I arrived late to the party
after the food was cold and half-eaten
after the hosts who were half-drunk
had become half-sober
in the middle of stories
about things that happened before I was born
I slipped in like a quiet gift
they’d find cleaning up

Friends and family know I’m habitually five minutes late (or worse) everywhere I go. I’m organized most of the time and have a deeply pragmatic side, but it fights with my head-in-the-clouds dreamer side. The pragmatism comes from my mom and dad, kind hearted, tough Presbyterians whose coat of arms would be someone mowing the lawn if we had one. My family always made fun of my artistic side, but at the same time my parents nurtured it by exposing me to books, art and music and encouraging me to read my heart out as a kid.

Late to school
I swung open the metal doors
and dropped in
like a trumpet blast in a measure of rest
Late to the playground games
my own shoes
walked off without me

I think becoming a parent made me grow up (in a good way) and become my own person. Suddenly I have my own kids to get places on time, who of course have no sense of urgency at all. Isn’t it funny how time changes as you get older, and seems to move more quickly?

On time the gray hairs of whiskers
sprouted on my cheeks
and children sprung forth
and grew tall like corn …

You can read the poem, which was published by Blue Bonnet Review, here.

How do you get “deep work” done?

gypsybeans-2Lately, I’ve been thinking about my ideal workday. I’ll soon be working two-thirds time as director of Literary Cleveland and would like to spend the rest of my day writing and getting my work out into the world. We’re only talking about a few hours here, since parenting and housework crowd the edges of my days. I write early in morning from 6:30-7:30 before the kids go to school — I’ve been unusually productive lately, and have found ways to focus on writing new work and not get bogged down in revision — but have not yet felt comfortable returning to my work after that.

So, could I continue writing after ferrying Jonathan to where he needs to be for the day? Where would I even do it, and would it require consumption of one $2.55 drink at the coffee shop per day, thereby adding a whole new item to the family budget? If I do this, will I be productive or spin my wheels? Can I complete my Lit Cleveland work in 5 hours a day plus evening events, now that I have some help from interns and part-time staff?

These are the questions that plague my overwrought brain. This article, which Katherine sent me, helped me think about these questions:



The Shape of Home to be published by Finishing Line Press

chilcote_lee_websquare-600x600I’m happy to announce that my long journey to publish my chapbook of poems, The Shape of Home, is winding down: the 32-page book will be published by Finishing Line Press in March. Order your copy here:

Here’s the description: “This wry, poignant collection of poems explores how we are shaped by the homes we grew up in and in turn shape the homes we create as adults. Chilcote probes the influence of his childhood, the steadfast nature of love, the joys and drudgery of parenting, and the struggle to maintain a creative life.”

And a kind blurb from my friend and fellow poet Nin Andrews, whose workshop I participated in at Mac’s Backs:

The Shape of a Home is a debut collection of poems that are as refreshingly honest as they are tender, witty, and compassionate. Lee Chilcote is clearly a welcome new voice to American poetry.

~ Nin Andrews, author of Why God Is a Woman and other books

Here are a couple more, from the wonderful Brad Ricca, who read and commented on an early version of this book, and Susan Grimm, a fantastic teacher who also helped me edit it. What the hell, gotta toot your own horn.

This is the poet-as-father-homemaker-musician, who is late to parties, argues about the greatest guitarist of all time, and is left awestruck at the sight of his own father because “Protestants have fathers who / only appear at night.” If the Midwest has a certain tone of voice and subject — as a place that is somehow always the present abruptly set amid the rusty ruins of the past — then this is what Chilcote captures so triumphantly against the din of music, the cloud of booze, the scramble of children, and the presence of Love, who, as in his poem “Caveat Emptor,” is “the architect who shrugs his shoulders.” A delightful, intimate, and thoroughly noteworthy debut.

~ Brad Ricca, author of American Mastodon, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award

Lee Chilcote is not interested in a vapid beauty that smooths over invisible barriers and difficult loves. The clamor of the world makes itself heard in his poems. His “muses are sirens, trains, barking dogs.” The Shape of Home curves lovingly around children that spring up “like sunflowers,” but these poems report as well on the black thread that runs through desires and dreams.

~ Susan Grimm, author of Roughed Up by the Sun’s Mothering Tongue and other books

A poet’s homecoming at U.S.

img_0028This morning, I had the opportunity to read and discuss my poetry in morning assembly at my alma mater, University School. I almost didn’t make it when I couldn’t find my blue blazer in the morning — then I realized it was in Nathan’s closet! In my remarks, I told the 400 boys gathered there about how my grandfather, whom I was named after and who attended U.S., was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college; how approachable writing and subject matter can help poetry can broaden its reach beyond a narrow subculture; and that I write poetry to probe and search for meaning in my own life. As Robert Frost stated, “poetry is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.”

I also read poems like “Foreclosures,” which was recently published in Forage Poetry, and “Antoine,” which appeared a few years ago in Great Lakes Review. Here’s the poem:


Up before dawn, I trudged through snowdrifts
to the barn where he slept in hay.
Hearing my footsteps and the rattle of the gate
he charged me on quivering legs.
I pulled the bottle from my coat
and he tackled me, nibbling my fingers and sleeves
as if this was his last meal.

Our class arrived in Vermont as strangers
yet soon our lives were knit together
sweeping crap out of the turkey barn,
splitting logs in the wood lot
and digging potatoes up on Garden Hill.

Poetry had always been my rusty fire escape.
Yet here, beneath a dome of stars,
I couldn’t write a thing.

Our teacher invited us to hear David Budbill
who wrote about a French-Canadian woodcutter in Judevine.
When he finished, I asked if he had any advice
and he told me keep writing, no matter what.
Maybe I’d get published in obscure journals
read by a handful of people – mostly librarians –
and I’d never have any money, but I’d be happy.

That winter the calves were weaned.
My roommate Jeremy and I named ours Antoine
after the burly logger in Budbill’s poems.
As my forty-pound toddler pitched towards me
I thought about the life waiting at home
reading Shakespeare and wearing khakis
while he trotted off to the slaughterhouse
to feed the students next spring.

I received great comments about the reading and reconnected with several former teachers and met new ones. U.S. looks completely different, since it’s been dramatically expanded and remodeled, yet in many ways it’s exactly the same. The school’s emphasis on critical thinking and engaged learning is, if anything, more pronounced. I visited three classes and talked about the relevance of poetry and several contemporary poems, including “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. I loved listening to their ideas about the metaphors in this poem, such as how “pressing an ear to the hive” of poetry can help you hear the many different ideas buzzing inside. At the end of each class, we looked at photographs and completed a persona poem exercise. One boy wrote about having a white Jewish mother and African-American father and how his mom was looked down upon by her family; another wrote a poem about his physics class. These responses to the writing exercise were inspiring.

Two poems: “Foreclosures” and “In Recovery”

white_logo_transparent_background-e1464023692891Thank you to Forage Magazine for publishing these poems. On their masthead, the editors state: “We are in search of writing and art that is accessible, and that reaches into that space between our heads and our hearts to open a door to something we had almost missed.”


I. Underwater

Our monthly statement arrives
in a crisp white envelope,
silent about the crowd it runs with –
a shady set of B and C loans.

The Loan Overview says nothing
about the interest-only, no-money-down loans
next door
with their fast cars and bad teeth.

Down the street, the ‘For Sale’ signs fade
and leaves blanket the grass.
Kids on bikes zip past zombie houses
Scrawled with NO COPPER and stripped of gutters.

This is what happens to a 30-year fixed loan
bobbing in a sea of junk.

When the water rises,
it swallows the legs of our porches.
We wade in to rescue the dog
as the kitchen floods.

II. Slow Fuse

At night, fire trucks scream down Lorain
but the building goes up too fast.
All that’s left
is a sign that says ‘Arson is a Crime.’

The neon sign at Steve’s Lunch flickers.
A driver pulls off the highway,
stops at the light
and nods at a jittery teen in too-tight jeans.
She hops in and they drive away.

You can buy anything used here –
washers and dryers, baby clothes,
oak mantels, chandeliers.
The buildings of stout brick
have names and dates carved into
the façades like epitaphs.

III. Last Cut

I’ve come back for a few things
and to clean out my old garage.
I get stung on the wrist by a yellow jacket,
the mower’s grass-covered wheels
a perfect place to build a nest.

The house next door is vacant
and through a door that hangs open
I see a raincoat,

a pair of old sneakers,

doll face-down on the steps.

In Recovery

I hired Bruce to fix the cracks in my driveway, give it a new coat of blacktop, paint our deck. After I paid him $10 an hour in cash, he showed up a week or two later on his brown Mongoose mountain bike looking for more work.

Bruce was a handyman at St. Paul’s and helped out with the church’s homeless program. I know what these guys are going through because I’ve been there, he said. Got kicked out of everywhere, my sister’s, everyone had enough of my habit. Spent nine years on the street, got myself straight, thank Jesus.

I took him to a rental property to do some painting. I remember how his hands fluttered nervously between his knees as we took I-90 to Tremont, and he covered his big grin when he laughed.

My kids stared at his crooked teeth, but I told them it was OK and they played in the yard as Bruce and I talked. He played bass at St. Paul’s, liked to listen to his songs while he worked.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do – get my teeth fixed, Lee. Gonna save up, get a little house and rehab it myself.

When Bruce didn’t show up to paint the Tremont house, I called. His phone wasn’t working, he explained – had to put some minutes on it. A week later, he got a crew and went to work.

The night they finished, he showed up at my door wanting $210. The idling car, the urgency was weird, but I told him I didn’t have it on me and wanted to inspect the job first.

We went there the next day: paint on the floor, wobbly lines on the ceiling. I told him I’d pay when he cleaned it up and he and a friend from rehab took care of it quickly.

I called him about another job a few weeks later but they said he wasn’t at St. Paul’s anymore. He’d made some mistakes with the books, hooked up with old friends.

When he painted the Tremont house, the tethers of his old life must have been pulling him back. I hadn’t noticed, happy just to have his help.

You Green Boy: An Essay on the Flats

6c9693b75cd12f8bFirst published in Scene Magazine:

My first night at the Boat Club, a white tablecloth restaurant in the Flats, a platinum blond, spiky-haired server named Janice yelled at me: “Hey new kid, what’s your name?” she barked. Her long, crimson nails could have cut a jugular.

I told her and she ordered me, “I need salads out on table seven, can you handle that?” Then she walked away carrying a tray of food on her shoulder like a beach ball.

Mark, the owner, who dressed like a Brooks Brothers mannequin, played up the fact that “big time” Flats developer Jeff Jacobs was a member there during my interview for the busser/dishwasher job. “Lots of heavy hitters come in here,” he said as we sat at a table that had a view of the city skyline and boats chugging up the Cuyahoga River. “Big tippers, too.”

Before I even had a chance to dirty my apron, however, Mark and his wife Diane came out of their office at seven o’clock and stared across the sea of empty tables like the hosts of a failed dinner party. They sent me home early because the place was only busy on weekends. Rumors started flying that it might close.

I’d just finished my sophomore year at Middlebury College and was home for the summer. From Wednesday through Sunday in June of 1994, hordes of people descended on the Flats entertainment district to party in downtown Cleveland … and streamed right past the Boat Club to Shooter’s next door.

Janice wasn’t the only one who had it out for me. Sue, the manager, saw me clearing dishes a few at a time, so she grabbed my elbow like I was a four-year-old and showed me how to fill up a tray. Then, on a Friday lunch shift when the place was empty except for two guys drinking Bud Lights in the corner, she made me fetch a bucket and scrub the walls after she caught me leaning on them. I made sure I was busy after that.

Desperate to prove myself to them and make friends, I began clearing tables and bringing out salads before anyone asked. When the dish room was clean, I went back to the kitchen to scrub pots and pans. I ended each night with food under my fingernails and a wad of one small bills in my pocket. With no appetite after scraping plates for six hours, I lost 20 pounds that summer.

Arriving at 4 p.m-0ff2d50a0125b987.JPG. was the perfect time to see the shift change in the Flats, as its daytime identity, that of an industrial working neighborhood with freighters as big as city blocks plying upriver and gravel trucks shaking the street to its cobblestones, gave way to neon clubs blaring dance music. The Flats were our Miami Beach on the Cuyahoga, an entertainment district slapped on top of a 200-year-old neighborhood, yet Cleveland’s gritty past – railroad tracks submerged beneath layers of concrete, rusting metal bulkheads sliding into the river, stone pylons for old bridges – poked through the glitz.

Cleveland has al-c0a43d0b856f708b.jpegways been divided between east and west, but the Flats are where we come together to drink, dance and eat questionable gyros at two in the morning. In high school, we borrowed our parents’ cars to go to all-ages shows at Club Peabody’s, funneling into the Flats and parking in shoddily paved lots where concrete from bridges fell onto cars. The half-mile strip of restaurants, bars and warehouses-come-nightclubs had an old brick powerhouse that once ran the city’s trolley lines and was now an arcade, TGI Friday’s and dueling piano bar, and a railroad bridge jutting into the sky lit up by purple floodlights.

As the summer went on, I became friends with a balding, 35-year-old pastry chef named Mark. He taught me how to make a few things in the kitchen so he wouldn’t have to cook for me when I worked a double. We played teenage pranks like putting tabasco in each other’s Cokes. On long, slow afternoons, we holed up in the men’s room and played guitar where Sue couldn’t find us.

One time he was trying to teach me a Rolling Stones song and I didn’t get it, so I asked him to show it to me one more time. He burst out laughing as I tried to play it again and again, always a step behind.

“You green, boy,” he said. “You green.”

A few weeks before I went back to school, Mark took me out for a beer at Shooter’s. After some small talk, he told me that a woman he’d been casually dating had become pregnant, and he was the father. They’d had a falling out and the last time he stopped by to see her, she would only talk to him through the screen door. I already knew this because the other chefs, Joel and Rich, had told me – there are no secrets after you work back-to-back 12-hour shifts with someone – but I acted surprised.

Mark was a working-class Catholic guy, and neither he nor his ex-girlfriend considered abortion to be an option. He broke down at the bar and started crying, his face screwed up in anguish as he wiped the tears away. I had no idea what to do, so I just patted his shoulder and told him it would probably be OK. Then with one last heaving sob, he sucked his grief back inside and we both pretended like nothing had happened. We headed to our cars and said goodbye.

When I ca-7eca218b36d829ab.JPGme home for winter break, I went down to the Boat Club but there was already a “for rent” sign in the window. The party in the Flats began winding down for good a few years later when three people drowned and the city set up a task force to deal with crime and safety issues. In 2005, a developer announced plans to rebuild the east bank with high-end apartments, restaurants and night clubs and, after an agonizingly long wait during which Cleveland suffered through the housing crisis, the financial crisis and the Great Recession, the Flats finally reopened. The beers are now $6 but the South Beach atmosphere is still there in the new dueling piano bar and nightclub with an outdoor pool.

I only saw Mark one other time, about 10 years later, at a coffee house benefit concert for a local nonprofit at St. Paul’s Church in Ohio City. He was playing there with his band. I hadn’t thought about him in years, but the experience of working in the Flats had made a deep impression on me, as I was exposed to another, working-class Cleveland. I felt embarrassed that we’d completely lost touch after we were so close that summer, but truthfully, neither of us had really expected our friendship to last beyond those walls.

After we’d locked eyes, Mark came up to me and asked, “Didn’t you used to work at the Boat Club?” I said yes, and he said that he remembered me. I wanted to say something, ask how he was doing and where he was working now, but I chickened out. He walked away and I haven’t run into him since then.