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The City and the Writer: In Toledo, Ohio with Charles Kell

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Toledo as you feel/see it?

Toledo, Ohio is known as “The Glass City” for its manufacturing and large-scale production of glass in the late nineteenth century. Toledo, like most industrial cities in the Midwest, has been hit hard economically and by job losses . . . it is working class, there is an ethos of hard work, a pathos of the underdog, of having to scrape and fight, of wanting to become more and better, of change.

Toledo is a city marked with scratches, indentations, ashes of other cities, shadows, fugitive trails, clouds of smoke, dust, and slamming doors. Toledo is the city where I slowly began to no longer feel like a failure, a loser; where the seeds of my aesthetics were tentatively planted; it is my interstice. I moved to Toledo from the Youngstown/Warren area as a means of both escape and starting over. I had been in a touch of trouble a few years before, and the University of Toledo was one of the few places that offered a master’s teaching assistantship. So I equally fled and escaped there—tumbling toward a self-imposed sanctuary from my previous selves. The mood of the city through my lenses is a mélange of pain mixed with growth, with optimism, with making and creating, with hope, despite setbacks and temporary troubles.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The dissolution of a seven-year relationship with the person who was integral in helping and saving me. The guilt and remorse over (and inevitability of) the end of this relationship. The pain of attempting to shut out old friends, the hacking away at parts of myself, trying to form new selves, the starting over, the mixture of loneliness sitting in my small rented house off Dorr Street, walking in small circles, surrounded by books and papers, and feeling a new identity taking shape. But it is the city where I met the love of my life, my wife, Carrie, in the master’s of literature program at the University of Toledo. So the brushing of pain with bliss.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The verdant enclaves tucked away amidst the concrete and the city streets. The green spaces that mix with the industrial, the intertwining and overlapping of both. The smell of dust with crushed leaves. The Toledo Botanical Garden and Wildwood Metroparks are gems. Carrie and I would feed the swans, the geese. I would look for snakes, spiders, frogs, ants—various animals not normally associated with an industrial city. The juxtaposition of these haunts with the traffic, noises of people and cars on Secor and Bancroft. . . . But Carrie, many years before we met, while an undergrad at Toledo, was almost kidnapped at gunpoint in one of the parks, but she ran away, thankfully. Every time we were in a park, this thought would come and there would be a tinge of blue murder behind my eyes.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The wonderful poet Marcus Jackson is from Toledo. His two collections, Neighborhood Register and Pardon My Heart, are essential. One of my favorite poets, Etheridge Knight, lived and worked in Toledo. The University of Toledo has Knight’s papers, and I was able to spend time engaging with his archives, reading and touching a bunch of poems he had written on napkins, paper plates—one of my most memorable experiences. Theodore Dreiser spent a little time around the area while writing most of Sister Carrie. The literary critic Russell Reising is a giant; Sara Lundquist, Christina Fitzgerald, and Parama Sarkar are quite remarkable scholars as well. The poet Rane Arroyo, an icon, who was a professor at Toledo for a long time. The poets Joel Lipman and Timothy Geiger, who won the Vern Rutsala Prize for Weatherbox. The writers Jane Bradley and Ben Stroud, and also my friend Kyle Minor, who spent a handful of years there and whose Praying Drunk is a masterpiece. The literary theorist Wallace Martin.


Is there a place you return to often?

Carrie and I return every December, for the holidays, to visit her sister’s family. I drive around the city, cruising the side and back streets, passing the places where I used to live, where I used to work. I pop into the Allied Record exchange, where I bought a John Cale and also an Albert Ayler CD last year. I try to always swing by the Memorial Field House, where the English department is housed at the University of Toledo. School is out for winter break, but the doors are open and I will wander around, peek into my old office, glance into old classrooms where I used to teach, think about ghosts, think fondly of my old students, whisper a small prayer that they are all safe and happy. I will sit or spread out on the couch and read for a short spell. I always wish to run into one of my old professors by chance.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Calvary Cemetery off Dorr Street.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are shadows within shadows at the Toledo Museum of Art—it is a magical place. Also, I have heard, if one stands at a certain spot under Helen Frankenthaler’s Blue Jay and stares at the painting for an indeterminate amount of time, one can be transported to a secret room where the faint outlines of swerving archipelagoes hover, covered in small scrolls with the most gut-wrenching and singular poetry scratched onto them, yet the words are tiny, impossible to read. I have tried this trick on multiple occasions but have felt only the wonderful buzz of blurred vision and phantom limbs.


Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in the people flaneuring, wandering the streets. The people driving to work every day. Within the students schools, the public schools and the University of Toledo; within the teachers and professors, the artists, writers, makers. Within Jaden Jefferson, the eleven-year-old journalist who is already a star.


What is the title of one of your works about Toledo and what inspired it exactly?

“Tower of Birds” is a love poem for Carrie, set in the Toledo Botanical Garden.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Toledo does an outside exist?”

In 2012, before I left for Rhode Island to pursue doctoral studies, I worked as a furniture mover. My partner was Darryl Williams, who had a fledgling rap career (he was known as Diamonds Apocalypse), who was also a former Golden Gloves boxer from Atlanta, who possessed an intense passion for fashion and clothes, who wanted to be a designer, and who is now living in Kansas with his wife and small child, working as an electrician. We would drive all over Toledo, down every street and into each corner, delivering recliners, sofas, love seats, sectionals. There was also a guy called Spider who worked in the warehouse, who challenged me daily to arm-wrestling matches, who wanted me to party with him at the strip clubs after work. Darryl and I would drive the streets of the city and its environs, meeting different people, delivering furniture; some folks were not so friendly, but that was all right. Once we “accidentally” backed over a rich guy’s flower bed. Most people were wonderful: offering sodas, water, tips; one guy gave us a Ziploc full of change, saying it was all he had. Learning about the different spaces and grid of the city this way. Having contact with the beautiful menagerie of different people living separate lives. Down the alleys and streets, in cul-de-sacs, trailers, and suburbs, where the outside lives, while simultaneously brushing up against the inside, where we—Darryl and I—met so many people trying to be happy in Toledo, Ohio. 


Charles Kell is the author of Cage of Lit Glass, chosen by Kimiko Hahn for the 2018 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. His poetry and fiction have appeared in the New Orleans Review, the Saint Ann’s ReviewKestrelColumbia JournalThe Pinch, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of English at CCRI and associate editor of the Ocean State Review. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Rhode Island with a dissertation on experimental writing, criminality, and transgression in the work of James Baldwin, Rosmarie Waldrop, Joanna Scott, and C. D. Wright.

Published Jan 14, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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