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Cover Story: Down by the Banks

Riverbank Poetry Project hits the beat with an outlet of expression

By Katie Gilligan · September 10th, 2003 · Cover Story
  Dennis Kurlas sponsors the Riverbank Poetry Project because everyone has the need to express themselves.
Dennis Kurlas sponsors the Riverbank Poetry Project because everyone has the need to express themselves.

Dennis Kurlas has a "go with the flow" attitude, a fitting attribute for the man whose Red Squirrel restaurants underwrite the Riverbank Poetry Project.

Like an actual riverbank, Kurlas and many others work as a support system for local residents who are trying to involve themselves in the current of words and emotions that is poetry. The Project's 2003-04 season features monthly activities that have the potential to flood Cincinnati with new ideas, opportunities and, of course, poetry.

The Riverbank Poetry Project, a program at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts in Hamilton, was founded in 1995 as a "forum for local poets." Since then, the Project has expanded with the tides of participation and now offers a full season of events, a poet-in-residence program, a scholarship contest and much more.

Kurlas, along with a board of directors, says that the Project is in search of new tributaries.

"We're always looking for new poets and new venues," he says. "It's all about the poets. It's about people being able to do what they do."

What people are doing is writing poetry. And these people range in age from 5 to 95 and frequently participate in the monthly activities and open-mic opportunities.

Kurlas and his wife, Robin, noticed that local money was being spent on athletic programs.

"I (sponsored the Project) because, you know, not everyone can throw a football or kick a soccer ball," Kurlas says. "But everyone has feelings inside and wants to express themselves."

The annual Student Poetry Competition is a powerful example of the outlet that the Fitton Center and the Riverbank Poetry Project provide. Last season brought over 700 entries from Butler County schools. In addition to the poetry competition, a $1,000 scholarship has recently been offered to a graduating senior with writing interests.

"Parents call and thank us," Kurlas says, because otherwise, their kids "wouldn't have a place to do this. That's it right there. That's what it's all about."

Don't get the wrong idea, though -- the Project isn't just locally inspired. This season's John P. Kurlas Memorial Poet-in-Residence is Beat Generation favorite Gordon Ball. A close friend of Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets, Ball will be in Cincinnati for a week in November.

Dennis and Robin Kurlas are friends of Jack Kerouac's in-laws and met Ball at the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival in Lowell, Mass. As part of his residency, Ball will visit local Lakota schools. A separate program will display his prolific photography of Ginsberg and other Beat poets from 1969-1997.

Paul Thoms, director of public relations at the Fitton Center, says, "Our mission is to serve as a forum for local poets, inclusive of all abilities and ages, in a friendly, nurturing and welcoming environment."

Thoms, along with 12 other individuals, operates the Riverbank Poetry Project, weaving together poetry readings with scholarship contests, drum circle events with kids' programming.

"They range from Ph.Ds to teenagers; from housewives to window-washers, from teachers to librarians," Thoms says. "Interesting group comments."

This season features a Teen Read Week in October, a special haiku poetry program in December and love poetry in February. In addition, the Project publishes chap books, collections of local poetry, each year.

Kurlas' work with the Project hasn't gone unnoticed, as he received the Governor's Arts Award for Business Support for the Arts and the Post-Corbett Award for Business Support for the Arts.

"He's a great guy," Thoms says.

During his interview, Kurlas was insistent that countless others should be thanked for their hard work, including his wife, Thoms and the many others who consistently ensure a season full of opportunity and enrichment.

Poetry is often elusive, sometimes difficult to understand, perhaps too complicated to put into words. At the Project, it comes "off the streets" and from inside classrooms.

And when in competition with flourishing athletic programs, poetry moves in its own current, often following in the wake of other events. The Riverbank Poetry Project, with the help and guidance of Kurlas and Thoms, is gathering speed and moving slowly from shore to shore in search of diversity, venues and new voices.

For more information about the individual programs put on by the Riverbank Poetry Project, check www.riverbankpoetry.com


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