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Gregg Wilhelm, the executive director of the CityLit Project and Festival, in the University of Baltimore Student Center.
Gregg Wilhelm, the executive director of the CityLit Project and Festival, in the University of Baltimore Student Center. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

At last year's CityLit Festival, held in the aftermath of last April's unrest, Baltimore poet Melvin Brown read "A Poem for Freddie Gray," by another native Baltimorean, Afaa Michael Weaver. It was a last-minute decision to kick off the event, and inevitable discussions about the intersections of art and social justice followed.

About 1,500 people attended the daylong gathering, half of what was expected. Yet there was a sense of camaraderie, said CityLit Project Director Gregg Wilhelm.

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"It was without a doubt the least well-attended festival in our history, but perhaps the most important," Wilhelm said.

So for this weekend's free festival, Wilhelm was determined to address the unrest and focus on social and economic issues in Baltimore and beyond.

With a new partnership with the University of Baltimore, CityLit will host numerous literary workshops and programs and feature a lineup of 25 poets and authors — the most the festival has featured, Wilhelm said.

The headliner is Los Angeles-based poet Claudia Rankine. Rankine is scheduled to read from her latest book, "Citizen: An American Lyric," on Friday at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Saturday at the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library — near the epicenter of last year's riots.

Rankine's book, published in 2014, is a compilation of second-person narratives, poetic commentary on the media's treatment of major news events such as Hurricane Katrina, and a response to the everyday injustices people of color experience, she said.

"It's incredibly important to have events like CityLit where the culture and our social realities meet," Rankine said. "You have writers addressing the ills of our society in ways that include the emotional unrest that people negotiate day to day."

Along with Rankine, poet/activist E. Ethelbert Miller will read from his latest book, "The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller," a compilation covering 40 years of previously published and never-before-seen work.

The festival will also host a discussion between Baltimore-based writer D. Watkins, who is scheduled to release memoir "The Cook-Up" on May 3, and Lester Spence, political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics." The two will touch on issues spanning from the mayoral race to the riots, Wilhelm said.

"I'm looking forward to the festival being revived again ... and really showcasing the diversity and community that Baltimore does possess," Wilhelm said.

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