McClendon is new—and youngest—CH poet laureate
On April 1, the beginning of National Poetry Month, Christine Howey, 2016–18 Cleveland Heights poet laureate, stepped down, and Damien McClendon, the youngest poet so far to hold the post, stepped up.
“Several highly accomplished and public-spirited poets applied,” said Meredith Holmes, former poet laureate and member of Heights Writes, the Heights Arts committee that chooses the poet laureate. “Damien stood out for his extraordinary commitment to poetry and for his experience of community-building through poetry performance. He brings acute powers of observation to both personal and politically informed poems.”
A Youngstown native, McClendon, 26, moved to the Cleveland area when he was 13. He is a recent graduate of Kent State University, where he majored in Pan-African studies. He now lives in Cleveland and works in schools and for nonprofits doing community organizing that focuses on social justice issues. He also works with Daniel Gray-Kontar, artistic director of Twelve Literary and Performative Arts Incubator, an organization that teaches and nurtures poets, writers and performance artists of all ages.
McClendon cites Cleveland Heights as a kind of spiritual home: “Even before I moved to Cleveland, I was very familiar with the arts scene there. I remember my first time walking through Coventry Village—how expression seemed to seep from the concrete. It made me feel like I was at a home I hadn’t been to before.”
Although he began writing when he was very young, McClendon didn’t expect to be a poet when he grew up. “If we went back in time and asked my 10-year-old self what I thought I’d be doing in 15 years, writing and performing poetry wouldn’t have been a single drop of rain in my brainstorm,” he said. “And now I am using words to make a living and using words to make change.”
He points to his mother, a nurse, as his original inspiration. For as long as Damien can remember, his mother wrote poems and songs about her experiences and about the people she encountered in her work. She showed him by example how the raw material of daily life can be transformed into art. “My mother took me to an open mic where she shared some of her work,” McClendon said. “Seeing her in that light inspired me.”
He continued to write in high school, but didn’t think of it as a vocation or even a hobby until he got to college, where many new possibilities opened up. He participated in an on-campus open mic, and was surprised by how strongly the audience reacted to the poem he read. “That’s when I started to know that I wanted to be involved in the craft of poetry for my whole life,” he said.
That’s when McClendon realized how poetry can connect people—how a poem that might seem to be intensely personal and particular to one person can resonate with others.
As poet laureate of Cleveland Heights, McClendon is interested in the role of poetry in social justice and healing. He will be exploring the intersection of poetry and some of Cleveland’s pressing problems, such as infant mortality and homelessness. “I want to serve in this role," he said, "to be an inspiration to both kids and adults, and to poets who don’t even know they can be poets.”
McClendon appeared at the Haiku Death Match in April and presented the trophy to the 2018 Haiku Master, Cordelia Eddy. Hear McClendon and other local poets at the next Ekphrastacy event, on Thursday, July 12, 7–9 p.m., in connection with Heights Arts' Sticks & Stones exhibition, on view through July 29, at Heights Arts Gallery, 2175 Lee Road.
Kristen McDowell is the marketing coordinator for Heights Arts.