q & a: ra washington, culture worker

RA Washington has embedded himself in Cleveland's art scene for more than two decades. He's been the poet-in-residence at the Cleveland Museum of Art, boasts 21 years of publication and helms (with wife Lyz Bly) Guide to Kulchur, the quirky new indie bookstore and artistic haven in Gordon Square. When he's not creating poetry and prose, the low-key Washington dabbles in music. He recently was named a 2014 Creative Workforce Fellow courtesy of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture.

Fresh Water contributor Erin O'Brien caught up with this self-billed "culture worker" to get a view on Cleveland's creative scene through his street-level optics.

The CPAC fellowship comes with some professional opportunities and a pretty good chunk of cash. Reactions?

I'm still processing how I feel about it, I guess. I felt validated by the award. I always felt like I had a technical know-how that was on par with some of the more lauded folks around here. I didn't feel envious; I'm proud of what I've been able to do as an artist.

Any plans yet?

If you get opportunity you should provide other opportunities and use that cultural currency for more than just yourself.

We're going to do everything that we were planning to do with Guide to Kulchur: Continue a bunch of our programming, extending it if anything. It will provide a little bit of fiscal support for books to prisoners, for our speaker series and for a lot of our publishing projects.

Books to prisoners -- what's that all about?

We recently took over an initiative that has been ongoing through the Catholic Worker House and various volunteers across the city. It's called Cleveland Books 2 Prisoners. We write prisons all over Ohio and prisoners write us back and ask for certain authors or certain genres of books and we mail them free of charge.

Tell us about some of your speakers.

So far this year we've had Sarah Marcus, who is a wonderful young poet writing some really stellar stuff and getting a lot of recognition nationally. David Jurca from Kent State's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative discussed Coldscapes and how to build sustainable infrastructure in cold cities. Upcoming we've got the internationally known poet John Dorsey and Umar Bin Hassan from the Last Poets, who's a famous black arts poet from the Sixties.

The CPAC program comes courtesy of a hefty tax on Cuyahoga County smokers. Any comment on that?

(Lights cigarette) When you look at statistics of people who smoke, usually it's poor people, working class families, indigent workers and homeless people. They're funding a program that in some respects they don’t have a lot of access to, in general. It's not malicious; it's not like CPAC decided they are going to do this interesting political thing. It points to our history in America of sometimes building institutions that exclude by the nature of the institution.

You've been in the thick of the Cleveland art scene for some time. How are we doing? Has the landscape improved?

I don’t know if it’s changed. We really have awesome talent here in Cleveland. We have a history for that talent, but the players always change. Every year you look up and there are new writers and new poets, new painters and musicians and new bands.

If anything we've gotten savvier as far as how we collaborate and fund things. I think a lot of it has to do with some of the younger people who have come on the scene and helped out and created these niches.

It's a healthy scene.

What changes would you like to see in the future?

I think we need to start demanding en masse some basic things. If there is a bar that sells alcohol and it has locals in it and they're playing music, they should get paid a living wage. The same goes for the poets and readers. I don’t think we’re getting much of a cut of what we generate. It’s unfortunate. It always happens like this. How do you participate in a capitalism that excludes you? I think we’re trying to figure that out.

The corporations and the people who own all these properties are benefitting from us creating these art districts and they're still trying to charge market-based rents for places that we make cool. That's not just.

Rumor has it you use a manual typewriter. What gives?

It’s about a connection to a legacy of art being work and writers being connected to work, and not being so precious with our little devices. It's also a way to slow my process down and to honor the fact that my grandfather and my father and my great grandfather all worked with their hands.

Tell us about your online music platform Cleveland Tapes.

We couldn’t afford to make vinyl records. We thought: no one’s going to buy these obscure electronic musicians' records when they can go buy the new Beyoncé, so we should just provide it for free. You go to Cleveland Tapes, pay whatever you want and download music in various formats.

To date, we have over 50 different artists from all over the world, from as far as Japan to our own back yard. We average about 75,000 to 100,000 hits a week. Most of the traffic is from other places.

We see Cleveland Tapes as a platform for artists to get signed to bigger labels. The Internet is perfect for that grassroots viral marketing. They keep their own rights. They can bounce at any time.

It’s been fun. It keeps me connected to younger poets.

Any recommendations?

There was an old Cleveland hip-hop quartet called IRBS (Infra Red Beat Seekers). They were ahead of their time. We re-issued a collection of some of their best work. G.O.R.K. has a bunch of different projects up right now. But the one people should really check out is Odysseus Brown.

What about this LeRoi Da Moor character?

(Smiles) No one ever asks me about that. It’s just a persona project I came up with where I make all my own instrumentals and beats and then I put words to them. For the most part it's just me pretending to be an old curmudgeon culture singer. It's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. I'm happy with it. It's really dense.

I get a lot of joy making those records.

You landed on Cleveland Magazine's "Most Interesting People" list in 2012. Boon or bane?

It wasn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t a good thing.

They had good food at the reception. They had these sliders that were great. I took a bunch back home in my coat. Our dog got a new blanket because they gave us all gift blankets. That was nice.

What took you to Paris last year?

My wife wanted to go really bad. She cashed out her meager adjunct pension and took us to Paris for our honeymoon. A lot of people just don't have the balls or the know-how or the belief to do something like that. I think that was very important that it was on her dime.

It was fun to watch Lyz in that element and to recognize how beautiful and how smart she is and how connected to the world her mind is. I was watching her interact with people all through Europe. She has some fans. It was good to watch this woman who I consider a genius get looked at like the genius she is.

Sometimes we forget how beautiful Clevelanders are.

Answers have been edited for space

Photos Bob Perkoski

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.