Lee Chilcote grew up in Cleveland Heights, but the city proper always called to him. “I was always interested in the city from living on the edge of it,” he says. “I’m attracted to the diversity of urban neighborhoods, cool independent businesses and great architecture.”
Chilcote and his wife, Katherine, moved to the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood in 2006 and eventually into a 1900 colonial there in 2010. But the family’s move preceded the city’s — and the nation’s — devastating economic downturn.
“Our story changed quickly,” he says. “We were faced with the challenges of city-living during a recession.”
Riding out that financial storm and deciding to stay in a dynamic, sometimes dysfunctional setting are recurring themes in Chilcote’s new poetry collection, How to Live in Ruins (Finishing Line Press, $15), in which he takes an unvarnished look at parenthood and his urban experience.
“Cleveland is the kind of place where, if you grew up here, it stays with you and becomes the master narrative that shapes your experiences,” says the Cleveland State University graduate. “These poems get at the universal experience of living in the Rust Belt, a place that is dying and being remade at the same time.”
Chilcote senses a connection between his work as a journalist and his poetry, which combines self-discovery and observation. “These poems have a narrative bent,” he says. “It’s a documentary style of poetry. I like to write poems that are accessible and tell a story, hopefully in a lyrical way.”
The poems in How to Live in Ruins touch on Chilcote’s own experiences, but are universal enough to feel familiar to most readers: transforming a decrepit, old house into a family home, seeing houses boarded up on his street during the recession, and welcoming his first child in 2009.
Chilcote, the founder of Literary Cleveland, recently stepped down as the organization’s director, but he continues to be an evangelist for the region and our writing community.
“We tend to vacillate between extreme boosterism and self-deprecation here,” he says. “Cleveland is complicated, full of untold stories. Poetry can help you to see it in a new way.”