Inspiring Writers in Western New York

Maya C. Popa

When Debora Ott moved to Buffalo in the late 1960s, she found a city with a rich literary history. Not only did famed Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley live and teach in Buffalo, but poet Lucille Clifton had grown up there, as had writer Ishmael Reed. Even Mark Twain had done an eighteen-month stint in the city as a newspaper editor in the 1860s. Ott, who moved to Buffalo to study with Creeley, became a part of that literary legacy when she founded Just Buffalo Literary Center in 1975. Forty years later, the thriving organization is still working to “create and strengthen communities through the literary arts” in western New York.

Just Buffalo began as a small reading series at the city’s Allentown Community Center. “At first, writers read for free,” Ott says. “They slept in my attic rooms on Cottage Street, and sometimes even paid their own bus fare to Buffalo.” Today, Just Buffalo has grown into a vibrant nonprofit organization that offers invaluable programming to the region, including workshops, readings, an arts festival, and other literary events. The center also organizes several programs for youth, including the Writers in Education program, which places writers in local schools to lead creative writing workshops; as well as the Just Buffalo Writing Center, which offers free workshops, one-on-one tutoring, and open mics for writers ages twelve through eighteen. This past year, Claudia Rankine, Dinaw Mengestu, Louise Erdrich, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Ocean Vuong were among the writers to give readings and lectures at the center, which remains the only organization in western New York dedicated to the literary arts. “We advocate, fight for visibility and funding for writers, and work to make our art form fully visible to the larger community,” says Laurie Dean Torrell, who has served as the center’s executive director since 2002. “We do everything we can to make writing a viable career for devoted practitioners, and invite the community to experience its transformative power.”

As Just Buffalo celebrates its fortieth anniversary, the organization’s leadership looks toward the future. “We engaged in a deep investigation of how we could make the most meaningful contribution possible to our community now and in the years ahead,” says Torrell. This strategic planning included conversations with more than eighty community members, out of which came JB40, a three-year, $1 million campaign to fully develop the youth writing center, which opened in April 2014. The organization also produced “40 Stories,” a series of video interviews with members of the Just Buffalo community. “Each story offers a different lens for viewing the countless ways that Just Buffalo has impacted lives through the power of the written word,” explains Barbara Cole, the center’s artistic director. 

This year also marks the tenth anniversary season of the center’s international authors series, BABEL, which has brought Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Isabel Allende, and Zadie Smith to the center to give readings and lectures and meet with high school students and college undergraduates. “BABEL audiences hover between eight hundred and fifteen hundred people per event, and we regularly draw audience members from out of state and Canada. These participation levels are among the highest anywhere in the country for a speaker series of this kind,” Cole says. The 2016–2017 season will run from October through April and feature authors Marlon James, Laila Lalami, Edna O’Brien, and Dave Eggers.

Over the next few months, Just Buffalo will work with the community on a public-art initiative called Lit City, which will include the installation of a large-scale painted mural to honor Robert Creeley and a sculpture to honor Lucille Clifton. Recently, Buffalo mayor Byron Brown announced that Washington Street, where Just Buffalo Literary Center is located, would now be recognized as the city’s Literary Corridor. “We’re thrilled to be working on Lit City,” says Torrell, “which will honor the legacy of the many great writers who have called Buffalo home, and to inspire new generations of voices.”  

Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. Her website is