For the young voices in Ann Arbor’s dynamic literary arts community, the Neutral Zone has reached a defining moment. After 18 years as founder and director of the NZ’s highly successful and nationally influential literary arts program, Jeff Kass (now Current’s Assignment Editor) is relinquishing the reins to Molly Raynor, a former student and early Ann Arbor youth poetry superstar. Over the years, Kass created enduring programs such as the VOLUME Youth Poetry Project, the Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam, and Poetry Night in Ann Arbor, and oversaw the development of the NZ’s independent publishing company Red Beard Press. Though he’s sad about leaving the post, Kass believes it’s time for a younger person with a fresh vision to take over and he couldn’t be more excited about the direction he believes Raynor will take the program.
“Having the chance to have Molly return to the city is a huge stroke of fortune for Ann Arbor. She’s an absolute force as both an artist and educator with a powerful ability to bridge divides of race, class and ethnicity and bring all kinds of people into the same space to share their stories,” Kass says. “I can’t imagine a better person for the job.”
An enhanced commitment to Literary Arts
Just as significant as Raynor’s taking over is that the NZ is making the Literary Arts Directorship a full-time gig. According to Lori Roddy, NZ’s Executive Director, “I think the Neutral Zone has this amazing opportunity to expand its reach to more young people. I would really like to see us build strong school-based partnerships and infuse Literary Arts in high schools and we need a full-time person.” Raynor returns to town with a sterling reputation, having co-founded and, for ten years, led the youth performing arts program RAW Talent, in Richmond, California, a city plagued by tragic gang violence. There, she ran after-school creative writing programs and worked with teengaers to advocate for an end to the hostilities. The efforts culminated in the award-winning documentary Romeo is Bleeding, a film about former student’s updated version of Romeo & Juliet to bring unity to the Richmond community. “We never had more participation in VOLUME than when Molly was here [in the early 2000s],” Roddy says. “Molly consistently shows up in a community, [and] engages people at a high level.”
When the NZ held a farewell party for Kass, several of his former students read poems in his honor.
As each poet took the stage, it became more and more clear just how many lives Kass has changed. For nationally renowned NYC-based poet and educator Adam Falkner, “it wasn’t until being in Jeff’s classes and having the opportunity to belong, that I felt like poetry could really be something for me.”
A new vision
Raynor’s vision for the future includes preserving traditions that Kass has created and using her full-time status to enhance those traditions even more. “That’s one goal,” she says, “to try to use this extra capacity to build on partnerships and relationships and outreach to kids who maybe have never heard of the NZ.” Beyond this foundation, Raynor has a lot of dreams. One is the idea of “having some workshops that are specific to different demographics.” For example, there could be “one workshop for queer-identified youth, and then one workshop for women and gender-non-conforming youth, and one workshop for youth of color” in addition to the workshops open to everyone. “You can sometimes write a lot more freely,” Raynor says, “when you feel surrounded by folks who share some part of your identity.”
Raynor also likes the idea of making the VOLUME Summer Institute (a week-long writers’ workshop held annually at the NZ) a sleep-away summer camp somewhere in Northern Michigan.
Since she was sixteen, Raynor “wanted to make young people feel the way VOLUME made me feel,” she says. “To be able to have done that in a different place and then come back and give back to the community that raised me and made me who I am is a huge blessing.”
The Neutral Zone is @ 310 E. Washington St. in downtown Ann Arbor.
To find out more information or to support the Literary Arts Programs call 734-214-9995 or visit neutral-zone.org.