Real, Live Poets at Chase Public

From fledgling sidewalk poets to literary dynamo, oh the places Chase Public will go.

Photograph by Evan Sgouris

It started with a few guys at the corner of Chase and Hamilton Avenues in Northside. On a Friday night in 2010, they staked out the sidewalk, armed with a table, handmade sign, and typewriter, shouting at passersby to ask if they would like a poem. When that happens—even in Northside—“you have to say something back. You can’t just keep walking,” says Mike Fleisch, one of the then-poets and current board chair of Chase Public. “Almost everybody said yes. At least after more questions of, What?

The what was Short Order Poetry: the poet interviews the receiver, who then picks up a personalized poem about 15 minutes later. Back then, Chase Public was merely an intermittent gathering, rounding up people interested in art and open dialogue, but the group’s capacity was limited by other jobs and busy lives. Now, in a second floor space on that same corner, the nonprofit is gaining momentum through regular events that include poetry readings, film screenings, writing classes, experimental music and theater, and what they call the Response Project, in which six to eight people respond in their chosen medium to the same piece of art, such as Sappho’s poetry or “Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen.

The pace picked up in 2013 when Fleisch and friends held Short Order Poetry at Collective Espresso in OTR, where Scott Holzman—now the executive director of Chase Public—was working at the time. Holzman, who had done some writing and readings of his own, liked what he saw, and the next time Fleisch stopped by, suggested they apply to do a box-truck installation at MidPoint Music Festival. In keeping with Chase’s why not? style, Fleisch said, “Yeah, you want to help?” After submitting their application—the total amateurishness of which still amuses them—they got the gig. “Not really knowing what Mike did for a living, I did this absolutely hilarious, MS Paint stick-figure [mockup] of what the truck layout would look like,” says Holzman. Fleisch, whose day job involves visual modeling and collaborative design, adds: “But your impulse was solid and pure!” The result was a shipping container furnished like a mid-century living room, out of which they distributed roughly 350 poems—a huge scale-up from the group’s previous events.

After that, Holzman hit the gas, putting any spare energy and time—outside of his two paying jobs—toward Chase Public, pushing it beyond the sporadic, casual stage it had been stuck in. He also connected a whole new community of artists and like-minded souls to the organization, people who have become a source of ideas for programming. “That was always our hope,” says Fleisch, “that if you make a space available and give people the right structure and invite them in, that they will be creative together.” Chase has since been commissioned for Short Order Poetry by big dogs of the local arts scene (the May Festival, Cincinnati Art Museum), collaborated with the public library and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and were the poetic wordsmiths behind the CincyInk project.

Brian Sholis, curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, came across Chase Public while getting to know Cincinnati’s DIY arts culture. “It’s important to have artist-led spaces and projects,” he says. “They come up with more creative things. Art museums and other large institutions can learn from that creativity. It’s an ecosystem.” One Sholis engages, too: he took part in the group’s September Response Project, giving the backstory of a photo in the museum’s Unknown Elements exhibition that participants then responded to.

But as a small arts organization committed to a literary mission—what Holzman calls “thinking of things in terms of empathy rather than dollars earned or hands shaken or asses in seats”—Chase Public may have reached a crossroads. It’s one that Sholis has seen before. “The challenge is how you get from barely keeping up, [with people] volunteering their time, to the point that one or two people can make it their full-time focus,” he says. “There’s a liftoff that’s very difficult to achieve, because it relies on a lot of sweat equity to make that transition. And it sounds like they’re [approaching] that point.”

This summer, Chase Public started the process to become an official 501(c)(3): filing the paperwork, engaging a fund-raiser, creating a board, and hiring Holzman full-time. But where do they go from there? “It’s a hard question. And I am happy to not know exactly what the answer is,” says Holzman. “It’s just taking the next step forward, which as far as I’m concerned is continuing what we’ve been doing but doing it to a more full capacity. Finding ways to interact with more communities and become a consistent organization. It’s up in the air, but not in a negative way.”

Photograph by Evan Sgouris

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