Ahtziri and I are sitting on a stone garden bench outside a church in Riverside. In her hand is a stack of papers – typed forms for me to sign, neatly handwritten manuscript pages and sketches of fictional characters with names and biographical information.
I have been asked to mentor Ahtziri, a 17-year-old high school senior, through the process of writing a novel for her Advanced Placement English class. I am not a novelist, but I am a poet, and I direct a nonprofit – the Inlandia Institute – that supports literary activity and creative thinking through storytelling in the Inland Empire.
Like any other group, a community of readers and writers does not spring up overnight; it grows gradually as people find one another, as Ahtziri and I did.
Sometimes a catalyst produces momentum. In the case of Inlandia, that catalyst was an anthology of literary writing about this region, published by Heyday in 2006. “Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California’s Empire” stacks Joan Didion and John Steinbeck alongside local jewels such as novelist Susan Straight, who sets many of her stories in the fictional Rio Seco, a doppelganger of Riverside.
The Inlandia Institute began as a collaboration of the Riverside Public Library and Heyday to host literary events. By 2009, the program had become an independent nonprofit. That was when Marion Mitchell-Wilson, its first executive director, recruited me for a part-time job that expanded over time. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she asked if I would keep everything running until she got better. She would eventually succumb to the disease.
Before Mitchell-Wilson died, she called some of those involved with Inlandia into her home and made a dramatic request: She wanted us to create an endowment in her name to ensure the organization would continue for decades to come. Building a literary community is not just about reading and writing; it’s about getting people to unite for a cause they feel passionate about. The endowment was that cause for us.
We raised $100,000 in six weeks. And Inlandia now serves a vast swath reaching from the Salton Sea to Temecula, and from Wrightwood to Mecca.
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life here. As I write this, I am surrounded by poems submitted to our “Poetry Box” during Riverside’s Long Night of Arts and Innovation, an event held downtown by the city every two years. The event brings together technology innovators alongside arts and cultural organizations to showcase what Riverside has to offer.
The Poetry Box was a place for people to play with words – to cut up and rearrange them into poetry on a large felt board, to add to a collaborative poem in a single notebook, or just to write with pens on blank paper. It was surprising to see how many people stopped, sat down, put pen to paper and wrote a poem, some for the first time.
The Poetry Box got to the core of what Inlandia is all about – building community, one word at a time.
I love who we are, we Inlandians. I think of Ahtziri, and wonder whether she will finish her novel. But you know what? The finishing doesn’t matter. It’s the starting that counts, and I don’t just want to see how the story ends. I want to see where it takes her.
Cati Porter is executive director of the Inlandia Institute and the author of several poetry collections. She wrote this for Living the Arts, a project of Zócalo Public Square and The James Irvine Foundation, and can be contacted at email@example.com.