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 the assignment editor at Current) 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 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.
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 to do that we need a full-time person who can really build partnerships, put the program design in place, and seek the grant dollars and donor support to make these initiatives happen.”
Raynor returns to town with a sterling reputation, having co-founded and, for 10 years, led the youth creative arts program RAW Talent (now the Performing Arts Program of the RYSE Center), in Richmond, CA, a city plagued by tragic gang violence. There, she ran after-school creative writing programs and worked with teenagers to advocate for an end to the hostilities. Those efforts culminated in the award-winning documentary Romeo is Bleeding, a film about one of her former students writing an updated version of Romeo & Juliet to try and bring unity to the Richmond community.
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 said, “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 when you feel surrounded by folks who share some part of your identity,” Raynor said. She 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. Whatever happens in the next few years, it’s clear the position represents a long-held dream for Raynor.
The Neutral Zone is located at 310 E. Washington St.
To find out more information or to support the
Literary Arts Programs
call 734-214-9995 or visit neutral-zone.org