Knight Arts Challenge’s shortlist includes plan for literary arts center in NW Philly

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s plan to open a literary arts center in Mt. Airy, though itself a rosy idea, sprouted from unspeakable tragedy.

In 2003, Bonanno’s daughter, Leidy, a 21-year-old, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Though always a poet, Bonanno — a Mt. Airy native who’s taught English and creative writing at Cheltenham High School — purposefully tried not to write about her daughter’s death.

“But that’s all that came out,” she says.

The resulting poems, compiled in the 2009 book Slamming Open the Door, chronicled the aftermath of Leidy’s murder, expressed in subjects as diverse as what gifts people brought Bonanno while she was mourning, to the Unitarian Society of Germantown. In 2009, the collection became the No. 9 best-seller for contemporary poetry, and two of its poems were nominated for a Pushcart Prize — giving Bonanno the confidence and credentials to put up a literary arts center in her hometown.

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Last week, the Knight Arts Foundation announced its finalists for the Knight Arts Challenge, which will give local artists a total of $9 million over the next few years — and Bonnano’s proposal for an arts center made the cut. She’s one of 63 finalists, out of 1,700 applicants. This spring, the winners will be announced.

“I’m very aware of what a vibrant, creative community Mt. Airy is,” says Bonanno, who now lives in Oreland, Pa., after living in Mt. Airy for about 25 years. “I think there are lots of writers, emerging writers and would-be writers there, who would be interested in coming to a center. I don’t assume every person there is a writer, but I do think every person has a story.”

She adds that it would fill a hole not only in Mt. Airy, but in the whole city: “There’s not that much in terms of support for emerging writers in Philadelphia.”

Bonanno asked the Knight Arts Foundation for $60,000, which, according to the contest’s rules, would have to be matched. She says the matching funds might include corporate contributions, individual contributions and earned income. She hopes to put the center on Germantown Avenue, between the 6500 and 7200 blocks, and hold readings, storytelling classes, workshops and other events there.

“Germantown Avenue is a busy, happening place right now,” she says. “If this actually comes true, I’d be so excited for myself and the community.”

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