Cover Story: 'Where I Should Be'

The Zen and now of Ink Tank

May 5, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Una-Kariim Cross

Kathy Holwadel is Ink Tank's one-woman think tank. As a stockbroker, she used to send poetry to clients.

"I was always a weird stockbroker," Kathy Holwadel says. "When the market went down, I would send my clients poetry."

That explains some things.

When I heard that Holwadel had been in finance for 20 years, I expected someone in the Gordon Gekko mold or a potential den mother to the Boiler Room set schooling Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel on how to cheat people out of their life savings.

Instead Holwadel spends her Wednesday afternoons writing alongside children at an Over-the-Rhine community center and is a member of New Prospect, the church of firebrand boycott leader and failed council candidate the Rev. Damon Lynch III.

Seems a strange mix for a 48-year-old white woman who hails from the East side of town. Culture vulture? Urban missionary?

Or someone who's applying lessons learned in corporate America to a creative project that has the potential to create meaningful dialogue across this city's hardened lines of race and class?

Holwadel doesn't have time to waste sorting through questions like these.

She's too busy getting things done.

Her brainchild is Ink Tank, a citywide writing program that reaches people who are usually left out of the coffeeshop writing circles and MFA programs. In its tagline, the organization promises to change Cincinnati one word at a time.

The fallout following Timothy Thomas' April 2001 death at the hands of police helped her decide that the driving force behind the project would be social justice and racial reconciliation.

"It had something to do with the riots and Damon Lynch and Mayor Luken saying he wouldn't talk to the boycott group," she says. "I thought that was wrong, to cut off people's voices like that. I decided I would try to integrate Cincinnati by myself if I had to, with writing instead of these nice talks about race where people get together for a short amount of time. How do you get people to know each other?"

Sitting around a table baring your soul to a group of strangers is a good start.

Holwadel practices what she preaches weekly at the Drop Inn Center, where Ink Tank has partnered with a residential drug and alcohol treatment program housed there.

"A lot of the guys come in really skeptical," she says. "It's Mark (Mussman, a volunteer), who's a militant socialist; me, the middle-aged, well-intentioned white woman; and a room full of black guys who've been on heroin for 33 years. I don't know why they put up with me. We're explaining our lives to each other."

She acknowledges the need to recruit more volunteers of color, but that won't make her leadership any less relevant. Part of Holwadel's ability to connect honestly with these men is the fact that her 20-year-old son has battled cocaine addiction and is currently serving a two-year sentence for armed robbery.

She speaks candidly about her son's incarceration, a reality that would shame most middle-class white mothers into silence. She's on her third draft of a how-to guide about the experience.

"It offers pointers on how to survive your child's first felony conviction," she laughs, adding that she started the book when she left her job in finance four years ago. "It was the only job I ever had. I never really wanted to do it, but I made a lot of money and got trapped by that. I always wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but instead my creative outlet was a financial column I wrote."

Merrill Lynch and The Enquirer couldn't offer much stability when everything else in her life started to shift. She divorced after 18 years of marriage; her mother died of cancer and her son's problems grew.

"I guess when everything falls apart you just say, 'Oh well, let's get rid of the job, too,' " she says.

When working on her son's story became a lonely pursuit, Holwadel started thinking about a writing center. She took initial steps last summer with an alternative speaker series at the Mercantile Library, not the hippest of literary spots.

The idea was to bring in a younger and more diverse audience by showcasing artists like the Know Theater Tribe and poets/performers Abiyah and Embrya deShango. But the partnership was short lived.

"They really do just want to serve their constituency," Holwadel says.

Good collaboration is the lifeblood of Ink Tank. Holwadel partners with groups like Emanuel Community Center and Corryville Recreation Center to find participants, and she looks to established organizations like the Cincinnati Public Library and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for the resources she and her small group of volunteers need.

"I'm not at all sure we need a building," she says. "Cincinnati has plenty of wonderful organizations that already exist. There are lots of people who will give you lots of stuff."

Well, most of the time.

Holwadel says she's also come across people who don't share her goal of amplifying marginalized voices. Sometimes she has to read between the lines, but the "black folks aren't my thing" message is there, peeking out from behind the code words.

"I've had people tell me that they're not interested in 'urban culture' or that they only want to work with 'smart kids,' " she says. "I wasn't sensitive to the subtle racism that permeates everything."

Holwadel's next effort to open lines of communication will come on May 22, when Ink Tank and the Cincinnati Public Library co-host a daylong festival at Memorial Hall for local writers. The day will feature panels on getting published, poetry and prose workshops, a slam invitational at The Greenwich and keynote remarks by Dave Eggers, wunderkind author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

That Eggers has agreed to come for free is a godsend. Ink Tank operates on a shoestring budget, and Holwadel says it's only a matter of time before she loses steam without the help of paid staff.

Jocardo Ralston, a playwright and one of the many well-respected local writers who volunteer as tutors, says Holwadel's drive is the sustaining force for now.

"She's the first person I've talked to who doesn't bitch but actually does," he says. "Her approach is that if we're gonna change (this city) someone's gotta start."

Holwadel wakes up at 4 a.m. on weekdays. In addition to building Ink Tank full time, she helps raise two young stepchildren and bikes between 25 and 50 miles a week. The people around her say her discipline and work ethic are an inspiration.

An insider's knowledge of the stock market and a commitment to a simple lifestyle support her plan to never draw a salary from her work with Ink Tank.

"There's nothing else I want materially," she says with calm resolve. "I am where I should be." ©