Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures names Sony Ton-Aime as new executive director

click to enlarge Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures names Sony Ton-Aime as new executive director
Photo: Dave Munch
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures executive director Sony Ton-Aime
While an undergrad at Kent State University in 2013, Sony Ton-Aime attended a Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture event featuring writer George Saunders. At the time, the Haitian native was studying accounting and taking an occasional poetry course.
After hearing Saunders speak, and subsequently attending other literary events, Ton-Aime wondered if it was possible to forge a career in the arts. After graduating from Kent State, he returned to Haiti to work as an accountant, but two years later decided he wanted a life beyond ledgers and balance sheets.

“When I was in Haiti working as an accountant, most of my good memories of my time in the United States – most of them, not all of them – were around writing, around the community of writers there,” Ton-Aime tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “It made it easier for me when I decided to come back to go into writing. And poetry was the way for me.”

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures today introduced Ton-Aime as its new executive director. He succeeds Stephanie Flom, who retired in June after nine years with the nonprofit literary organization.

Ton-Aime most recently served as the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. He also worked as the program coordinator for Lake Erie Ink in Cleveland, Ohio, helped found the ID13 Prison Literacy Project, and – in his one other Pittsburgh connection – contributed to the Haitian Creole course on the language-learning Duolingo app.

A published poet in his own right, Ton-Aime wrote the chapbook LaWomann and has poems in publications including Artful Dodge, The Idaho Review, Hunger Mountain Review, and the Cleveland Review of Books.

It was during his tenure hosting the literary series at Chautauqua that Ton-Aime forged connections with writers and agents, and he hopes to leverage those relationships for Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures programming.

Ton-Aime plans on continuing what he thinks of as one of PA&L’s key tenets: promoting books as a connective tissue in the community.

“I do believe that when a writer is writing, usually by themselves, they are thinking about an audience, they are thinking about other writers that they are in conversation with,” Ton-Aime says. “So, this is itself a communal thing."

He adds, “And I think this is true for readers as well. When you’re reading, you’re thinking about the conversations you’re going to have with other people about the thing you are reading. … You have a colony of people in your head that you’re thinking about, and you have had previous conversations that you had with other people that are coming into your reading of this work, right? Every time we are reading a book, the next step is already there because we’re thinking about sharing it with other readers. And what Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures does, is to provide this space for you to have this conversation.”

Ton-Aime also seeks to maintain the quality programming available through PA&L’s series, including Ten Evenings, Made Local, New & Noted, Words & Pictures, and Poets Aloud.

He also hopes to bring his sensibilities as a poet to the organization.

“We are making beauty out of nothing,” he says of the way poets perceive and transcribe the world. “And that’s the goal – it’s to capture beauty, and to reinvent our definition of beauty in a poem. This practice trained me to see things in new ways.

“That does not mean there will be radical changes at all. I do think the work that Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures is doing is so beautiful, that I want to keep that and cherish that and strengthen it. But in the way of doing that, we can still add some beauty to our world. Because that’s what poetry does – poetry gives you something you can think about, our reality, and turn it into a beautiful thing.”