A brief history of Detroit experimentalism, by way of the Book Beat

Bordering Detroit to the northeast is the city of Oak Park. In the middle of Oak Park is Lincoln Shopping Center, a nondescript suburban strip mall, the kind that typically houses a Family Dollar, a liquor store, maybe a restaurant. Lincoln Center is also home to the Book Beat, an independent bookshop owned by Cary Loren. Like most great bookshops, Book Beat’s shelves are crowded and distracting, spilling onto the floor and crowding the aisles. Their offerings are wide-ranging, from art photography to New York Times best-selling fiction, but without any of the middling blandness that characterizes the big box corporate store. Book Beat feels serious and yet welcoming.

I’m pleased to discover a substantial poetry section, situated near the front of the store and actually divided into various subcategories. Under “local poetry” I find several volumes of Dispatch Detroit, a journal published by Doorjamb Press. I buy a copy of the most recent volume they have, from 2008. The shop also carries a significant collection of work by earlier generations of Detroit artists, including Destroy All Monsters, the band Cary helped form in the early 1970s.

Cary invited me to the Book Beat to speak with him about that poetry/art/music/activist history in Detroit. We sat in a back room filled with sculptures, framed posters, and stacks of books. The story Cary tells is remarkable and involved, deserving its own monograph.  Cary begins with Monteith College, an experimental school formed in 1959 within Wayne State University that drew in radical faculty from around the world. The focus on creative student experimentation and production, including the publication of mimeographed journals, inspired students to develop their own collectives and spaces of poetry, visual art, music, and photography. The Red Door Gallery was one of the first collaborative and avant-garde spaces to be established out of the Monteith energies. Later formations emerged, including the Detroit Artist’s Workshop Society, Trans-Love Energies, and the Cass Corridor. These groups established affiliations around the country and the world–members of the Detroit Artist’s Workshop traveled to the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference at the invitation of Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson.

Many of the details of this history have been documented on the Detroit Artist’s Workshop website, but, as Aldon Nielson put it to me recently, many books still need to be written about the history of Detroit’s avant-garde. Cary's documentation of that past will serve a critical function in those future studies.