A conversation with Benjamin Alfaro
Benjamin Alfaro’s work has appeared in a range of journals, including Union Station, Cognitive Liberation, Mangrove Review, Stymie, Acentos Review, and the Red Cedar Review. He is also co-author of Home Court (Red Beard Press, 2014), a collaborative poetry collection, and co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival's Michigan chapter. He has been featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices and on Michigan public radio. Currently, he is the Youth Leadership Coordinator and a Writer-in-Residence at InsideOut Literary Arts Project. Ben offered to share some thoughts with me about his experience as a writer, student, and teacher in Detroit.
When and how did you start writing poetry?
I began writing poetry early in high school through the guidance of Jeff Kass, an Ann Arbor-based educator. His curriculum and programming opened me up to a world of creative writing and performance. I didn’t venture into the Detroit literary arts scene until late in high school.
What can you tell me about the history of Detroit's spoken word/slam scene?
There is often a phrase used—The Detroit School—around contemporary writers. Mostly, this stems from the work of Vievee Francis and Matthew Olzmann, a Hamtramck-based couple that have taught and been published extensively. Many of the notable contemporary writers in Detroit have trained under their tutelage to some degree: Jamaal May, Airea D. Matthews, Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, Tommy Blount, Isaac Miller. This community of writers is less concentrated in the “slam scene” per say, though some have fared well in that arena. In regard to slam, there’s dozens of solid open mic and feature venues around town. The major venues seem to rotate every few years - when I first moved to Detroit it was Beans & Bytes, then Cliff Bell’s, then L!V Lounge. Much of that has to do with businesses closing or changing management.
I am new to Detroit. Who are the spoken word poets that I should be reading or hearing? Which venues and performance spaces should I visit?
It’s important to not pigeon hole all poets as either slam/spoken word poets or not, though some may very well welcome that term. I think slam is something that poets may do but to demarcate them as “slam poets” has always rubbed me the wrong way in that it seems to erase their capacity to move from stage to page. That said, spoken word is an integral part of the art and one of the most effective vehicles I use to bring students into the realm of literary arts. Definitely check out: They Say, American Bistro, Nandi's Knowledge Cafe, and WayneSLAM for their schedules. All of those vary in how “slammy” the particular venue may be. Writers to know, including the list from above, would include: Chace Morris, francine j. harris, Bill Harris, T. Miller, Mic Phelps, and Deonte Osayande.
From your perspective, how has the changing landscape of Detroit shaped its poetry?
Poetry in Detroit has seemingly buoyed the recession and bankruptcy fairly well. There’s been as many, if not more, thriving events throughout my time in Detroit. I think art, especially art that challenges the status quo, will have an eager audience. In the last year or so, with the influx of new big venues (Hopcat, etc.) there’s been even more poetry events added to the slate. I think depending on which area poet you ask, you'll get a different opinion about which venues are great and which ones not so much, but the point remains that there's always a wide selection to choose from in every stretch of the city.
What do you hope for the future of Detroit poetry?
I hope that the institutional and academic powers that be continue and expand their support of literary arts. Knight and Kresge do a lot of important stimulus work for artists that should not go unrecognized but I think there is even more work that can be done. I think having a strong MFA or graduate writing program housed at Wayne State or Detroit Mercy would be a huge plus. Some of the longterm projects I'm working on include establishing a youth poet laureate for the city, implementing more structured creative writing programming in the schools and community centers, and working toward the iO mission of putting a writer in every classroom.