On the design of poetic mentorship

Trained as an engineer, Christine Rhein spent the first part of her adult life working in the auto industry, that boom and bust core of the Detroit economy.  She tells me that this background in mechanical design has shaped her poetry in a kind of dialectics of freedom and constraint.  On the one hand, she finds herself approaching a new poem as a puzzle to be solved, a design problem.  And yet the poem as problem doesn't lend itself to a purely mathematical or rational solution.  Instead, a kind of surprise haunts the poetic machine.  Christine explores this tension in “Self-Portraits, Three-Way Mirror,” where engineering represents “the comfort of balanced equations” in contrast to the “complicated daydreams” of poetry, “the calculated quest for / a certain and safe design” giving way to the risk of poetic lines refusing to fall into place.  

This poem comes from Wild Flight, Christine’s 2008 collection published by Texas Tech University Press as winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Series in Poetry.  Christine attributes this book to the local community that helped foster her growth as a writer.  In particular, she points to a weekly poetry workshop led by Mary Jo Firth Gillett, which Christine attended for over a decade.  That workshop, she tells me, "was my MFA."  

In late February, Mary Jo invited me to her home to talk poetry, Detroit, and the community of writers who encourage and mentor one another.  Mary Jo’s work has earned a number of awards and recognitions.  Her book Soluble Fish (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007) was published as a part of the Crab Orchard Award Series, while her most recent chapbook, Dance Like a Flame, was awarded the Hill-Stead Sunken Garden Poetry Prize in 2013.  In 2012, she was a Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts, an award recognizing individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the arts in Detroit.  In our conversation, Mary Jo expressed enthusiasm for Detroit poets but was cautious about the concept of “Detroit poetry.”  Good poetry moves beyond its place of origin, she noted; at the same time, the negative stereotypes about Detroit may cause poets to embrace the name as an opportunity to challenge stereotypes about the city. She does feel as if there is a passionate frankness that Detroit seems to foster, an unwillingness to back down from confrontation that comes out in the poems.

The cultivation of community and mentorship that I found in Christine and Mary Jo’s relationship is a testimony to the work of organizations like Springfed Arts, which organized the workshop where Christine transformed herself from engineer to poet.  I learned a bit more about Springfed through a conversation with John D. Lamb, a songwriter who runs the organization.   John began facilitating collaboration between writers in the 90s, when he organized a songwriting retreat. A few years later, he began a new retreat for poets and fiction writers. They met in a location not far from Windemere, Ernest Hemingway’s family cottage. Eventually, Springfed Arts began offering writing classes, which met in libraries, community centers, and even the backroom of a Big Boy restaurant. The courses give practicing writers a chance to earn income while new and developing writers receive workshop training and mentorship. Springfed also sponsors an annual fiction and poetry prize.

Hearing the stories of Christine, Mary Jo, and Springfed Arts, I can’t help but think about the complex web of writing communities, institutions, and friendships operating in any city.  So much of that work flourishes in small, quotidian spaces, tucked away in public libraries and Big Boy restaurants.  Histories of a place that rely too heavily on the narratives of large institutions miss much of the work that happens between individuals or in small groups.  Such poetry is neither designed nor spontaneous; it emerges from the daily work of community.