Paul Jaussen

Detroit poetries: Field notes

InsideOut Literary Arts Project and the poetics of abundance

Recently, one of the writers teaching for InsideOut Literary Arts (iO) shared Kandinsky with second graders. It was more of a dialogue than a lesson, as the students were asked to write back to Kandinsky, to engage his painting through language.  

Sharing the stage: Detroit Tonight Live

W.L. Bush and Donna Vinstra at Detroit Tonight Live. Photo courtesy of M. L. Liebler.

When I began asking about poetry in Detroit, everyone told me to go talk to M. L. Liebler. M. L. is a poet, teacher, and arts organizer who has written and edited over 13 books. He teaches at Wayne State University, where he also edits the Made in Michigan series, which is dedicated to publishing creative work by Michigan authors. His recent edited collection, Working Words: Punching The Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, is the first anthology I’ve seen that brings together Amiri Baraka, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Diane Wakoski, Eminem, and Brett Lott. They all have something to say about working-class life.

The Writer's Block @ the DIA

Guest author: Sarah Fewkes

(Left to Right) Rev. G. Yusef Qualls (reading for his son Yusef Qualls–el), Lori Platt (reading for her cousin Jamie Laufenberg), and Demetric aka Shabazz Shakur (reading for his friend David Armstrong Jones). Video still by Katie Barkel. Image courtesy of the Hamtramck Free School.

In late February, poetry traveled from the prison to the art museum. The Writer’s Block, a poetry workshop held at the Macomb Correctional Facility, hosted a poetry reading at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Writer’s Block has a long history; most recently, the workshop partnered with the Hamtramck Free School, an arts organization that embraces free learning and interaction between peers.

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.

A reading at the Woodward Line

My first encounter with a Detroit poetry institution was the Woodward Line Poetry series, a monthly reading at the Scarab Club in Midtown organized by James Hart III and Kim Hunter. The series has been running for over 10 years, featuring poets from within and beyond Detroit.  I first attended the Woodward Line back in September, when Nathaniel Mackey opened the 2014-15 series.

The January 2015 reading featured two Detroit writers, Steve Hughes and James LaCroix, and a Windsor, Ontario writer, Gustave Morin. Snow had fallen all day, so the crowd was initially sparse.