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.

M.L. does not leave his editorial instincts in bound volumes. Dedicated to making poetry broadly available and accessible, he has been organizing readings in the city of Detroit for decades. These readings often combine poetry, fiction, and music on the same stage, and have inspired collaborations across the arts. M.L. tells me that there was once a “poetry band” scene in the late 1980s, with poets reading and performing to avant-garde, jazz, and rock ensembles. His “Magic Poetry Band” was part of that moment, as were poets like John Sinclair, Ron Allen, and Roberto Warren.

That collaborative spirit is still present at one of M.L.’s monthly curated series, Detroit Tonight Live, hosted at the The Jazz Cafe at Music Hall. At my first visit to Detroit Tonight Live, in January, I bump into Diane DeCillis, a poet whom I met last fall when she read at my home university. We end up talking about form: Diane’s been working on a haibun lately, and she told me she found the intersection of haiku and prose liberating.

Hybrid form is an apt metaphor for the first performance of the evening, a conversation in verse between W.L. Bush and Donna Vinstra. Vinstra’s poem “Connected by Blood,” was a first-person landscape poem of Detroit, heavy with metaphors that returned to the refrain “my city is a machine.” Vinstra’s poem was regularly interrupted by Bush’s spoken word response poem, called “Rejected by Blood,” an activist recounting of the history of exploitation, offshoring, and racial violence that still shapes Detroit (exhibit A: Bush’s references to the recent water shut-offs), critiquing both white flight and white return. Vinstra’s mainstream lyric vision was carved out and ironized by Bush’s performance, neither entirely refuting nor supplanting the other.

The blurring of distinctions between race and class, city and suburb, characterized the rest of the reading. Pietro Di Giorgio, who described himself as “older than the hills,” read some moving confessions about aging and death. Later, I heard from a poet and singer who called himself Easy Danger--early twenties, dreadlocks, red hoodie, headphones. M. L. tells me that this kind of aesthetic, social, cultural, and racial blending has been a characteristic of the Detroit poetry world. Vinstra and Bush’s performance suggested that this crossing isn’t necessarily an instance of reductionism or oversimplification, but a mutually supportive struggle, a frictional rapport.