New book ‘Respect’ views figures of Detroit’s music community as poets

Nov 27, 2019 at 1:00 am
M.L. Liebler, “the poobah of Detroit poetry.”
M.L. Liebler, “the poobah of Detroit poetry.” Jessica Trevino and Mandi Wright

Have you — or has anyone, for that matter — ever thought of Marshall Mathers, his eminence Eminem, as a poet? Or Jack White? Stewart Francke? Champtown? Martin "Tino" Gross? Three of the five members of the MC5?

Well, perhaps a poetic paradigm shift may be on the horizon. Because those illustrious made-in-Detroit musicians, along with such notable outliers as Billy Bragg, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, and Robbie Robertson, are all contributors to an extraordinary, historic new collection titled Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music ($29.95, Michigan State University Press) compiled by M.L. Liebler, the poobah of Detroit poetry, and prolific fellow poet and author Jim Daniels.

More than two years in the compiling, the book showcases over 140 versifiers, from John Sinclair to Fred "Sonic" Smith, Fats Domino to the Electrifying Mojo, all with one connecting thread: a fascination with and admiration for the city of Detroit and our diverse, wondrous musical heritage.

Consider these reflections from the late Rob Tyner, who once kicked out the jams with Smith and Wayne Kramer for our iconic rock renegades the MC5, and how the lyrics to his song "Grande Days" in memory of Detroit's legendary Grande Ballroom land like poetry when committed to the printed page:

"Now the Ballroom stands empty

Nobody ever comes to play.

They took out the PA system, and

Put the light show away.

But, if the Grande could talk

What stories she would tell,

Of when the music rolled and thundered

Like fireworks from Hell

Of the violence out in the parking lot, and

The craziness backstage

When the Detroit scene exploded, and

The Grande was the latest rage.

Grande days, Grande days,

I had some wild nights

Back in my Grande days."

While many of the selections in the prodigious 443-page volume are song lyrics reprinted with permission, many other musicians and poets, like White, Desiree Cooper, Lolita Hernandez, and John D. Lamb, created original works expressly for Respect. Abdul "Duke" Fakir, last of the original Four Tops still spinning, wrote the foreword. The book receives its official launch at 2 p.m. Sunday at White's Third Man Records performance venue.

Liebler, an internationally acclaimed poet, activist, and mainstay of the Wayne State University College of Liberal Arts & Sciences since 1980, says the idea for Respect was borne out of his award-winning 2017 anthology Heaven Was Detroit: From Jazz to Hip-Hop and Beyond, published by Wayne State University Press. Given his background and comfort zone, Liebler initially envisioned a book of poems extolling Detroit's musical virtues. "That was the seed," he says, "but when I presented that to Wayne State, they asked me if I would consider making it a collection of essays on Detroit music.

"I really didn't think I knew any music journalists per se," he says. "But I thought about it for oh, I don't know, about 10 seconds, and said, 'Yeah, I do know a bunch of people.' So we went with that."

However, the idea of a poetry compilation still lingered. About that time, Liebler renewed acquaintances with Daniels, the Warren native, his friend since the '80s and a professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. Keeping his home state connections solid, Daniels has had most of his fiction work published by MSU Press. And if the Warriors won't do poetry, Spartans will.

"It wasn't really that Wayne didn't want to do it," Liebler reflects. "I just didn't think they wanted to get involved in another big book like this right away. I may have been wrong about that, and now I know they did want to do it, but they're happy that Michigan State got it — and they did a great job with it."

That job included changing the title of the book, which initially had no Respect.

"No, my working title for those two years was I Just Wanna Testify, which I still kinda like," Liebler says. "I thought it kind of summed up everybody in the book making their statement in poetry about Detroit. In fact, there are probably books out there on some of these authors stating that they were published in I Just Wanna Testify from Michigan State, because that was the title for so long."

However, Julie Loehr, senior acquisitions editor for MSU Press and point person on the publishing side, said a change is gonna come. "We wanted something a bit more powerful," she says, "and as I was watching Aretha's funeral I had an epiphany: Respect. Respect for Detroit's music scene. Respect for Detroit itself. Immediate recognition. I think we are all very happy with the book."

Even Liebler. "You know, Chene Park became the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, the Jazz Café [at Music Hall Center] became Aretha's Jazz Café and is now doing huge business," he acknowledges. "Just changing names can do incredible things."

Liebler also conceived the book as a pocket-sized work, maybe 150 pages — surely not the massive opus it became. "As to the weight gain in pages, M.L. knows so many fine poets and musicians, everyone wanted to be involved," Loehr says. "It was understandable."

The most challenging part, Liebler says, was gaining permission to reprint all those works. "MSU made it clear there was no permissions budget," he says, laughing. "The working writers were pretty much on board gratis, even some of the more famous names. I think they wanted to preserve somewhere the spirit of Detroit music forever. I've always found this to be true: the musician types, even people like Jack White and Eminem, are easiest and fastest with licensing matters, whereas poets, some of whom you may never have heard of, may take months to get back to you."

As for Sunday's launch party, "We have a number of contributors who have agreed to appear, and probably others will be there," Liebler says. "The Book Beat will be selling books, so people will have 25 to 30 or more of the authors there to sign copies. That should be a good opportunity. And there may be some surprise folks there as well."

A book launch party for Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music, including readings by the poets and a performance by M.L. Liebler & the Coyote Monk Poetry Band, will take place from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1 at Third Man Records, 441 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-209-5205; Admission is free.

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