Writing with a Y

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Once known by men in need of shelter as a cheap place to lay one’s head, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) has come a long way.

The local “Y,” as it became known in numerous urban centers, opened its doors to just about anyone looking to shoot hoops, practice gymnastics, take a swim or maybe even learn one of the martial arts.

So prominent on the American landscape became this friendly, philanthropic institution that by the 1970s it would be immortalized in song by a group of colorfully adorned, sexually liberated male performers, in what remains the Village People’s biggest hit recording decades later — the simply titled “YMCA.” But who could have ever predicted that the Y would foster artistic and literary endeavor as it headed into its third century of existence? Maybe the Village People were prophetic when they chimed, “It’s fun to play at the Y-M-C-A,” because organizers, especially in metro Detroit, have considerably expanded its creative playground.

“They’ve been known for swim and gym, but they’ve also been known to the community to have the kinds of offerings that include dance classes, choirs,” says M.L. Liebler, director of the YMCA Writer’s Voice initiative.

Liebler’s mission is to expand programs that spotlight poetry, creative writing and performance art to all 14 metro Detroit YMCA branches. Especially with the scheduled 2005 completion of the downtown Y facility, Liebler says, promoting the arts is the local organization’s main objective: “For them to have this focus toward 2005 shows how progressive they really are.”

Planned for construction in the location that currently serves as a parking lot at the Broadway station of the People Mover, Liebler says the downtown facility will feature a 200-seat performance and film theater, art gallery, dance studio, classrooms, a pool and a gym.

“That will make our program one of the flagships for all the Y’s in the country,” he adds.

“It’s a new area for the Y. The Y is not generally known for being an arts and humanities kind of place. But in Detroit, that’s been a big part of my job since I started in 1994.”

To kick off the 2004 arts and humanities program schedule, the Writer’s Voice will hold workshops Friday, Jan. 16-Sunday, Jan. 18. The weekend is scheduled to include poetry, music and a special appearance by popular mystery writer and Bloomfield Hills resident Elmore “Dutch” Leonard.

Events planned are:

• Friday at the Scarab Club, 217 E. Farnsworth near the Detroit Institute of Arts — Free performances by nationally known poets Roger Wiengarten and Claire Rossini at 7:30 p.m. “Sandwiched in between them,” Liebler says, will be a performance by Vermont opera singer Kate Fetherston, accompanied on piano.

“We’ve had music incorporated throughout the years in our events at the Scarab Club,” adds Liebler “It turns out Kate is the wife of one of the poets (Wiengarten). … I like putting stuff like this with the poetry because then it becomes multi-disciplined.”

• Saturday at the Scarab Club from 10 a.m. to noon — Rossini, a writing instructor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., will offer a “craft workshop” discussion about writing. Admission is $20.

• Sunday, 1 p.m. at the North Oakland YMCA, 3378 E. Walton Blvd. in Auburn Hills, across from Oakland University — Leonard, whose 40th book, Mr. Paradise, is scheduled for publication this month, will give a craft workshop. Admission is $20. Liebler asks that anyone interested in attending Rossini’s or Leonard’s workshop’s call 313-267-5300, extension 338, to reserve a seat. Leonard and Rossini will give free readings of their works at 3 p.m.

Leonard, who recently began a promotional tour in support of Mr. Paradise, says he enjoys addressing audiences like those of the Writer’s Voice.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says.

And although he hadn’t expected to conduct a writing workshop, the author jokingly says he’ll “fake it.”

Past guests of the Writer’s Voice have included scholars and writers, such as poets Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. The Voice’s reputation as a progressive aspect of YMCA programming has helped attract notable literary figures, says Liebler.

The Voice was actually established at New York’s West Side YMCA 23 years ago, but it has only recently moved to the forefront of the association’s efforts, he adds. As metro Detroit director, Liebler says he looks forward to the challenge of helping communities associate creative expression with the local Y, just as quickly as it is associated with recreation.

“Our thing is to cater to all the audiences,” he says, “the avant-garde, artsy artists, the traditional, the slam [poetry] artists and everything in between.”


For more about YMCA Writer’s Voice events, call M.L. Liebler at 313-267-5300, ext. 338. Elmore Leonard also reads at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, at Borders Books in Birmingham, 34300 Woodward. Call 248-203-0005.

Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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