Rock 'N' Roll
About the many nights
Of rock 'n' roll I've spent
In my youth
My grandma taught me
How to rock
She hummed Elvis
While she sewed my pants
She liked Elvis.
She liked him so much
That she bought me a black leather jacket
With zippers and a motorcycle hat
Like Marlon Brando's
That really pissed Mrs. Taylor off!
She kicked me out of first grade
She said I'd be a bad influence
On all the other kids
Ah — I didn't like those snotty nosed kids
They couldn't rock
— M.L. Liebler
Countercultural rabble-rouser John Sinclair is one of his best pals. He jams with musical genre definers such as Al Kooper, Country Joe and Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonan. He reads with beat legend Michael McClure and has a bunch of '60s iconoclasts on speed dial. He inspires young writers and musicians. He's a jazz-minded beat disciple who used to hang with Kerouac's first wife, who has shot the shit with Burroughs, Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and about any other cultural scribe who made it to the '80s alive. Oh, and he brought Bukowski to Detroit.
Elvis was his first taste of rock 'n' roll, but then the Beatles dethroned the King and flipped life on its head and through a kaleidoscope. Hell, this guy even teaches a Fab Four class at Detroit's Wayne State University. No, he's not some burnout hippie leftover, that one graybeard wandering around shoeless in tie-dye still looking for his generation.
He is a hippie though, a sober one; a blue-collar boho high on Jesus who gets kicks performing poetry with some of Detroit's most talented musicians, such as bluesman Robert Jones, jazzman Faruq Z. Bey and one of the hardest-working rock 'n' roll bands in Detroit — easily the most well-read — the High Strung.
Yeah, at this point, M.L. Liebler couldn't drop the beret or shave his patented Gandalf-ish white beard if he wanted to. Maybe that's what happens when some consider you an icon.
Born out of wedlock in the mid-'50s, the 55-year-old Liebler was raised by his grandparents east of Detroit on Lake St. Clair. He fell in love with rock 'n' roll, and then his future wife of 40 years, to whom he's still married. It was within the working-class confines of St. Clair Shores that a 6-year-old Liebler would scribble what he'd later learn were poems on scrap pieces of paper and in the margins of mundane school textbooks.
If his alternative senior-year spring break (circa '73) to Greenwich Village didn't turn him on for good, then an early Doors concert and Gil Scott-Heron records certainly did. His college years — which were split between Macomb Community College and Oakland University — saw Liebler heading up the Ridgeway Press, an underground collection of unruly art-minded freaks. M.L. Liebler would go on to head up other significant Michigan-based writing collectives, like the Poetry Resource Center. Today, with Springfed Arts, a Detroit-based haven for writers and poets from around the Great Lake State, he's at the epicenter of Detroit's poetry scene. Without him, Detroit might not really have one. Here he is — 13 books and a handful of CDs later — ever-prolific, writing, performing and teaching around the world.
Metro Times hit the road with the journeyman poet last week for a whirlwind trip to Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he led a poetry workshop at the local library and performed with the High Strung to a crowd of aspiring writers. During our 10 hours on the road, I got to know the man as a student, a teacher, a poet, a musician, a father and a husband. As an effusive gent who puts nearly two decades of context into every one of his stories, he's a difficult interview because, simply, it'd be easier to write a book about him.
At his core, Liebler's all about devotion and honesty, and the unending search for the poetry in everyday life. He has a million yarns born of experiences — like working for Israel's Department of State teaching English in bombproof bunkers while Hezbollah mortars rained from the sky. But his story is embedded in Detroit, rooted in his route to find religion. The connective tissue that ties it all together? Poetry and rock 'n' roll, which, for M.L. Liebler, are two legs attached to the same vagabond body.
M.L. Liebler: Number nine, number nine, number nine ...
Metro Times: Speaking of the '60s, when was the last time someone thought you were John Sinclair?
Liebler: [laughs] Why, 'cause of the beard? He's rippin' off my beard, man. It may have happened once, but the person was cross-eyed and had been passed a joint. I would hope that if someone thought I was John they'd at least realize how much younger I am (laughs).
MT: Sinclair attempted political overthrow, but you actually worked on McGovern's campaign — maybe an attempt to change the system from within. You're a community-minded, left-leaning member of academia — a word you probably don't like — but it's fair to say you know as many people in Detroit as anyone. Have you ever considered running for political office?
Liebler: Yeah, actually I have. I'm the poet-laureate of my little city, St. Clair Shores, but I've often thought about running for city council there. I toyed with the idea until I caught some of their sessions on public access because — and this would probably be the same on a state or national level — but I'm too much of a get-it-done kind of person. I don't have time to dick around about whether a streetlight should be four or five inches taller for a couple hours, then something that stupid gets tabled till the next session. No, thanks ...
MT: Let's imagine you went into politics in St. Clair Shores. What would you do?
Liebler: I'd like to see a bigger emphasis on the arts and treat the arts within the city with more respect than I've ever seen them treated — and I've lived there my whole life. I mean, St. Clair Shores is ...
MT: Is not at all synonymous with "the arts" ...
Liebler: Right. But what's true is how many artists are in St. Clair Shores. Just looking at it, so many local musicians and artists are from there. Eddie Baranek is from the Shores, as are Aran Ruth, the Muggs and Alan Schuerman; Patti Smith and Fred Smith lived there for many years. The place breeds artists.
MT: But at some point, all the artists you mentioned moved to Detroit or closer to the city. You stayed in the suburbs.
Liebler: It's kind of a nostalgia thing, you know. I think a lot of young people — now and back when I was growing up — felt that the suburban life totally stifled them. They resented it and couldn't wait to get out. I have the opposite sort of thing going on. I think it's because of my deeply rooted monogamous character. I've been with the same female for 40 years and I'm only 55, and I've lived in the same city all my life and have no desire to move. Working at Wayne State University has been the only real job I've ever had and I've been there for about 30 years. I've never felt restricted in my relationship or confined by my job or living space. I was just thinking about this — when you add it all up, I live outside of America for two or three months a year and I think that's part of it too.
MT: You're a citizen of the world then?
Liebler: That's been an interesting trip for me. I think I had to go around the world a bunch of times to find out where I was supposed to be and what home really means to me.
MT: There's definitely something romantic going on with your globetrotting "poet on the road" thing. You bring jazzy, funky, rock 'n' roll poetry to folks in rural China and from New York City to Sault Ste. Marie. You're no recluse.
Liebler: I come from a different place than most poets. It goes back to my working-class, non-academic reality. I see poetry as a way of life, an essential nutrient to everyday life for every person — not just for intellectuals, people who went to college or those who just read a lot. I think poetry is something that people need and can use, but they have to be exposed to it in an accessible way. Some poets don't see their mission that way, and that's fine, not all poets need to see things that way, but, for me, that's the only way to do it — get out there and bring it to the people.
MT: You make it sound as if poetry is a mission.
Liebler: It's bigger than me. I'm fortunate to be in a position to go places from Los Angeles to Jerusalem and everywhere in between, but I never forget where I came from. The way I view art and being an artist — and this isn't for everyone — but I think it's a gift from God. If you look at my story and my history, there's no other explanation for it. Why else does a kid from a working-class family sit down as a 6-year-old and write what he'll later learn is poetry on scrap paper and in the margins of textbooks? I wasn't getting that at home, I was getting rock 'n' roll at home! If you were to ask me who Emily Dickenson was, I probably would've told you that she lives around the corner, near Garfield and Fifth Street. Being a poet wasn't anything I ever desired to be, like, "Oh, I'm going to grow up and be a poet." That's something I've seen watching some of the young poets who think being a poet is about being a star or something. It's nothing about that — you don't go into this for stardom.
MT: Aside from the slam scene, there aren't many poets who do the live thing like you do. Even then, you don't necessarily read your poems, it's more of a sing-speak thing.
Liebler: Even when I do readings without music it's more of a musical thing. If there's not a band, I still might do one or two pieces with some musical backing just to show the audience everything that I do and that can be done with poetry — at some point I have to explain why I'm carrying around all these CDs.
MT: You described your relationship with poetry as a godly one. Did you have some sort of spiritual awakening?
Liebler: I was raised Lutheran by my grandparents who insisted I go to church and Sunday school and get confirmed — they never went. I was into it though, even through the roughest parts of the '60s, politically and culturally, I always maintained a God consciousness. What I was ultimately working for was a sense of reaching a period of enlightenment. I studied Buddhism with Alan Watts and learned a bit about the beats and was kind of taking an Eastern philosophic approach. I wanted to get to a point where I was enlightened, but without any drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. That was my goal from my late teenage years, which in hindsight seems kind of odd. Slowly, I lost all of my vices — I used to smoke a lot of cigarettes and smoked marijuana and experimented with hallucinogens and that kind of thing. I'm glad I did those things though because I feel it was all part of the trip, but I always wanted to move on.
MT: So you were always quite aware of your spiritual trip?
Liebler: Absolutely! And in '75, I was 22 or something like that, my wife and I both learned transcendental meditation — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and all that. They would talk about reaching cosmic consciousness and I remember in the classes there were always those people who were like, "When can I expect this to kick in?" The guy who led the class said there was no real way to tell but that reports showed that after about 10 years of practice people felt something. So I meditated twice a day for about 20 minutes at a time every day for 10 years. Now my wife was raised Catholic and was always a churchgoer, we were going to church on a regular basis. Being raised a Lutheran, being a Catholic is like being a heretic — it's not something you want to do. Being Lutheran, marrying a Catholic was kind of taboo — if my grandparents know I converted I'm sure they're rolling in their graves. So, I started going to church every Sunday and I felt pretty comfortable with that, but not enough to convert yet. As time went on, I got more and more entrenched and in 1985 I had what I would call a major re-awakening to the Christian faith.
MT: Was there a specific catalyst that led to some sort of "ah-ha" moment?
Liebler: I had, for a number of years, struggled with anxiety and panic attacks — this was before they knew what it was. Now everybody has anxiety, right? It plagued me from when I was about 17 until 1985. I would medicate myself in social situations with alcohol to be able to feel comfortable around a lot of people, like at parties and concerts. I wanted to not rely on anything. I used to get into this thing where I would make deals with God: "If you take away my panic attacks, I promise you that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be to the glory of God." You don't make deals like that, that's not the way it works. I finally got to the breaking point on Christmas Eve, 1985. I said, "I don't care about poetry or anything like that, I just want to be closer to you, God." And God talked to me —
MT: When you say God talked to you —
Liebler: He talked to me! I heard him! He said, "You asshole! You don't have to give up poetry, you just had to get to that point and realize you could make that sacrifice." That was the conversion point. My panic attacks steadily decreased and I started to get spiritually stronger. I was reconnected. Some churches might call that being "born again," but I don't know about that, it was just reality for me, it was just something that happened.
MT: How did the panic attacks affect your writing?
Liebler: It was physically and emotionally uncomfortable to always try and stay one step ahead of it. It just got in the way.
MT: So you suffered?
Liebler: It made its way into the writing, sure.
MT: Did your poetry take on different directions post-Christmas, 1985?
Liebler: OK, well, everything, drinking mainly, didn't just come to a stop at that moment. There was a shift, a sea change.
MT: Was drinking part of your writing ritual?
Liebler: Definitely in the early years. You think it's great for your creativity — and I tell this to my students — but then you read it the next day and it's a bunch of crap. That never really yielded anything for me. Well, actually, it yielded shit writing. And with performing, I actually found that I had more nervousness when I was a bit drunk than I did when I was sober. It's like [William] Burroughs always said, "The worse the stage fright the better the performance."
MT: So back to the sea change ...
Liebler: Some interesting things were going on; religion, God and Christianity were working their way in. And I'm not at all new-agey, I'm not going to talk about a vague God-being thing — I'm talkin' about Christ! I felt I had pretty much reached that consciousness I was looking for without any artificial means.
MT: You say "pretty much" — so you still weren't quite there?
Liebler: Based in Royal Oak — back in the days when you couldn't pay people to come to Royal Oak — I was heading the Poetry Resource Center of Michigan and I met up with a poet friend of mine who was doing a reading — Jack Driscoll. To me, he's one of the greatest writers of poetry and fiction. His stuff really spoke to me, spoke to my working-class suburban-self. Driscoll was a real alcoholic. He said to me that night, "M.L., when you can move to that consciousness thing that you're talking about, when you can clean your body out of everything that's bad for it, everything you do and touch, see and smell will be poetry. It'll be crystal clear." When he said that, it really hit me. At the same time, Robbie Robertson (from the Band) came out with his first album (Robbie Robertson). He's a real spiritual guy and I don't know if it is, but that album, if you ask me, sounded just like Christianity. I played that record over and over. All these things were coming together: 10 years of meditation, Driscoll's advice, the Robbie Robertson record obsession. So later that night, I go to see my friend Mike Watt [of the Minutemen], who had a gig in town at Paychecks at like six o'clock on Halloween, I think. So I go and I have a few beers, I probably had a few shots of Anushka too — we were in Hamtramck after all. We shot some pool, hung out and casually drank. I never drank or thought about drinking after that. And just like Jack Driscoll told me, everything slowly started coming into focus to the point that, just like he prophesized, everything I touched and everything I smelled and everything I saw and everything I wrote was poetry. There was something pristine.
MT: Did you go into a Dylan Oh Mercy phase?
Liebler: Oh yeah, are you kidding? I wrote a series of 12 poems on Easter weekend, which was right around the time it all came together. I went into the basement and said, "Alright, I'm going to write some religious pieces." And that's just what I did. It holds up too. I still really like that book.
MT: You say, "Still like that book." Do you not like a lot of your past work?
Liebler: I'm kind of an oddball. Unless I'm reading it in public, I never read old stuff. Here's a story for you: I did a combo book and CD, which has Jorma and Al on it, for Western Michigan University Press called The Moon A Box. There's a crazy story about how the project came together, of course, but a year after contact was first made, it actually comes out. The first track on the CD I did with Professor Louie up at his place in Woodstock, N.Y. — he's the guy who pretty much resurrected the Band's career. It's a killer track. So he comes to town and we perform the first track on the CD and I'm using the book, reading the poem, not thinking too much about it. The piece ends and Louie comes over like, "What the hell ya doing, man? You left out half the poem!" All they knew was the recording we did and here I was reading whatever was in this book. Louie's like, "M.L., there's all this other great stuff on the recording that you didn't read, is everything alright?" So that was the first time I had read the book and had yet to see what was edited in it. I don't do that anymore. What's in there is for the reader.
MT: A couple times on this trip you've referred to other poets as "real poets," suggesting you're not to be considered as such. But here you are, coming back from leading a poetry workshop with a trunk full of books of your poetry. This is what you do.
Liebler: I was recently talking to my wife about this 'cause she comes from the same kind of background as I do. There's something inherent in working-class people; you're brought up being taught that you're no better than anyone else and nobody's better than you. It's instilled in you at an early age. I think it worked for the Beatles, definitely McCartney and Lennon, but I don't know if it worked for Ringo. But, yeah, you don't forget where you came from and because of that you have to remain humbled by it. Some of my favorite poets — Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who punches me in the gut every time I hear her stuff, and W.D. Ehrhart, the well-known Vietnam vet writer — have that sort of feel.
MT: You've been referred to as a "populist poet." What exactly does that mean for you?
Liebler: Yeah, I've heard that, and I'm OK with it. What a populist poet means is that it's a poet who appeals to a large number of the public who find that poet not just accessible, but approachable. When you consider that Walt Whitman is considered a populist poet, it's an honor. Sure, to other poets that might seem like a diss, but I want to appeal to people who in a million years never thought they'd enjoy a poem or go to a poetry reading.
MT: One might say that there's a difference between a poet and a poeticist, someone who explores and deconstructs the myriad mechanics and forms of poetry and language.
Liebler: That's not my bag, I'm not an intellectual.
MT: Where you teach, at Wayne State University, you find poets like yourself on one end of the spectrum — musical, easily accessible — and poets like Chris Tysh or Barrett Watten on the other more intellectual end, to use your word.
Liebler: I do teach some poetry workshops and some creative writing, and I've done a performance poetry seminar a couple of times, but what I've always said is that if I was a student at Wayne State, I would most definitely take some classes from Barrett Watten and I'd definitely do some of Chris Tysh's writing workshops because I would want to open my mind to all the possibilities and experiment in creative writing or seek some sort of enlightenment in a Barrett Watten class or seminar. I also think there are people that come alive and awake to poetry through a poet like Chris Tysh, who works with language and approaches poetry in a way that can turn someone's life around. I think that's so cool.
MT: So there's not a departmental divergence going on?
Liebler: Well, I actually think some of my poetry is much closer to some of their concepts than some of those artists would consider. The fact is that some of the critics on that side of the spectrum don't even read my poetry. But I've always been interested in imagery and unusual blendings of sound and language. I've read with Edwin Torres in New York, I know what it's about, we were on the same page. Tonight I read "The Blood in the Moon" — now what the hell does that mean? "From the undertow / the swirling blood of envy flowed / draining my body pale and dry / upon the bone earth of death." What? I like the feel of that, and I like the sound of that, but that's up to the individual to interpret. That's not too far from the avant-garde, but they would never know that because they would never read that.
MT: Is that frustrating? That they don't read your stuff?
Liebler: No, not really. I'm open to their stuff because I continue to learn things. I've known Chris Tysh and her husband, George, since I was 19 years old. They're more important to me than I'm sure I am to them because they were the elder poets of Detroit and, if anything, I'm a loyalist. I respect them deeply because even though we're about different styles, back in the Ridgeway Press days, when we were the sassy youth and they were the distinguished poets. I remember once I picked up the phone one day and called into George's show Dimensions on WDET and probably said something like, "you call that poetry? I write some real poetry!" And Geroge says "Well send it in." In like a week or so he tells me I can come in and read some on-air. Now I'm sure whatever I sent in was terrible, some of that earlier work I wouldn't even show you it was probably so bad. In fact very few of those Ridgeway Dada poems ever held up. Knit me a pair of your shoes — what the hell does that mean? So George Tysh gave us a date and we went down to the studio. No one knew M.L. Leibler at that point. So the whole Ridgeway crew goes down to WDET — there must've been 15 or 20 of us — and George's like, "Who the hell are all these people? You gotta get rid of them, man, there's no room in here." And he was right, there was barley room for three people. So they sat in hallway and listened while we went on the radio and read these poems. That was something I'll never forget, that might've been a turning point.
MT: So, George Tysh, more or less, introduced you to the city.
LIEBLER: It was cool, but what was most important to me about the whole experience was the music he was playing in the studio. I had never heard anything like it before. I loved it; it was simply phenomenal. I'm like, "George, what the hell is this, man, it's incredible?" And he goes, "Oh, this is Bob Marley — it's called reggae." I'm like, "Wow! No shit? This is blowing my mind!" He shows me the record and it was Natty Dread. It was hard to track it down, but I did and I listened to it over and over and became a huge Bob Marley fan after that.
MT: So there's a connection between the two schools of poetry that can be found in the history and in your poetry. But folks don't look that deep — not that it's even that deep under the surface.
Liebler: That's it! You know, there are different poets for different people, man. I'm sure, in some way, some poets aren't crazy about M.L. Liebler because he's too populist, because he drives all the way up to Sault Ste. Marie and back in a day to do a poetry workshop and perform with the High Strung for 20 people ... in a library. He must be crazy.
MT: You once recited William Blake's poem "London" while backed by a soaring recorded version of Hendrix doing "Born Under a Bad Sign" to a group of Bedouins in an Israeli desert. What are some other crazy locations you've done readings at?
Liebler: There was the library in Siberia — almost as remote was a library in Batesville, Ind., when I performed with John Sinclair. I performed at a working-class university in Macau, China, and went back about three times — I was like the Jerry Lewis of Makow [laughs]. My books continually sold out there, it was crazy.
MT: Who are some other musicians you would like to work with?
Liebler: The thing about musicians I work with is that they have to be poetry-sympathetic. I wouldn't work with musicians based solely on their skill. One musician who I would really like to work with is Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie because I really like his sensitivity and the kind of music he does. That could work really well with what I do. I'd like to record an electronic, DIY thing, like DENTL, the other guy from Postal Service. Gibbard and I in a studio though would be amazing — I really like what he has going on.
MT: You have so many ties to cultural and musical figures of the '60s. Do you ever think you were born too late?
Liebler: No, not at all. I was thinking about this in my Beatles class because you get a lot of students that always say, "Man, I was born in the wrong generation." I think I was born at the right time, in the right place, and that I'm doing the right thing. I'm glad I wasn't born earlier. The '60s were a hard time to grow up if you had a brain and a point of view, but sure, the '60s were a time to be alive and to really dig in and become aware. In that sense, even though I was born a bit later, it really helped shape who I am.
MT: So ... are you a hippie?
Liebler: [laughs] I definitely was a hippie. I mean, I'm still true to the values I've always held. I live by this thing Taj Mahal once said, "I don't care what you do, as long as you do what you say you're going to." I was like 14 when I first heard that and I still believe that. So it goes back to that.
MT: In Detroit, some people think "hippie" is a dirty word.
Liebler: It probably is a dirty word. I don't know — I've always been the same person. I've gotten smarter and I've gotten wiser, but my political views, my spiritual views and my commitment to morality, my commitment to relationships remain — I'm the same guy. So, maybe I still am.
MT: Had you not gone to college and didn't wind up teaching at Wayne State, what would you be doing?
Liebler: The writing would still be there, that's a given. I even tried for a while to stop writing and it just didn't work out. Um, well, I used to be a maintenance guy, cleaning toilets at Sears, replacing the trash bags. I liked that kind of work. It was real work, like factory work or simple assembly. You could call it remedial, but it's real. I was comfortable with that because I had time to think and time to write.
MT: Do you think that could've really happened?
LIEBLER: I remember a time when my grandma came home from parent-teacher conferences when I was in the sixth grade. She comes home and says she had a real interesting conversation with one of my teachers. Naturally, I'm like, "Well, what was it about? Bad? Good?" My grandma said that the teacher thought I would be a really great teacher someday, but specified "not with kids." I had no idea what that meant — people in my family didn't go to college and didn't understand what you had to do to be a teacher, but she had some sort of intuition on what my path would be. I detect that no matter what, I would've ended up exactly where I am.
MT: In Detroit, the music scene is incredibly cohesive, but the poetry community seems splintered, especially on a generational basis. You're heavily attached to both, so maybe you can lend some insight.
Liebler: I don't see it like that. In Detroit, the poetry scene is pretty united, I think. Sure there's the slam and hip-hop scene, but I've always brought them under our auspices. I'm into cross-pollination, like at the Music Hall Jazz Café I might have Thomas Park, Chris Tysh, a woman from Budapest and two Eastern European guitarists all sharing a stage — the crazier the better. I want to see lively, diverse readings — a woman from the burbs with an inner-city kid or something.
MT: But these are all things you're organizing. Take yourself out of the equation and what do you see?
Liebler: I guess you're right, but doesn't that sound a bit egomaniacal?
MT: Only if you say it. ...
Liebler: True. OK. I don't know, man. I try to engineer coups to overthrow me but nobody ever does it! I did do it at the Poetry Resource Center — I lined up a crew to take over and push me out, and they finally did it. We did it when we were young, where's the next phase? I don't know.
MT: Taking a look at the early '70s and where we are today, would you say the scene then puts to shame what we have today?
Liebler: Are you kidding? I think that's all romanticized. We were struggling to get seven people in a room back then. We just did a big poetry walk in Chelsea — different readings at different venues with a ton of different poets that concluded with me and beat legend Michael McClure back at the library. There were probably 500 people that participated. The next day we were at the Scarab Club with McClure, a Republican writer, three women from the suburbs and a lesbian from the city. People were standing, sitting, leaning, crouching, just squeezing in together. There were probably 170 people in a room that comfortably holds 50!
MT: But again, you are at the crux of it. It's perplexing, with Facebook and everything, that writers have a hard time organizing. Detroit's full of 'em!
Liebler: That could be, but another positive I see in Detroit that I don't see in other cities is that black, white, young, old, gay or lesbian, it doesn't matter, writers and poets come to each other's readings no matter what. You don't see that in Chicago, you definitely don't see it in D.C. We have a pretty solid community. I'm always reaching out to the young poets, trying to get them involved in what I'm doing or trying to sponsor what they're doing.
MT: And you do this in-between traveling the world, looking for inspiration for your next book.
Liebler: The travel thing sort of has its place right now, but I don't know how much I'll continue to write about it. I think this latest book [Wide Awake in Someone Else's Dream] has an intense, internalized self-exploration feel. It brings to a culmination of my going all over the globe only to find that Detroit is where I belong. And America! Everything how I used to feel about this country has changed. To be honest, a lot has changed since this last election. I get it now — I love America — but I had to go around the world just to find that out. I think the only other place I could live is Israel.
MT: Going back to your religious awakening?
Liebler: Yeah, I mean, it's where God started, it's where Christ was — it's sacred! I pray frequently in the tomb of Christ and other iconic locations, like the upper room where the Last Supper was. I think that's part of the bigger plan. I think God has a plan and part of that plan has been to make it possible for me to frequent Israel as much as possible. But even then, the only place I really want to live is in Detroit and the only place I ever really want to work is Wayne State.
MT: What are some of the concerns you have in education?
ML: This is probably an alarming number, but, generally, 50 to 60 percent of incoming freshmen at a typical college, like Wayne State, go on to get a degree in about six years — the other half don't make and most of those students are dropping out after their first one or two semesters. It's a problem across the country, but Wayne State's numbers are a little higher than other schools around the country.
MT: Why do you think that is?
ML: Based on my experience, kids aren't prepared for college and they get defeated quickly. Let's say you're in an English class in high school and you get an A or a B — a lot of your grade is being based on attendance and on the leniency of grading with the teacher and where you went to school. If, in high school, you had pretty good attendance and asked some questions and were somewhat involved in class, you'll probably get a B. Does that mean you're a B writer? That's another issue. So you get to Wayne State, which is a whole other ball game for writing and English, and all of a sudden you're getting a D and you're thinking, "Wait a minute — I had an A in high school and now I'm getting a D? What's up with that?" I think it gets pretty confusing for a lot of people, and they don't know how to take it, they start questioning why they're there. They're not inspired, they couldn't care less, but their parents are saying, "You gotta go to college, or I'll kill ya." After a semester or a year of this they start to get discouraged and quit out of frustration. I don't know that for a fact, but that's the feeling I get. We want to inspire them to stay in school.
MT: From your experience with students and having kids of your own, what's the biggest jump between high school and college.
ML: Too much freedom — they don't know how to handle it. I think they're also too used to the petty stuff of high school, like you miss class and the teacher calls your parents. They're used to doing what the teacher says because the teacher has power over them. When you get to college, the teacher doesn't want to have power over you — they're not even thinking in that frame — so they pick up on that and start thinking, "Oh, I'll come when I need to and I'll do what I have to." That's never enough for a genuine liberal arts experience. It's a halfway-interested approach. If you're not a great writer and you come into a writing class halfway interested, you're never going to be able to do it.
MT: What about students frustrates you the most?
ML: Reading! Or the lack thereof, I guess. Something I use and a lot of teachers I know use are a small reading quiz at the beginning of class because, generally, students don't read — I don't even think they buy the books to be honest with you. I hear from my student interns, who are all English majors, that they'll be in English classes with other English majors and students will not have read the book, or bought the book, but — and this I find really bizarre — they want to be part of the discussion. "I haven't read the book, but this is what I think." What? Are you kidding? So if they're not reading the books, what are the chances the freshmen are?
MT: How do you to combat that?
ML: Over the years, I've learned that short is better. When I assign books in a fiction class, I'll use an anthology, a couple of them actually, because the pieces are shorter and it's all very self-contained. The reason I use a couple of 'em is to switch up to keep things interesting for me too. One thing I do differently than some teachers is that I never teach a class the same way, with the same material. But what I've come to notice is that students don't read the short stuff either. So, in that sense, it doesn't matter — they're going to read or they're not going to read.
MT: How do you combat all of this — retention rates, inspired reading, turning students around?
ML: That's what the learning community is all about; it's been a national program for about 10 years and we've been playing with it at Wayne State for about five years or so. There are many of them there, but I don't think that any of them are quite like mine — and I don't mean that in an ego way — I just think my approach speaks to students more because it's inclusive and more creative. The basic idea is that if we get them students together in and out of the classroom then they'll form friendships and can help each other out on assignments and might be more inclined to stay in school if others in the program are. The second half is to make assignments more engaging — get of the classroom, bring in speakers, that sort of thing.
MT: Does the learning community seem to be working?
ML: I think so ... I hope so ... it might be a bit too early to tell but seeing familiar faces around campus more is always encouraging.
Chapter and verse
A collection of poems by M.L. Liebler