Descriptive clauses 

BILL HARRIS

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

After I realized that my career as a visual artist wasn’t going to happen.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

Concerned with the issues of being a human being — primarily from an African-American perspective.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Of course.

What authors changed your life?

Everyone I’ve ever read. The first that come to mind: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, Amiri Baraka, William Faulkner, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Dos Passos, James Agee, Michael Ondaatje, jazz musicians, and many other writers who are so ingrained in my psyche that their names do not even surface.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

The nature of its struggle, the spirit of its people, the intensity of its rhythms, and the depth of its soul.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

Next to my wife.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Maligned, tough, home.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I’m always inspired.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

The United States Army.

What are you working on now?

A play about African-American actor Ira Aldridge; a play set in a small town in Alabama just prior to the Civil Rights movement; a play about a flamboyant African-American religious leader in the 1940s and ‘50s; the second half of a historical poem about minstrelsy; a novel set in 1854; a novel set in 1954.


 

ROBERT FANNING

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

After college, I decided to focus on my alternate love — poetry — after the drummer quit the rock band I was in, dashing my chances of being the next Burt Bacharach or Morrissey. Though I still hold out some hope.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

I aim to write poems that are tightly crafted, concise and musical, but that are at the same time emotionally and intellectually engaging to a wide array of readers. I hope each poem is like a short film — therefore, I’m drawn toward strong images and narrative.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Only recently have I, unfortunately, written some explicitly autobiographical pieces, and I hope to keep this as rare as possible, as I find being behind the camera, rather than in front of it, lends itself to more powerful and universal writing. However, recently, the death of my brother, the birth of my son, and other such traumas and glories have been necessary to write about--to make, somehow, some sense of all the horror and excruciating joy.

What authors changed your life?

Early on it was fiction writers. Salinger broke my world open. Then I was moved by Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche. Now I mostly read poetry, though I read rarely because it steals what little writing time I have. I don’t think any author has ever changed my life. As much as I love writing, Neil Young is one of the few artists who has ever directly changed the direction of my life. Another is my wife, Denise, whose sculptures and paintings inspire me beyond words.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

I don’t write about place, generally. I grew up in a few different places, and have lived several places since, and I don’t consider myself the resident of anywhere, still. I guess I’m always figuring and maybe hoping I’ll be moving soon. However, Detroit seeps into my work. The highways, the billboards, the landscape, the gray, the cold — the mood of Detroit is in many of my poems. Also, on a personal level, the fantastic and diverse writing community here — the many styles of poetry and writing, the many writers whose work I love and who I am lucky to work with or call friends — these experiences have shaped me most. I prefer being a hermit, but that’s hard to do here — there are so many encouraging and gifted writers to learn from and be inspired by.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

I love the train station. I’m a bit partial to the empty buildings, the haunted spots. And any of the highways when they’re not congested.

I often love driving — which is good since there are few options here to do otherwise.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Spirited. Seeded. Regenerative.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I play guitar in an amateurish fashion or I listen to music and write in a journal.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

It’s a toss-up between cleaning pools and glazing hams.

What are you working on now?

I am nearing completion on a second manuscript, entitled American Prophet, a book of poems which chronicles the sojourns of a failing pseudo-prophet across this nation that wouldn’t give a fuck about his divine message if he does indeed have one or even knew how to communicate it to them though it is probably the end of time and it would serve them well to notice, though they don’t. I’m also beginning a third collection of poems on a wide array of subjects, entitled Terribeautiful, which I hope to complete sometime next year.


 

RUSSELL THORBURN

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

When I first moved to Marquette, Mich., I was writing short nature poems, then lyrical poems about my new life here, in the mid-’70s. I wrote and read poems to other friends in kitchens and living rooms. My turning point came when I was asked to read at a bookstore with established authors John Vandezande and Phil Legler, both professors at Northern Michigan University. Later I became good friends with Legler.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

I am very influenced by French films, jazz and good language. I would describe my poetry as impressionistic takes on life as if they were being filmed by Truffaut.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Yes, I think of the creative art of nonfiction, how important honesty and memory are in remembering something from the past. I use that as a starting point, then find details, something that sparks the reality of being there again.

What authors changed your life?

I started reading at an early age and visiting our public library in Birmingham (where I’m from). In high school I loved Kesey, Heinlein and Kerouac. But the one author who changed my life was Knut Hamsun. His book Hunger, translated by Robert Bly, slipped into my consciousness for life. Another, in later life, would be Michael Ondaatje. I read The English Patient while riding the bus from Kalamazoo to Marquette one winter. Of course, I am very fond of William Carlos Williams.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

I grew up in Birmingham, but my father was from Detroit and his father was a Detroit printer for the Detroit Times. He was a writer too. I never knew him. He died of a heart attack at an early age. My father worked as a linotype operator for The Birmingham Eccentric for 25 years (in later years he worked on the computer). So Detroit is in my blood, including my great-grandfather Henry Zender, who owned a tavern on the Detroit River in the early 20th century.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

Probably Birmingham’s Harmon Street, where I grew up and lived across from Holy Name Church. The old barn behind the house, the ruined orchard, the trail leading through the woods to Willits Hill, the Rouge River in the woods, where we wandered and let our imagination grow, and finally Maple Road, where as kindergartners we crossed for school, but were often late for the crossing guard. We ran and are still running today.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Detroit: smoky, blue and riverine. Birmingham: gray, weathered and large. (This is Birmingham in the early ‘60s.)

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I read poetry or prose, take a walk, and listen to jazz.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

Working at a grocery store. Read the late Herb Scott’s book of poetry, Groceries, to understand why.

What are you working on now?

A third book of poetry using movement from place to place on the bus and the typewriter as key images, recovering the past when I was in my 20s, and surviving mosquitoes.


 

STEVE GILLIS

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

I have been writing forever, really. If I had to point to a particular moment, I suppose it would be when I decided to leave college after my sophomore year and commit myself fully to becoming a writer. I did that for four years — working every type of odd job in the process — and have never looked back; although I did go back to college and beyond.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

I have a classical mind-set with a postmodern sensibility. I like things that are new but the construct must succeed. I don’t, like, innovate just for the sake of being cool. The story and the writing must work.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Sure, but very rarely do I write about anything you might recognize as my "real" life. My stories spin out of my hopes and fears and neurotic — and erotic — impulses.

What authors changed your life?

Cheever, for sure. Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders more recently.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

I have a Midwestern soul and I grew up in the heart of Detroit many moons ago and this made me open-minded and fearless.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

The main drag downtown — Woodward.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Potential, potential, potential. Man, this could be the greatest city in the world if we had good leadership.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I work regardless. Inspiration is a luxury I can’t afford to wait on. My muse is a whore and I don’t depend on her. I depend on me. I can find a story almost anywhere. I just cultivate the discipline to work on it. If this sounds a bit over the top, sorry. But any writer will tell you, it isn’t inspiration, it’s perspiration.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

Cleaning up dog sheeet in a kennel.

What are you working on now?

I have a new novel coming out in 2008 from Black Lawrence Press and am making final (final!!!) edits. I am also putting touches on a new collection of stories and when the dust settles on these projects I will turn in full to a new novel.


 

LAURA KASISCHKE

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing

At a certain point I realized that, whether or not I would ever publish my writing, I was going to write anyway. At that point, my writing got better, I think--less "ambitious" and more for myself, and I learned the important lesson that writing is its own reward, which has sustained me through the years.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

That’s hard. I know others say it’s "dark." I do, for some reason, find myself attracted to the seamier side of things ... in writing, more than in life.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

I think everything we write comes either from our lives or the subconscious. It would be nice to say, "No — that’s all someone else’s life," but how could that be?

What authors changed your life?

Virginia Woolf. Dylan Thomas.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

The landscape of Michigan — its seasons and skies — has certainly been the backdrop of my life, and therefore my writing. I’ve also been an avid follower of Michigan crimes, some of the most passionate and appalling in the world!

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

I like the big tire.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Holy, ruined, new.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I go to the library and read poetry.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

I worked for the Medical Library Association writing a manual on how to write manuals.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing poems.


 

RON ALLEN

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

I was living on the east side of Detroit, addicted to heroin and suffering from effects of a serious "withdrawal" from the narcotic and in the depths of a schizophrenic breakdown. This was the late ’70s, early ’80s. Writing became my catharsis and healing element. I’ve always had a sense of outrage at the immoral nature of politics, but my breakdown/breakthrough gave my writing a deeper reality in my life in the sense of a healing element in my life. When I first started to "write," I believed that if someone came to see my work either seriously ill or unable to walk they would be healed — and I still believe in that possibility.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

My work seeks to reach into the ineffable. I try to create new meanings, sometimes using the irrational to express something more truer than rational thought. My language seeks to create through rhythms more than on the rational plane, I use metaphor to expand meaning to engage the reader/audience on a fundamentally authentic level. How I experience the impulse to write is sacred to me so I try to write the same way I understand and experience the impulse.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

My deeper impulse is what I attempt to tap into that which is organic and truly who I am. I write like my dreams and my dreams are essentially a truth greater than my waking moments.

What authors changed your life?

Amiri Baraka, Anne Sexton, Bob Kaufman, Sam Beckett, Richard Foreman and John Coltrane.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

Detroit was my first playground. Its working poor community shaped my political expression in my work and rooted my spirituality in the vagaries of poor exploited communities. Detroit shaped my radical sensibility in a very deep way. It vitalized my humanity and taught me to dream bigger. Big dreams. This was Detroit in the early ’60s — a radical sensibility of justice.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

Twelfth Street, where the riots began and where the pulse of the underground community existed.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Doubt, chance and witness.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

Sleep and dream/try to be fully present.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

I worked in many factories in Detroit and the worst was an alloy plant that made aluminum and smelted copper. I got fired for union activities. No one should have to work in those types of factories. Underpaid and overworked in subhuman dirty infested conditions.

What are you working on now?

Creating underground (what I mean by underground is work that in its nature rejects Hollywood and mass-culture, market-value ideologies and expresses ideas that exemplify higher truths and possibilities for human progress) works that satisfy my need for community in my search for truth. Ideas that wake up the mind to possible higher truths.


 

PETER HO DAVIES

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

There were probably a dozen "turning points" – quitting science which I studied first in college, leaving my home in England to study writing in the U.S., etc — and there’ll probably be a dozen more. Writing, like any demanding pursuit, seems to require constant recommitment.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

It’s somewhere between embarrassing and impossible to describe your own work. I did like the description of my new book – a historical novel about World War II as a "counter-war" book, which captures some of its contemporary resonance.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

My work is rarely directly autobiographical — the stories haven’t happened to me, the main characters aren’t "me" — but it is what I call "emotionally autobiographical," which is to say that I’ve usually experienced feelings similar to my characters.

What authors changed your life?

Too many to name here, but in my youth, especially, D.H. Lawrence, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Pirsig all had a formative influence on me as a person, I think, as well as a writer.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

I can’t claim to know the city well, but when I first arrived in Michigan, my friend, the writer Charles Baxter, took me around Detroit and my first impression of it — the streets with all those empty lots — actually made it into my book, The Welsh Girl, where I describe the bombed streets of a British city at the end of the Second World War: "A single gutted house still stands at the end of one flattened terrace like an exclamation mark, and Esther suddenly sees the streets as sentences in a vast book, sentences that have had their nouns and verbs scored through, rubbed out, until they no longer make any sense." That’s a bleak first impression, I know, but as I’ve come to know Detroit a little better I’ve also become more hopeful (I grew up in Britain, after all, in cities rebuilt after the Blitz).

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

An obvious choice, but emblematic of the city’s ruins: Michigan Central Station. It reminds me a little of the ruined cathedral at the center of my home town — Coventry, England. Ruins that were incorporated into the design of the new cathedral after the war.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Nope — the city’s too rich, too varied, too complex to sum up in three — wait, rich…varied… complex! That’s a pretty good three. But then what about ruined, resilient, rising? Or troubled, vital, real? See what I mean? Detroit seems to me to be a city in transition, redefining itself, which makes it especially hard to define succinctly right now.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

Read, exercise, play with my son, you name it. Often I go to the movies. I find movies — even (or perhaps especially) brainless, boring ones — relaxing. My mind can really wander in a dark movie house and new ideas often come to mind.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

No job I’ve ever had was as bad as not having a job.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing some new short stories, while doing the research for another novel.


 

DAWN MCDUFFIE

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

In 1988 I was teaching English at Mumford High School, and I wanted to give the students some samples of their classmates’ work. Several teachers also contributed poems and essays to this literary newsletter, and I did too. I felt I so happy writing that I couldn’t stop.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it

Carmina Detroit is a book of adaptations from Medieval Latin songs. I love to write about small moments: the need to tidy up, sadness in a dollar store, a child’s first language. But I also love the world of mythology and dreams. Right now I’m using flowers as a starting point.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

I use my own life, history, science magazines, people I overhear, and anything else that strikes my fancy. I especially love my neighborhood where human desire and the strange intersect every day.

What authors changed your life?

W. D. Snodgrass taught a class on modern poetry at Wayne State in 1964. He was famous but absolutely clear. His poems brimmed with emotion and the sound of beautiful words. But I remember him as someone who loved the poems published by his contemporaries and read them aloud to his students. He’s always seemed to me a model teacher as well as a gifted writer.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

I see layers of Detroit’s history in every part of the city. Living in such a rich environment has given me a sense of security as a writer. Whether I’m buying a cup of coffee or reporting for jury duty, I see poetry happening all around me. It only needs to be written down.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

I love the Scarab Club for its graceful design and for the dedication to craft that has soaked into the walls and pooled in its hidden garden. But my first Detroit poems were all about bagel shops, places to get a cup of coffee, or stores like Famous Coachman Records.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Complex, tasty, historical

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I read a book of poetry and lose myself in the mind that created it. Better yet, I take my notebook to the Avalon Bakery or the 1923 Coffee Shop and write something.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

I was a trade clerk one summer for Dunn and Bradstreet. Every day required the same sequence of actions. When my supervisor started talking about the company retirement program, I knew I had to leave.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a full-length book where most of the poems have an element of surrealism.


 

DORENE O’BRIEN

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

Yes, when I took my first creative writing workshop as a sophomore at Wayne State and wasn’t thrown out. The course schedule stated that placement was contingent upon submission of a short story, and I understood as I agonized over and reworked the piece how much writing meant to me, how devastated I would be if I didn’t make the cut. The teacher actually liked my story about a retired couple that moves into a community where people’s lives center around hunting and eating raccoons. Now that’s providence.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

Critics have said that my stories bring to mind those of Flannery O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill and Joyce Carol Oates, and this is gratifying as they are authors whose work I deeply admire. My work is often described as "dark" and "funny," and I think that balance is crucial when writing realist fiction, which imitates life. I strive for believability, innovation and range in my writing, and my particular goal for Voices of the Lost and Found was to create a disparate, realistic, memorable voice for each of the 11 narrators.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

I think this is unavoidable as images and feelings about past experiences permeate one’s consciousness, but I never tap into my own life deliberately or in a wholesale way. People say, Write what you know, but I’d rather learn about what I don’t know and then write about it. I believe that newly kindled interest and passion emerge in the writing and make for a better story.

What authors changed your life?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn made me want to be a writer. I was very young when I read a PG-rated version of the book, but I was swept up by the dialect, the irony, the odyssey on the river. I was amazed by how many literary balls Twain could juggle at once: consistent characterization and language, graphic settings, the extended metaphor of land and river, Huck’s inner conflict, the splendid use of sarcasm to voice his views on racism and blind conformity. I couldn’t have articulated these things back then, but I understood that the book was weighty and epic and profound, and I would think about it for a long time. I felt that way again after reading my first Kurt Vonnegut book, and again after reading John Gardner’s Sunlight Dialogues.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

When I was young I lived near a branch library at Davison and Conant, and every week I’d walk there to check out all of the books I could carry. Then I would hide one in my pants when my mother forced me to go outside and play so I could sneak behind the garage to read. My goal was to read every book in that tiny library. So that was the start. I think all writers start as readers who are stunned and amazed and finally ignited by a great work. Also, racial tension was high in Detroit when I was growing up, and those deep emotions — fear, anger, pain — triggered a need to write, to try to understand my feelings.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

The vacant lot where my childhood home once stood.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Battered, resilient, enduring.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

If I have time, I drive to the DIA and wander the galleries with my notebook. Otherwise I reach into my fish bowl, which contains torn bar napkins, notebook pages and business cards across which I’ve scrawled story ideas. Like the fish that once occupied the bowl, few ideas survive very long, but the ones that do usually grow into colorful, luminous things.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

This is a tough question because though I’ve had many, many bad jobs, the people and experiences associated with them have been priceless to me as a writer. A sampling: a Kentucky Fried Chicken cashier who knew the cooks were stubbing out their cigarettes in the Colonel’s secret recipe but felt powerless to stop them (and was robbed twice before it occurred to her to quit), a secretary who after only pretending to learn to type numbers in Sister Alfonso’s high school class was hired to generate invoices (on a typewriter, in triplicate using carbon paper) at a precision tool and gauge shop, a clerk who unloaded trucks stocked with heavy, mail-laden containers at 2 a.m. every morning alongside the other zombies, who sometimes ran over their own feet or mowed down their colleagues with 400-pound rolling cages full of Wall Street Journals.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel about fossil hunters in Ethiopia, and one in particular who finds the oldest fossil hominid yet. Her professional life flourishes while her personal one crumbles, and she must decide what she’ll do with the find as she slowly unearths evidence that will both propel her to fame and ignite controversy in a scientific field rife with greed and hubris. This has been rewarding but tough, addressing the "big" questions concerning our origins, our beliefs, and our misplaced faith in both religion and science.


 

KAWITA KANDPAL

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

I suppose for me there really wasn’t a period when I was not writing. As a product of two cultures, at any given time there were a number of languages spoken in our home. I had to learn to negotiate the space early. My parents encouraged me to explore the intersections of language and my east-west landscape through poetry as a vehicle to those ends.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

I approach my writing through a free verse lyric vein.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Indeed.

What authors changed your life?

I dread this sort of question. A shortlist would include: Agha Shahid Ali, Lucie Brock-Broido, Stephen Dunn, Carolyn Forche, Linda Gregerson, Seamus Heaney, Richard Hugo, Suji Kwock Kim, Jhumpa Lahiri, Li-Young Lee, V.S. Naipaul, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Salman Rushdie, School of English Romanticism, Rabrinath Tagore, Derek Walcott, I shall stop. ...

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

Detroit has been enormously warm and welcoming. One of my motivations for coming to the city was to be a writer in resident with Terry Blackhawk’s program InsideOut. Through IO I have befriended a number of generous writers, some of whom are Peter Markus, Robert Fanning, Vievee Francis, Matthew Olzmann, and Cheri Roberts. I adore living in this city and being able to have access to Woodward Avenue and the stunning architecture. I am also learning to appreciate the dualities at every corner in our fair city.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

There are two, Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church and Southwestern High School.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Tentative, luminous, tender.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I listen to Bollywood music from the 1950s, I especially like Latha Mangeshkar. I am moved by photographs of my parents and grandparents when they were first married. My mum spends a good portion of the year in India, so sharing conversation with her when we are able. Kissing my cats India and Pakistan. A long drive in the Tecumseh, Mich., countryside. Indulging in Gary Larson, The Simpsons, and mango blood orange gelato from Papa Joe’s Market. As a last resort I listen to Johnny Cash read The New Testament.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

As an undergraduate I looked after tarantulas in the biology department.

What are you working on now?

At present, I am circulating my second poetry collection to publishing houses while completing my third.


 

ANDY MOZINA

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

The day I dropped out of law school.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

Sucky! No, it’s not; it’s very good. It’s quirky, a bit twisted, yet also earnest.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Whatever gets between my ears — experienced directly or vicariously, imagined or found — is what I work with. I’ve used actual life events when they’ve helped me write a story.

What authors changed your life?

Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Richard Ford, Joseph Conrad. They worked together as a team to create change.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

Maybe I can answer that better if I change Detroit to "industrial cities of the Midwest." Milwaukee, where I grew up, was losing a lot of manufacturing when I was a teenager. My father worked for Allis-Chalmers, which made heavy equipment and tractors and stuff like that, and over a few years about 12 square blocks of their operation went dormant. I think everything I write is informed by a sense of things swirling down the drain. I know Detroit has had its struggles, and I empathize with that from a distance.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

Once, about 15 years ago, driving alone on a cross country trip, I got off the freeway to look at Detroit, and ended up driving down Telegraph Road, and I stopped by an enormous Ford plant. I love huge factories. It was a weekend, I think, because the big wide street was pretty desolate and the factory seemed unoccupied.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Scrappy, funky, cool.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I read writers I like. That’ll get me going.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had

When I was a prep cook at a dining hall at Boston University when I was in grad school. One of my jobs was to make edible taco salad bowls by taking a coffee can filled with hot oil and sinking it into a tortilla floating in a fryer. The tortilla would take the approximate shape of the bottom half of the coffee can. Then I had to remove the heavy, hot-oil filled coffee can with a pair of metal tongs without dropping it or letting it slip back and splash into the fryer. Not relaxing.

What are you working on now?

A story about dogs and a novel about a harpist.


 

TERRY BLACKHAWK

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

My childhood hobbies were writing and drawing and I was an avid reader. I read the poems in Silver Pennies, an anthology of poetry for children, over and over, and in fifth grade I wrote a poem that my teacher refused to believe was original. The summer when I was 12, I adapted James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks into a play, which I produced and directed, featuring a cast of friends and their more or less reluctant younger siblings. I had a brave creative writing teacher senior year in high school, and I edited the school’s first literary magazine. So my childhood had its literary highlights. I went on to major in literature at Antioch College, where I submitted a collection of poems and sketches titled ex-per-i-frag-mental for my senior project. (I had been reading a lot of Gertrude Stein.) This was a bit of a stretch for a faculty of literary scholars, but they were a kindly bunch and, well, it was the ‘60s.

It is now the "aughts," and I’ve been writing for 20 years, after not writing for the interim 20. The "poem that changed my life" came about very unexpectedly, in 1987, when I was teaching English at Mumford High in Detroit, and department head Elaine Green put out a call for poems from her teachers. Prior to that, I had no notion of my adult self as a writer. That life-changing poem (now titled "Once") was a turning point. I include it in my latest collection, The Dropped Hand from Marick Press, so it makes a kind of full circle: my first poem finding its place in my most recent collection, the death of my grandmother featured in the 1987 poem becoming the death of my mother in the revised version — fittingly, because the circumstances of both deaths were the same: sudden and unexpected, two vital women, plucked out of life, with a goodbye embrace from me one week before and no inkling that each embrace would be the last. As I began writing "Once," the first poem of my mature life, I was weeping, while writing, for the loss of a beloved grandmother, to be sure, but also weeping for the recovery of words emerging onto paper.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

I think of my poems as urgent or witty, sometimes philosophical, selfless, and always multilayered, musical and precise — but of course these descriptors occur well after the f(act) and process of writing. I like language play and associativeness. I like how words can unpack themselves anagrammatically and lead to new discoveries. I love the depth and mystery of metaphor. Many, but not all, of my poems tell stories. I work in a variety of forms, and I’ve been told my work has emotional nuance and "range." Poems in my collections assume many stances — lyrical, dramatic, narrative — around interwoven metaphors or themes. My first collection, Body & Field, opens with poems of marriage, motherhood and mythology, all in celebration of the female body, before broadening into the wider "fields" of art and nature. In Escape Artist, I investigate how art helps the spirit survive and sustain itself despite confinement, oppression, or danger, which, as one reviewer pointed out, often lurks about the margins in these poems. Another noted that poems in Escape Artist often challenge the very forms that they are written in.

The Dropped Hand responds to two strokes (the one that robbed my father of his expressive language and the stroke that took my mother’s life less than a year later) as it attempts to create poetry that lives in the face of loss. Underlying the poems in The Dropped Hand is an echo of Keats’s famous fragment: "This living hand …" The two central metaphors — the hand that plays, that signals, makes music, embraces, works, creates and holds, and the bridge of language interplay and resonate against one another. The book questions and, I hope, restores the capacity of language to connect us. I think of The Dropped Hand as more unified than my earlier collections, almost as one long poem. A working epigraph for this volume ("... finally, finally I come to believe in loss as a way of knowing") came from Sekou Sundiata, whose untimely death on July 18 has so shaken and saddened the community of poets he helped to build here in Detroit and around the country. I ultimately chose Yves Bonnefoy’s "Let word be to absence / as color is to shadow" as the epigraph because it’s more indirect and because it addresses both language and loss, but I give great tribute to Sekou. In his absence, his words become even more profound.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Yes, most certainly. I think all poets do this, whether obliquely or overtly.

What authors changed your life?

How to answer a question like this! Keats, certainly, and Yeats, and Emily Dickinson, whose life and work I studied and wrote about during a National Endowment for the Humanities sabbatical year in 1992-1993. I love Robert Hayden and James Wright, Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Platero and I, Elliot Weinberger’s Karmic Traces. I feel fortunate to know and have worked with many fine writers: Marie Ponsot, Toi Derricotte, Stephen Dunn to name a few — each one life-changing. The community of writers here in Detroit is a constant influence as well.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

After writing "Once," the next blank sheet of paper seemed daunting, making me wonder if I could re-enter the spell of it all. Elusive as it was, and still is, the spell was enough to set me on what became in many ways a life-changing path. That path began at Mumford High School, where I had recently transferred after years of teaching language arts in junior high. The change of schools initiated a rich time for me. I found that I could reach the older students in more personal and meaningful ways, and the classroom became a creative space for me as well them. I especially enjoyed bringing "real" poets as guests to my classes (this idea formed the nucleus of InsideOut) and getting to know writers like Leslie Reese, Bill Harris, Anne Finger, Naomi Long Madgett and Larry Pike. When the Detroit Institute of Arts initiated its Student Writings on Art project in 1989, I participated eagerly with my classes and, along with my students, discovered art’s ‘ekphrastic’ power, that is, the power to inspire poetry. I have received two Pushcart Prize nominations for poems based on visual art, I have published essays on the subject, and I have developed university courses and teacher workshops on ekphrastic poetry that I conduct at the DIA. In 1990, I met Mumford’s noted alumnus Bob Shaye, who in 1995 gave me the impetus and wherewithal to start InsideOut Literary Arts Project. So it all couldn’t be more interconnected: My life as a poet has been shaped by my work as a teacher, by art in the city, and by my interactions with Detroit writers and Detroit youth.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

Elmwood Cemetery, because of its terrain as well as its history and proximity to the Detroit River and Belle Isle. Love the river and all that it conjures. My heart also "leaps up" on Woodward Avenue, where the DIA and the Detroit Public Library create such a majestic urban space.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

No. But I can give you five: insurgent/resurgent, authentic, generous, vital.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I stare out the window a lot.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

I had a job as a secretary in a small insurance firm. I was fired after four days. They said I just "didn’t work out" — i.e., I didn’t "get" my role as go-fer girl to a bunch of guys.

What are you working on now?

I’m still staring out the window.


 

GREGORY KIEWIET

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

When I found that writing (poetry) was/is/could be more than a subscribed effort to show others who you are, who you think you are, or who you might be, and more of committed and engaged practice of finding what it is one does not know ... the still to come — doing so by trying to let words speak for themselves ... in a way that is less contrived, but still made. This came during the early 1980s when taking writing courses at the DIA as part of the LINES program directed by George Tysh. I found it less interesting to try to look at what I might have to say about me and more interested in what one might find in the process rather than the product.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

Am reluctant to do so — as anything I might say has the potential of limiting it to "this" or "that" — which it tries not to or be.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Not usually or on purpose — I’m sure it slips in — but not in any direct or conscious manner. But more so when I write for performance (plays).

What authors changed your life?

I would defer from saying persons have changed my life — events and ideas — yes. Artists who I continue to reread with admiration would be John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Michael Palmer, Laura Moriarty, Ann Lauterbach, Maurice Blanchot, Margerite Duras — currently am reading with great interest books by Cole Swensen. I’ll backtrack and say the work of Pierre Reverdy was a major door-opener for me.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

In way I am not sure of (yet) probably. I think in the way that I am not from Detroit — but have a nearness to it that at the same time remains distant.

I suppose the idea of an enlightened-worker is what I might apply to certain artists (I admire) within the Detroit community — one who does what he/she must do to get by but is aware of the forces outside/inside one’s environment — for better or worse.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

I become "moved" by what was once beautiful and has become left behind or forgotten, but what nevertheless remains — as artifact(?).

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Visibly invisible, within, without ...?

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

Read/listen to music, walk.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had.

Working at a gas station

What are you working on now?

Answer: New poems, play(s), a short story.


 

STIRLING NOH

Was there a particular turning point when you really committed yourself to writing?

I’m not really committed to it. It’s a sideline which I enjoy. When you write, you get to think about things that you don’t ordinarily have time for. In that, it’s like stepping outside for a cigarette.

How would you describe your writing to those who aren’t familiar with it?

I would call it hard-boiled. It’s good to laugh at life but you also have to recognize that things can be pretty bleak and that people don’t always rise to the occasion of good will. I write very simple sentences and I try to tell my story as quickly as possible.

Do you tap into your own life for your work?

Not really. My attitude toward life is about as much autobiographical content as there is.

What authors changed your life?

I’m almost embarrassed to say but I’m addicted to genre fiction. I love Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon. On a higher plane, I really like Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald. I like writers who write for readers who are reading on the fly.

How has Detroit shaped you as a writer?

Detroit is a unique city in which you have ruins of its past alive as ruins while the city is being slowly remade for the future with a real suburban feel. I think it’s great to have urban farming going on a block or two from a Fuddruckers. Detroit has an authenticity of history and of "making do" that you can’t get anywhere else in America.

Is there a specific spot in metro Detroit that moves you?

It used to be the Kress Lounge but now that it’s gone, I would say the Bronx.

Can you describe the city itself with three adjectives?

Rusty, racked, vital.

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

Exercise or drink.

Name the worst job you’ve ever had

Planting trees in Northern Ontario in the middle of black fly season.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novella about a chef from Windsor who has fallen in love with a middle-class black woman who lives in Detroit. The story is told in flashback the morning after their final breakup.

Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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