Zilka Joseph on Michigan poets and her favorite Ann Arbor literary haunts


Zilka Joseph, Sharp Blue Search of Flame

Zilka Joseph (upper left) will moderate a panel with Michigan poets (clockwise from upper right) Keith Taylor, Z.G. Tomaszewski, Cindy Hunter Morgan, and Robert Fanning at the 15th annual Kerrytown BookFest.

On Sunday, September 10, the 15th annual Kerrytown BookFest takes over the Farmer’s Market and Concert House for a full day of book arts demonstrations, author signings -- see the full list here -- and panel discussions, such as "Short Stories From 'Bob Seger's House'" with Ellen Airgood, Loren D. Estelman, Gordon Henry, and Michael Zadoorian moderated by M.L. Liebler. (AADL card holders can download the book they're discussing here.) It's truly a celebration of this region's rich literary scene, all neatly packed into one of Ann Arbor's most beloved neighborhoods. (See our full preview of the festival here.)

Ann Arbor poet, editor, and educator Zilka Joseph will moderate a 4 pm panel at Kerrytown BookFest called “Poetic Musings” with Robert Fanning, Cindy Hunter Morgan, Keith Taylor, and Z.G. Tomaszewski. Joseph’s most recent collection is Sharp Blue Search of Flame, published by Wayne State University Press in 2016. We chatted with her about Michigan poets, favorite Ann Arbor literary haunts, and being a citizen of the world.

Q: Many reviewers note of Sharp Blue Search of Flame how richly woven the worlds of your native India and your American experience are together. The poem “The Rice Fields” covers some of the political dimensions of this (“No our rice fields he will never see / we carry them wherever we go”). Has the recent climate around immigration nationally and locally had an impact on what you're writing now?
A: No, but it has made me even more aware of the fact that my voice should be heard. I have been always writing poems on immigration/the experience of immigrants, loss, and alienation -- along with myriad other subjects that I write about -- as that is part of who I am. My first chapbook, Lands I Live In, which was nominated for a PEN America Beyond Margins award, is about my experience of leaving home and my arrival in America. I’ve lived in America for just over 20 years -- 10 of those years in Ann Arbor -- and this country is very much part of who I am. It’s important for readers in today’s complex and global world to see things multi-dimensionally to get a sense of the whole person and her/his array of experiences. I am Indian and American. I was born in Mumbai (where my family is from) but lived and grew up in Kolkata so Bengali culture is a big part of who I am, too. I’m also an Indian Jew, and I’m very interested in world religions and cultures, women’s issues and justice, nature and food, and I’m a very free spirit. All of these things inform my writing. I consider myself a citizen of the world. I think it’s really vital that people connect with poetry on a human level even if they may not completely identify with or understand each experience and feeling. I keep writing poems and sending them out to journals, and sometimes it takes years before a poem is accepted anywhere. I was delighted that Poetry chose to publish “The Rice Fields” in September last year. Also, I am happy to say that Stateside on Michigan Public Radio, is airing a review of my book Sharp Blue Search of Flame . It gives me hope when I know more people may read my work and share my insights through poetry.

Q: You’re moderating the “Poetic Musings” panel at the Kerrytown BookFest, featuring Robert Fanning, Cindy Hunter Morgan, Keith Taylor and Z.G. Tomaszewski. Can you tell us more about the panel?
A: It’s a wonderful group of Michigan poets! I have enjoyed their new books immensely. Keith Taylor teaches at the University of Michigan and is a familiar figure in Ann Arbor. He has published several collections of poetry, and his new collection, The Bird-while, is lovely and sad and hopeful all at the same time, almost gospel-like in some way. I think it his best book. Cindy Hunter Morgan teaches at Michigan State University. She has two prize-winning chapbooks, and her fascinating new book, Harborless, delves into stories of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and reimagines them. Each poem is a gem, finely polished and glittering. A very well researched and fine collection. Z. G. Tomaszewski wears many interesting hats but is better known as the co-founder of the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters in Grand Rapids. His book All Things Dusk won the Hong Kong University International Poetry Prize, and his new chapbook, Mineral Whisper, is magical. A talented young man indeed. Keep an eye out for him! Robert Fanning teaches at Central Michigan University and is, in my opinion, in the league of some of the best contemporary poets in America today. His new book, Our Sudden Museum, is as powerful as it is poignant. Some of his language and imagery has echoes of the masters. They are familiar and yet he makes everything fresh and new.

Q: Kerrytown BookFest is a community staple, celebrating its 15th year this year. Do you have any special tips for our readers on how to make the most of the festival?
A: I am a very curious person and somebody who wants to attend all the events and hear everybody and know something about everything! But no one can be everywhere at the same time! So I would say to the readers, go to as many panels as you can, and sometimes pick a subject or area you know nothing about so you can learn something new. And support writers and bookstores by buying lots of books for yourself and as gifts!

Q: As a long-time Ann Arbor area resident, do you have any other favorite literary places around town or in the area?
A: I am very fond of Bookbound Bookstore and the kind owners Megan and Peter Blackshear, who have always been supportive. I also appreciate how friendly the folks at Literati are and good work they do.

Q: You’re also an educator. Any workshops for the public that folks should know about coming up this Fall?
A: Yes, thanks for asking. I have a set of Tuesday morning workshops starting October 10, and some Wednesday evening workshops beginning October 11. I also offer a three-hour intensive creative writing workshop -- a fast-paced workshop where the goal is to generate new work. I sometimes do these intensives at short notice, too, so please keep checking my website for info. I will probably run a continuing memoir workshop later this fall, but I haven’t decided the dates yet.

Q: Anything else you'd like to mention?
A: I’d like to let folks know about the Rasa Festival of India being celebrated all over Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Akshara is the non-profit that is organizing this multi-arts festival, so please support this organization and this festival in any way you can! The program is available on their website. (Don’t miss the dance events on September 23 and 24!) As part of this festival, I’m organizing a literary event. Poet and professor emeritus Saleem Peeradina, entrepreneur and memoirist Shri Thanedar, and myself, will read at the Faber Institute on September 28. Do check that out, too!

Anna Prushinskaya is a writer in Ann Arbor. Her collection of essays, A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother, will be out from MG Press in November 2017.

The Kerrytown BookFest is on Sunday, September 10, 10:30 am to 5 pm. Zilka Joseph's “Poetic Musings” panel is at 4 pm in the main tent. See our preview story for more information about BookFest.