Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire Flow Through "Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction" edited by Anne-Marie Oomen
Can you fully know a place?
This might be a trick question. As a Michigan native, I have an intimate knowledge of the state, but there are still new things to learn about it. There are unexplored towns, myriad events, acres of forest, and miles of shoreline.
Plus, my understanding of Michigan comes from my perspective, which is one reason why I appreciated the original views and varied essays in the recently published Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction edited by Anne-Marie Oomen.
Elemental contains 24 essays, each presenting a unique angle on the state. Some are deeply rooted in Michigan places and characteristics, and others more tenuously tied to the state. All relate to an element -- earth, water, wind, fire -- present in Michigan. Elemental is a 2019 Michigan Notable Book, a Library of Michigan award for books published in the previous year.
Oomen, a writer with an essay included in Elemental, pens poetry, nonfiction, and plays. Her books include The Lake Michigan Mermaid with Linda Nemec Foster, Pulling Down the Barn, House of Fields, An American Map: Essays, Uncoded Woman, and Love, Sex and 4-H. She has also edited Looking Over My Shoulder: Reflections on the Twentieth Century. Her seven plays include Secrets of Luuce Talk Tavern. In addition to her writing, she is an instructor at the Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College and Interlochen College of Creative Arts.
Oomen will speak with a panel of authors from Elemental at Literati Bookstore on Monday, February 11, at 7 pm. The panel will include Ari L. Mokdad, Alison Swan, Michael Steinberg, and Keith Taylor. All will read and discuss Michigan literature.
Here, Oomen answers questions about Elemental, Michigan, and her writing.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: I live in Empire, Michigan, on a 10-acre woodlot in a house that my husband David Early and I built ourselves a mile from Lake Michigan. I write in a small she-shed we built from recycled materials. Though my husband sometimes calls it the Pout House, I call it the Think House, a nod to Wallace Stegner’s beautiful novel Crossing to Safety. It has a tiny woodstove, a desk and table, a rocking chair for reading, and a ton of books, many of which I’ve read deeply, but mostly just love having, holding, dipping in and out of their pages for inspiration. I have always written from place, from the place I am in now, and from the places of my past -- read Love, Sex and 4-H. Place shapes spirit in my mind. So in my writing, you’ll find place as a dominant feature. I am a writer out of place, in both senses of that statement.
Q: Your new edited collection of essays, Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction, focuses on Michigan. What do you think about when you think of Michigan?
A: When I think about Michigan, I think about complexity, so I hesitate to speak with any authority -- too many viewpoints. Michigan’s people, our statehood and our literature, are complicated -- which I address in the introduction to Elemental -- and these essays reflect that wide-ranging quality. Past that complexity, I often hear people claim Michiganders are survivors. I rankle at that. Yes, we are survivors, but not merely survivors. Maybe, just maybe, we survive through transformation -- an idea that suggests a not-much-recognized malleability in us. We don’t just get through crisis, we get through crisis via transformation. Maybe we are not just resilient, but resourceful and creative. I saw that repeatedly in my childhood on a farm. My farmer folks were always remaking something out of the broken or rebuilding something that was falling down, turning it into something else. It happens in other professions too. Maybe Michiganders survive better because they remake survival, change their minds, or create something better. Not easy, not always pretty, but flexing and reshaping -- like water. That’s what I mean by transformation. I’m only one voice, and of course, this idea doesn’t apply to every individual, but doesn’t it seem we often enough embody an ecosystem of adaptation and transformation?
Q: Let’s talk more about how Elemental depicts Michigan. The description of Elemental says, “The essays approach Michigan at the atomic level. This is a place where weather patterns and ecology matter.” In what ways do these essays represent Michigan?
A: So that complexity again -- like our weather. Our geography, culture, economy are complex so it’s no surprise our writers are so varied in their range. Thus, I needed a way to organize that complexity. Elemental’s title refers to the old elements of earth, fire, wind, water. Those elements became the lens through which we organized these essays, falling naturally under those four headings, a way to capture and clarify our complexity: earth representing agriculture and the natural world; fire, our industrial, mining, and auto industries; air, our identity, the way we think, the way we survive. Or die. Of course, it all leads back to water, that most Michigan of all resources, our liquid gold. That element sustains us, unites us with the other elements. It surrounds us, defines our boundaries, and gives us a small ego boost -- 20% of the world’s fresh water right here! We are at the heart of the continent, and yet we are isolated by this incredible resource because we are a peninsula surrounded by water. It enters our identity. And now water is forefronted with the Flint water crisis and Pipeline 5, flashpoints of infrastructure and justice issues also facing other states. So the essays represent those complex “weathers” of Michigan, seen through the lens of the elements. There’s also a fifth element, another weather we’ve lost touch with: ether or spirit. The “atomic” is also that: how we see ourselves in essence, a metaphorical alloy of beauty and ugliness, good and bad, success and hardship -- all that is represented too, and that seems very Michigan.
Q: Amidst that complexity, how did you go about selecting essays for this collection?
A: It was a thoughtful and careful process. I worked with Annie Martin, much-respected acquisitions editor at Wayne State University Press. We asked ourselves: Who is writing “Michigan"? At first, we didn’t have a clear concept of what that meant but rather an intuition. We knew the book had to feature essayists from all over the state, had to include diverse pieces because we are diverse, and new as well as familiar voices. We wanted deeply personal essays, thus the focus was on the singular viewpoint. The authors had to be from Michigan or have deep roots here, and the pieces could not have been previously included in single-author collections -- thus encouraging new essays. We evolved a very long list of authors and from that list came a shorter list based on the above criteria, and then we invited those writers to submit. Not everyone accepted the invitation, but many did. So this is not a comprehensive but a representative anthology. From those submissions, we categorized the essays according to the elements. As the pieces came in, I was knocked out by the quality and range, the stylistic prowess and brave content. Many writers were concerned about what’s happening with water and environment and wrote from deep affection about the places of Michigan that they loved or lived in, from the woods to downtown Detroit. It was a remarkable process for me, and I am filled with gratitude for the writers’ trust.
Q: The range of voices and topics in Elemental is certainly broad and deep. Reading each essay feels like a discovery of a different take on Michigan. Not to be presumptuous, but it seems that there is something to find for natives of Michigan, people who have moved to Michigan, and those not from Michigan alike.
A: Exactly. I hope there’s a Michigan for everyone in this anthology. I hope the writing appeals to all kinds of readers with all kinds of experiences. The elemental lens gave us leeway to showcase not just a range of content, but the range of the personal essay from meditation to high adventure. So you’re right, the material is literary free-range so to speak, and as long as I’m on that metaphor, I’m suggesting it’s healthy for readers. Healthy reading is reading that suits different “tastes.” You can dip in and out. If one doesn’t suit you, maybe the next one will. You keep reading. One inspires. One makes you reflect. On and on.
Q: Tell us about the writers in this collection.
A: These pieces are versatile, lively, reflective, skilled, and personal. Teresa Scollon’s beautiful essay “Earth” opens the book with a tribute to the land and her veterinarian father, and Ari L. Mokdad’s closes it with a structurally inventive essay on growing up in a Lebanese-American home in Detroit. In between, you’ll encounter veteran essayist Jerry Dennis speaking on manual labor in “Bending Nails,” and Rochelle Riley’s clever “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Winter of Mine” where you’ll meet her evil and vital siblings: Michigan Winter and the goddess Detroit. Ben Busch and Jessica Mesman also take different tacks on the winter theme while Mardi Jo Link’s essay, “Small-Town Monsters,” explores revenge, and W.S. Penn tells us frankly about the errors people make in their perceptions about First Nations -- even when well-intentioned. Environmental writers Alison Swan and Stephanie Mills honor the dune fox and explore habitat restoration, and lest readers think I’ve drifted too far into the ecology of our state, Keith Taylor explores historical roots in Canada and Fleda Brown speaks of the mirrors of thought. Jacob Wheeler freewheels through baseball, and Rhoda Janzen does the same with family life. There are more equally as absorbing and beautifully written essays, too many to mention every author, but suffice to say I’m so proud these writers were willing to share their work and talent, and I’m really hoping this book will become a standard of Michigan reading for teachers and readers alike.
Q: Some of the essays are directly about ties to Michigan, such as Rochelle Riley’s relationship with Detroit as a sister. Some of the essays are more loosely connected to Michigan and focus on other primary topics, like identity in Ari L. Mokdad’s piece. The writers are in some ways in conversation with each other, and the pieces are also distinct in other ways.
A: Thank you for seeing that! Again, an advantage of organizing by the elements. We categorized essays according to their associations with the element, almost like working out a metaphor in a poem. Some writers said they were surprised by the “element” in which their essays were placed; they perceived their essays in a different light. That delighted me. Maybe the reader can participate in that too: How would this reader have done it as opposed to that reader? I also looked at order within categories, asking myself what essay launched the “conversation” in a category, what essay culminated it. And then the categories speak to each other, too. There’s an interplay throughout and at the same time, the styles change so quickly that nothing feels like anything else, and yet they are all connected -- at least in my mind. I think readers will like the variations, the tonal shifts, and I hope it helps teachers who work with the book as well. They can pick and choose and play, too.
Q: The Midwest has its own regional identity, and Michigan both fits into the larger Midwest and displays its individuality. How does, or doesn’t, Elemental speak to the concept of the Midwest and Michigan’s place in the Midwest?
A: Gosh, that’s the quandary isn’t it? Michigan gets aligned with the Midwest, the Upper Midwest, the North Central states, etc., and though we do share some “fly-over state” characteristics, Michigan has its own tenor because of all these great and small lakes, river systems, complex aquifers, and watersheds. No other state has that particular shared identity and that isolation related to one element. So we relate to “earth” with our agriculture and rural culture that shares common elements with much of the Midwest, as does our “fire” with industries of the Midwest. But perhaps water is our individual identity maker, and that contributes to, at least in my mind, wind/air or spirit, and splays out into individuality again. These essays reflect that contradiction, the double-edged sword of being. I suspect these authors are writing essays, and all kinds of literature, in response to how we are shaped by this unique place more than how we are shaped by the larger context of the Midwest. Also, I kept watching in these essays for the voice for place -- not just a Michigan voice but the writer’s practice of honoring place and people, even if that place is not here -- as in Toi Derricotte’s piece. These voices, the sound of this book, is also a celebration of place and people shaped by this Michigan. In turn, perhaps it will shape our understanding of our identity in some small way.
Q: Let’s talk about your work more. You teach writing at Interlochen College of Creative Arts and the Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College. What advice do you most frequently give your students?
A: Well the old adage about reading deeply and writing daily still holds, but let me push that a bit further. I’d say that if you are serious about writing, learn to read like a writer does and write as a reader loves. Here’s what I mean: Strive to understand the reader’s and writer’s interconnection. In other words, learn to read deeply with an awareness of how the writer is drawing you in, how that writer makes it worth your while to spend time on her pages. Then, as you practice writing -- and I consider all my writing a form of practice -- try to think into the mind of your perfect reader, and write as an act of compassion toward that reader. That interconnection of craft and compassion seems critical to me. I’d recommend other practical things too: practice a lot, find your mentors and s/heroes, learn your process, attend classes or conferences, learn the rules of submission, keep going, keep writing. But at the core is that motto: read like a writer does; write as a reader loves.
Q: So what are you reading right now?
A: Because I’m a restless reader, I read many books at once. I pick them up and put them down in my wandering. Eventually one colonizes my mind, and I read it straight through. So several titles rotate in and out of my day. At my desk, I’m rereading Jack Ridl’s Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, dipping in and out of these incredible poems. On my Kindle -- currently in the bathroom -- I’m reading Tara Westover’s Educated; in the living room I’m reading Richard Powers' The Overstory; in bed, I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects; and at the kitchen counter, I’m reading Where Now by Laura Kasischke -- a Michigander who is brilliant. There are many more books, but you get the idea. I read more slowly than I once did, for obvious reasons, but I also read deeply, studying how it’s done.
Q: Poems, essays, plays, and edited volumes are among your work, which is quite diverse in form. How do you decide which genre to write in -- focusing on one at a time or switching between them as inspired?
A: I’m a restless writer; that’s at the center of my genre-hopping. But when an idea comes to me -- and I get lots of ideas from many sources -- I have to hold on to it for a while before I know the genre. How? I started as a poet, and though I am not a very good poet, the practice of poetry remains a fruitful one -- though a lot of it doesn’t see the light of day. So that idea-in-waiting will often first take the shape in a poem, used as a placeholder genre. The poem-thing acts as a temporary cradle for the idea until I can clear my considerable life noise enough to attend it. When I finally return to the poem-thing, usually a tone will rise, and that will tell me, oh, this idea wants to be an essay, or lyric memoir, or this wants to be flash something. So I sort of translate. It has to do with hearing the narrator, which is a shaped thing, a me-not-me voice. As the idea evolves, I start to feel the nature of it, and that leads me. For example, my one creative piece in Elemental, “Twelve Waves,” began as poetry, then moved toward prose as the waves metaphor suggested more action. Still, because it’s a numerical essay, it retains cousinhood with poetry. Cross-genre work cross-pollinates the “held” ideas -- I steal an idea from an unfinished play and work it into a nonfiction piece -- which is just plain fun and makes me laugh -- and launches a shake-up in the genre. Travel is always a rich idea-shaper for essays, home life for poetry, childhood and the past for memoir, so it’s a matter of being open and letting the idea enter imagination. And trusting that it won’t always work, but often enough, it does. Oh, realistically, sometimes ideas die because I can’t get to them, because a busy life is just that, busy and demanding, and sometimes I neglect them. I miss them when I realize they are gone. But that’s a privilege, too, just being able to have an idea, so I’m grateful they keep coming. It’s the implementation, honoring them, that’s the challenge.
Q: Earlier you spoke about voice. How might you describe your style?
A: Gosh, I wish I knew. Someone, please tell me! But here are some thoughts. I think my style is informed by place, by my love of place, my love of water, and by metaphorical connections to this place, Michigan. I grew up on a Michigan farm, working in fields, and my childhood was unexceptional but full of love. I was also briefly interested in becoming a nun -- read Pulling Down the Barn -- and so I read some theology. Those two experiences exemplify my impulses both toward the ordinary and the ephemeral. On the page, can I shine light on small things, but also connect those smallnesses to something bigger, to … for lack of a better word, the holy? Not to be pretentious, but I like to detail daily life, then infuse it with something that suggests the consecrated -- whatever that is. But gosh, a style? No clue. I write as well as I can, listening to sentences, going over each until it offers an action, a sensation, or an insight. I try to hear flow. I tend to write long, and some readers say I overwrite, and they’re right. I keep practicing toward greater concision, but I do so love the sound of words. The truest thing? My style is still evolving, and that means I can still change my voice, still flex the sound of my page.
Q: And what are you working on next?
A: Spoiler alert: I’m practicing poetry more intensely these days because it looks like my writing partner on the Lake Michigan Mermaid, Linda Nemec Foster -- the Grand Rapids poet -- and I will have another mermaid book coming from Wayne State University Press, so I really need to hone those skills. I’m excited and thrilled, and can’t wait to shape another mermaid quest to honor our beloved lakes. So watch for future announcements on that.
I’ve also been writing my “Mom Book,” a nonfiction book chronicling my 97-year-old mother’s evolution into dementia after my father’s death. I’m narrating how our volatile, antagonistic relationship shifted as her dementia advanced. As I am losing her and she is losing herself, we discover the friendship and love I always wanted. It’s also about how many boomers, mostly daughters, face the parental aging process with inadequate preparation, how we have bungled love and succeeded only by necessity and invention. It’s sad, but also funny. We mess up everything from the size of her Depends to Medicaid forms. I hope I can find a publisher for it.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Anne-Marie Oomen will speak with a panel of authors from "Elemental" at Literati Bookstore on Monday, February 11, at 7 pm. The panel will include Ari L. Mokdad, Alison Swan, Michael Steinberg, and Keith Taylor. All will read and discuss Michigan literature.