"Common" People: Ken Meisel examines and celebrates Detroit in his new poetry collection


Ken Meisel's book Our Common Souls

Detroit is many things to many people. Ken Meisel’s poetry collection Our Common Souls: New & Selected Poems of Detroit outlines these many views through substantial narrative poems that tell stories about the city. The wide-ranging poems examine specific places in the city, people such as its famous musicians, and historical events, including riots, the World Series, and Devil’s Night.

The collection opens with a poem called “Detroit River, January, 1996” that sets the scene for both the book and its perspectives of the city: “River on this coal-blasted shore, / River whose name now starts with a fist, / ends its knees in St. Lawrence.” The poem concludes with an emphasis on the river’s persistence, “River of sunken beer bottles, churn on,” just as the place will carry on through time and everything that has happened there. 

The poet peers at the various scenes and underbelly of the city, not overlooking the rough edges, as the poem, “The Gift of the ‘Gratia Creata,’” with a note setting its location in “Hamtramck, MI” declares:

To know the truth, in this city, 
a man’s vacant eyes say to me on the street,
– his mouth frothing with liquor
and the spit of too many old wounds – 
is to know pain and drunkenness, 
public displays of dirty emotion, 
joblessness and a lasting humiliation. 

Detroit can nevertheless be vibrant, which another poem, “Concrete Art,” depicts by touring “…the fine art / somehow etched into being / across the overpasses.” The speaker and a sibling find graffiti on those overpasses reminiscent of famous artists, “For we were looking for proof / of life amidst this beautiful rust,” which they appear to find. 

The poems also show how the Upper Midwest landscape coincides with the city’s characteristics, with descriptions like, “It’s winter time. Chromed skies and clouds that puff and stall. And / defeated trees that let the winter winds blow through them. The / street is like a broken puzzle. Car pieces in wreckage.” The “chromed skies” may feel distinctive to anyone who has spent time there and they speak to Detroit’s automotive legacy. 

Amidst these various takes on Detroit in different poems, a poem called “The City Is a Woman” tells us that “We take our chances when we / love someone until the end of it,” as if loving Detroit means being subject to its whims. Ever present is the city’s history, and another poem, with which the collection shares its name, highlights this turmoil when a pastor at a cook-out at the True Vine Temple of Christ Church—pictured on the book’s cover—says:

‘but you can’t have it, this peace – ’

‘because you’re caught,’ he says, accentuating
  the word caught like it’s a pick axe 
and it divides you,’ he adds
‘from both this side and that; and you’re cut in two halves,
  like that burned house across from us;
and you never get right with each other
or the street you and your people were born
  on – ’

The people at the barbecue listen, “letting these words sink like food, into our / common souls.” Detroit as a woman and Detroit as a house divided are just a couple of many other takes in this book.  

With 222 pages of often multi-page poems that are elegies, lamentations, and celebrations of Detroit, the book ends back at the place where it starts with a poem called “Detroit River, January, 2020.” On a hopeful note to conclude this weighty collection, the poem wishes “holy grace & bold love, & a hereafter of good luck” to the city. 

Meisel grew up in Detroit, lives in Dearborn, and works as a clinical psychotherapist in private practice, in Saint Clair Shores. He will do a virtual reading with his friend and fellow author Jeff Vande Zande (Pulp interview) on Wednesday, March 24, at 7 pm, hosted by the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle

Ken Meisel

Q: You’re reading with Jeff Vande Zande in the Crazy Wisdom event and he said that you met when he was the poetry editor of a journal where you submitted to and had poems published. How has your friendship influenced your writing life?
A: Yes, I did meet Jeff when he was editing The Driftwood Review. This would have been in 1998. Our story of friendship is sweet, reciprocal, and generous. It began when I submitted a poem and he politely rejected it, but left the door open for its eventual acceptance—he suggested that I was ending certain lines in the poem without a sharp enough edge to them. He suggested that I end my lines with a more certain auditory click to them. I followed his editorial suggestions and resubmitted the poem and he took it. Thereafter, I learned that he was doing a reading in Farmington, and I attended the reading. I met him, and that struck up our friendship.

In subsequent years, we buddied up for readings together. Tons of them. We even did one reading around a Valentine’s Day event, and we helped participants write valentine poems. We’ve hung out together for years. Why is this important? Here’s why: we who write share a precious collegial membership with one another, and we know what it is to toil and labor on a piece of writing that will be launched, in fairness, toward an ambiguous outcome. You see, we never know how or where the writing will land, and to be able to talk together about that over a glass or two of whiskey is the kinship of artist with artist. One other thing: Jeff is truly one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. When we gather, we laugh heartily. Underneath the laughter is a deep fealty toward one another, a true blessing of brotherhood, a true trust in one another and a loyalty that is self-renewing. And he is endlessly creative: he plays bass guitar, writes fiction, paints, and makes films. He’s a Renaissance man. And writers will hold a private circle of exemplars—persons they actually write their work to—and Jeff sits right there in that privatized hall of mine. He has an acute ear for the authenticity of voice that is unparalleled, and so, when I write, he is in that private hall of mine; he is listening and helping me, always, with my stealth of voice. And with those line endings, of course.

Q: In your new collection, Our Common Souls, there are some poems that are titled as letters to people, including one called “Letter to Jeff Vande Zande from Abick’s Bar.” How did you get the idea of writing letters as poems? Did you send them to people, too?
A: This is a fun question. When I was compiling these Detroit poems, I began to feel the indebtedness I’d accrued to certain writer friends of mine. And so the idea of writing appreciation letters, as part of this collection, suddenly shined a bright light. So I gathered a few significant writer’s names in front of me, and I wrote the poems. Amazingly, I’d just started this letter to Jeff—I was writing it later at night—and out of the blue Jeff called me. I told him exactly what I was doing: writing a letter poem to him. The synchronicity of it. Amazing. This particular poem to him celebrates some of the arc of our conversations, whether they be about love, marriage, writing, existential fate, or urban decay. One of my favorite lines in the poem is, “You can love an emptiness until it loves you back.” That’s a certain love line to Jeff: he’d been going through a divorce, and I wanted him to know that in his loneliness, in that abyss of his emptiness, there was a love that would reach back out to him. The line also, of course, refers to my love of Detroit’s vacancies and that in reaching into the emptiness there, one will yield a faithful return. Love is a patient waiting sometimes, for what is fertile, yet maybe dormant, and yet, still very much available, resourceful, and alive.

Q: That sounds like it all came together in a serendipitous way. How did you start writing poems in the first place? When did you decide or realize that you are a poet? 
A: I wrote a bit in college—short stories. They were melodramatic junk. I quit, and then in the middle 1990s, I decided to write poetry. I’d been reading Pablo Neruda. I started imitating him. Slowly, all self-taught, I learned to go where I needed to go. Some of my first believable poems seemed to constellate around the pathos of what it was to grow up in a self-immolating city, Detroit. And so I wrote—as you can see—tons of poems about the paradoxical aesthetic of Detroit. By this, I mean, Detroit as a glorified and humiliated landscape. Both. This conflict of Detroit’s identity process possessed me, and somewhere, in the midst of all this, I became a version of a poet. Sherry Lee Linkon, a professor of English and American Studies at Georgetown University, has written in her book, The Half-Life of Deindustrialization, that my Detroit poetry is deindustrialized writing; it is a verse born from landscapes of lives ruined. They are fragmentations. And my poetry tries to render them whole somehow again. I think she’s correct. That said, I have other books of poetry that are not at all about Detroit and the writing style in those books is completely different. And so it would be incorrect to construe me as just a Detroit-centric poet.

Q: Speaking of local poetry, do you attend the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle, where your event is taking place? What does the group mean to you as a poet?
A: Sadly, I don’t regularly attend the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle. Their readings are on Wednesdays, and that is usually a very busy work night for me. But this is a special reading circumstance: it is run by esteemed poets by and for the art of poetry and the written word. I respect David and Ed’s and Joseph’s work. They are dead serious in their own devotion and apprenticeship to the art of writing.

Q: You’re a psychotherapist in addition to a poet. Recently, Pulp has interviewed a couple of other artists who also have worked in psychology (Caroline Kim and Emilie Lin). Do you think there is synergy between writing and practicing psychotherapy? How do you fit both pursuits into your life?
A:  Well, this question is a many-trailed answer. I’ll just speak to a few possible trails. So yes, there is a pronounced synergy between writing and practicing psychotherapy. Here’s one interface: both writing and psychotherapy share a mutual preoccupation: namely, how the self is bound up and freed in the emotional-narrative realities of its own making. Psychological conflict is autonomous freedom bound up in unworked-through, unresolved conflict arrangements; the self—to be metaphoric—is an in-completed poem. The suffering self cannot find a way out of its paradoxical conflicts or its sense of dissatisfied incompleteness, and so there is intensified suffering and a loss of creative enterprise. There is inert stuckness. The self, like an incomplete poem, stays stillborn. In a drawer. Likewise, all creative endeavor—such as writing a poem— engages in a likeness of phenomena: the poet must contend with a certain knot that has presented itself as a literary riddle, an incompleteness of form. And the poet/ writer must contend with an incompleteness arriving into completion, of being untied and retied anew: this results in a new creation, a poem. This is always the well-trod path to wisdom. In other words, the poet / writer must face the same ordeal as the psychotherapist: the ordeal of addressing how to make the sometimes conflicted unknown knowable and with as much efficiency as possible. And there is a certain alchemy to it: we are turning the raw materials of existence into beauty—for the sake of the whole world’s consciousness, which needs it to thrive. To do so requires a certain honesty of fortitude, a willingness to quarrel with and assuage the suffering self and all of its disappointments and to strive for an outcome that answers the larger question of how one will shine in creative usefulness inside individualized beauty. To do so means—at some point—to stand naked to the rules of creation.

When I do therapy—whether it is individual or marital therapy—my clients and I sit in a threshold where the vulnerable is revealed and in a state of revealing itself. One cannot heal one’s wounds unless one sits gentle inside this threshold. And that takes relaxation, trust, humility, and a certain faithful hope that creative powers much greater than the simple preferential ego will hold sway and then abide. Likewise, when I write successfully, I am steadying myself for the greater power of creativity to guide me into the substantiated truth of the poem I am now writing. In sum, both writing and psychotherapy are an apprenticeship to a larger power grid of creativity. To learn to do them both results in the humbling wisdom of the ego. Which is a good thing. And you see, my answer is just one trail that you and I together could walk.

Q: This book focuses solely on Detroit. Have you lived in Detroit your whole life? How do you continue finding inspiration in a very familiar place?
A: I was born in Detroit and lived there well into my late twenties. I then married, and my wife and I, like so many couples, could not depend on the Detroit school system for a good school experience for our child. We moved to Dearborn many years ago. But Detroit is the home spot in my heart; it is the inner landscape that informs me. It is the template. As Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher would say, Detroit is the poetics of my space.

I continue to find inspiration in Detroit because it has told me that there is beauty in its rust, that there are broken things there that linger in a ceaseless speaking and a revealing of themselves and that there are many voices of influence inside the larger, broken, and bruised landscapes of the city, and those smaller lives are the many, multi-faceted faces looking up at me, bidding me to speak their stories straight, right, and true. I am just one of the witnesses, bearing witness for Detroit. There are other, multi-talented artists here that are doing this too. And to understand that this was but one calling of mine, as a poet, shapes how I will continue to be inspired by a very familiar place. To know what one has been called to do—and to assume an honorable responsibility to and for it—is what keeps writers doing what it is the greater call of duty has compelled in them to do.

Q: One focus of the collection is racism. The poem, “The Smell of His Black Skin on My White Skin,” describes a fight between Dwayne and the speaker in which they are, “threatening to tear the color off each other’s / face.” How might poetry address racism and possibly work toward a solution?
A: This is a good, essential question. That poem you mention is a signature poem in my 2009 book, Beautiful Rust. Yes, it takes racism head on. To answer the question as to how poetry might address racism and work toward a solution, I’ll explicate what the poem told me was its answer to such a question. The poem’s meta-message addresses the following: that the world under skin is the world of mystery, and it harbors the hidden symbols of who we truly are. And that region in us is where all novel, intimate experience—if it is sought properly, respected properly, and held properly in a moral consent—is rendered mutual, co-creative, and satisfying. And a safe, wise, mutual intimacy will be the result. This is how we come to know one another—as treasures. As brothers, as sisters, as neighbors, as lovers.

Skin in the poem is border, is boundary, is symbolic masquerade. It is just a symbol, inviting itself to be explicated. However, skin cannot be avoided, and it cannot be explicated and understood without a powerful, and sometimes confrontational intimacy. And that is because it is physical. It is landscape. So skin is unavoidable. And it is also a template: you see, relative meaning can be placed upon it, as a signifier. That is why Dwayne, who is Black, invites the speaker—who is white—to tear the skin off of each boy’s face—so that both adversaries will stop being seduced by coloration and the vast historical symbolism and meaning associated with coloration. And I mean the colors of white and Black. Both. The poem addresses the meaning-bondage that people—wrapped in white or Black skin—must feel. This bondage, by the way, is imposed, assigned, signified, and rendered (falsely) meaningful by a culture. The fight for who will control the meaning of skin is still raging today. That is why this poem does not entirely trust the project of culture. It acknowledges but doesn’t easily trust the projected concerns of culture—which signifies people without their consent.

The confronter, Dwayne, functions as a moral jester. He is Black, and he harbors insight on the fixity of skin as template border—as it is defined by a culture—and he holds an in-depth, if conflicted, knowledge that the rules we live by—consecrated by power structures within a dominant culture that favor advantage to the folks in possession of and doing all the controlling of power, signification and (in)tolerance—are stamped as essentially identifiable and meaningful on a citizenry’s skin. Thus, skin is a template for the rules of meaning signification. Skin = identity. Identify allots its holders certain rights and privileges. Dwayne can’t abide this; he has to confront it head-on. This is the message Dwayne reveals: We are and yet, are not the meaning of our skin. We must resolve this paradox. To do so is to confront the norm that binds identity to how we are signified. Dwayne invites both himself and the white speaker to confront the meaning of their skin. But he insists they must do it as skinless beings. Why? So that they are rendered equally mutual. To be equally mutual means we will both, well, have "skin in the game." Only then will we be obligated to play fair for an outcome.

Therefore, Dwayne functions as both the confrontational and the invitational prop in the poem. He is a symbol-breaker. Our society has had several gems like Dwayne: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan. Dwayne, in like fashion, challenges the white speaker to confront his own subjugation and limitation under a racist cultural construct that binds both he and Dwayne in a fixed, if massively limited structure of intimacy and freedom. The speaker is white; Dwayne is Black. Dwayne is the moral voice. Together they are the arrangement of a coloration paradox. And the coloration paradox is that we are both the same and yet different. This sounds obvious; what isn’t so obvious is the entanglements we live—within our particular skin coloration and the cultural signification applied to it—as we are all subjugated, defined, and regulated under pernicious cultural influence.

I mean “Culture,” from the etymological Cultus, which means, to care. One mustn’t trust culture so much: sometimes it promotes a system of care that is antithetical to safe, harmonious intimacy, and it prohibits a common wisdom sharable between others. To address racism, one must address the paradox of difference: one must feel a longing to know someone different and then act upon it, rather than to remain in the fixed, judgmental, and fear-based dread of it. This is the promise of intimacy, would that we’d try it. This is what the poem told me it was writing—into a solution code—as the answer to your question. The poem ends with the speaker integrating Black skin tone color into his white skin tone. This is essential because it is immersive empathy. We are meant to integrate cohesive difference. Immersive empathy is not the same as appropriation. Immersive empathy ignites our mirror neurons, those special neurons associated with creative, imaginative skill-building. They help us contend with difference-challenges so that we can integrate novel empathy experiences - especially empathic love experiences. I use the word integrate, meaning, to make whole. The formula for wisdom is integrated experience. It is a conscious-competence, earned into the real; the physical. The poem’s action and its outcome embody and dramatize the arrival of a new consciousness in the speaker. So a poetry that can exemplify the actions of such transformative experience is but one of the means that literature can confront racism.

Finally: the quarrel represented in the poem is universal: that two will clash and clash until they merge, crush, and make malleable a shared mutually Oneness. To share a Oneness means that we are now mutually responsible toward the care of the welfare of another, which is inter-dependence. It’s born from the struggle and resolution of the paradox of separateness and difference. It’s love. Sometimes that kind of resolution cannot happen in a lifetime or in an epoch. But the in and out must become integrated into the one. The United States is obviously struggling forthwith with such a challenge. Leaders that don’t get this doom the culture as a whole to a dearth-like, if slow, pace.

Q: These poems look at Detroit in many angles and do not shy away from the grittier aspects, like meat plants and drugs. The poem, “Detroit Doxologies,” is a list (of sorts) of places, people, and characteristics of Detroit in couplets. For example, there are the lines “Praise to the Heidelberg Project: its polka dots, its sacred / stuffed animals ascending a house like yearning angels.” The poem concludes with a prayer for peace, light, and grace. Would you say that this book is meant to celebrate Detroit? If so, in what way(s)?
A: Yes. The book—all the poems in it—are the reflected pieces of kaleidoscopic glass in the mirror of Detroit. They are the mirror that reflects Detroit back to us. Every poem I’ve written about Detroit is a love poem to it. Some of the poems are quarrels—they are reflections of a disappointment about the city. And they are addressing the arc of Detroit’s glory, its loss and ignoble ruin, and its incipient attempt at revival. Some poems are the expressed language within that kind of complicated love, a love that is trying, and maybe even fighting to just see itself better. And some of the poems are the shared, tender moments that two in love could share, no matter the condition of who and what they are or have become. I’ve written them to pay homage to a collective pain, and I offer them as pieces, or fragments of a discontinuity, attempting to become a whole again, which is how we heal. That particular poem, “Detroit Doxologies,” does pay homage to the truly memorable livingness of the city. A doxology praises the glory of something; I wanted to praise the glory of the city.

Q: Turning to other books, what’s on your nightstand to read?
A: I’m reading Immortality by Milan Kundera. Why him? Great European writers such as Kundera don’t pussyfoot around about what death is trying to tell us about life. They don’t pretend that happiness is a leisure product that we’re here to receive a-priori, and they don’t accept that love is a simple rom-com movie. They understand that there is no love without strife, that politics is—all too often—an aggressive enterprise guided by money, greed, and power, and they affirm that God dwells as much in human shame as in human beauty made transcendent. And they don’t find it quaint or cynical that surrendering to experiences greater than our ego’s grasp—such as deep love, mystical experience, or the coincident-unexpected is what life is actually made of. And life is made right and just in all that, no matter what road to it we take. I go to these great European writers so I can be set straight again on what the enterprise of life is actually all about.

I’m also reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in the field of trauma. Mostly, he’s saying that trauma—as a body experience—is the wound made real and that society either accepts and addresses it or else the society, writ large, is traumatized as well. I’d think he might be correct, given this past year. Every person is a cell in the greater whole. How shall we heal the cells?

Q: And to wrap up, a question that I always like to ask: what are you working on next?
A: I have a new book entitled Studies Inside the Consent of a Distance. It will be published in January 2022 through Kelsay Books. And I have three other manuscripts in various states of arrival and completion. So I’m in a continual dance in between the verbs, the adjectives, and the nouns. My dance card is full.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.