Beyond the Birds: Ann Arbor Poet Ed Morin’s "The Bold News of Birdcalls" explores nature, relationships, and work
The Bold News of Birdcalls by Ed Morin is not just about birds. Stories about people, relationships, work, and news occupy his poems. In “Moments Musicaux,” with a dedication to “my sister Audrey,” we read about her birth, marriages, and children. We learn that “Her last words to me were, ‘You’ll look younger if you get your hair cut more often.’ ” Morin sees both the gravity and the humor in his subjects.
Morin’s poems that do focus on nature or birds are not without the poet’s opinion. The poem “Icicles” says, “February is a sallow miser who hoards / what little daylight is left in the world.” Yet the collection is also not without appreciation for the natural world. We see how industrious birds can be, as “Housing for Wrens” offers the lines “along comes the plain-brown-wrappered wren, focused as a meter reader, from yard / to yard appraising birdhouses for nesting.” This poet not only observes the wren but also admits in another poem that:
I can more easily recall birds’ names
than those of some human acquaintances;
just one name suits a whole feathered species
that reliably shows up every Spring.
While other poems in the collection show that the poet is not ignoring the rest of the world for birds, this level of interest in the presence of birds, this attentiveness to their habits, is admirable and even perhaps relatable. Morin expresses concerns about the natural world as well, such as in the poem “Mighty Phragmites,” which rues the unappealing invasive plant and hopes for more attention to the problem. This poem contains possible solutions to getting rid of it. Yet the poet worries, “Maybe people have so many troubles / they can’t afford to notice this one”—a concern that applies to many environmental problems.
Morin’s poems report on events that were in the news at one point, along with other stories that weren’t in the news. One poem highlights the demise of Borders with a quote from its CEO that compares poetry to stocking fresh fish, and the poet then wonders which fish each poet is and how:
Small numbers make their shelf life short:
quickly they’re boxed and set outside,
the stench swept off by morning’s tide.
We may all hope for a better fate for poetry.
The poet even provides some hopefulness in the collection. “Epithalamion,” with the title indicating a celebration of a marriage, urges the couple to “Leave hobgoblins of worry in the dust. / Look forward to the life you choose together.” There is still something to look forward to, and we might even “Enjoy the day / as anemones are enjoying theirs” as the poem that ends the collection encourages.
Morin is the author of three other poetry collections, lives in Ann Arbor, and co-hosts the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle. I interviewed him about his new book and the poetry circle.
Q: What brought you to Ann Arbor and to co-hosting the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle?
A: In the 1980s, while living in Ferndale, my wife took a job in Ann Arbor, and I took one in Plymouth, MI, so we moved to Ann Arbor for a shorter commute and pleasant surroundings. The Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle has been active at the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room for about 20 years. When health issues forced its host to retire in 2012, participants Joe Kelty and I became co-hosts. David Jibson joined and became a co-host within a year.
Q: What do you contribute to the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle? What do you learn from it?
A: I have several years’ experience teaching creative writing and literature in universities and editing for magazines and a university press. In Crazy Wisdom workshops, I share what I’ve learned. Knowing many writers in Michigan and across the country helps me find and recruit our monthly featured readers. Other members of the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle also contribute to this effort and to audience development. Along with other workshop participants, I learn from useful suggestions for improving drafts of my writing.
Q: What’s your favorite part about the writers’ workshop and public readings with Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle?
A: I especially enjoy seeing the writers in our workshop develop new skills. Most of them come from outside the network of creative writing programs in the academy. They’re mid-career or retired social workers, psychologists, teachers, a lawyer, a children’s book author, a heating and cooling expert, etc. The public readings give me occasions to meet new writers with fresh perspectives and techniques. They also help me connect once again with writer friends and acquaintances whose work I respect. We catch up on news and resume former conversations about our craft.
Q: You’ve taught English at several places, including the College for Creative Studies, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University. What drew you to teaching? What do you tell your students about poetry?
A: I’ve read and written poetry since elementary school and earned a B.A. in philosophy at a liberal arts college. Reading Renaissance and Chinese classical poets, along with many other poets including François Villon and Heinrich Heine, I switched to English in graduate school, earned a Ph.D., and was lured into teaching English because they pay you to read. After being voted down for tenure decades ago, I made a pretty good living as a writer and editor for corporations, teaching composition part-time for pocket change. An adjunct’s lot is not a happy one. Some of this story is in my poems.
In English classes, I encourage students to read poetry aloud and explicate the text, and I furnish biographical, historical, and other relevant background they haven’t already found themselves. I’ve always avoided Deconstruction theory. I encourage them to read, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “the best that’s been known and thought in the world.”
In creative writing classes, I tell students to read much poetry and then, “You will imitate what you admire.” Following Theodore Roethke’s dictum, I urge, “Get to your compulsions!”
Q: Turning to your recent book, The Bold News of Birdcalls, I noticed that a blurb on the back says, “[H]e is a real Michigan bard.” How does place influence your writing? Or, perhaps the other way around, how does your writing influence your view of places?
A: I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and stayed for large parts of every summer until my mid-teens with grandparents in the U.P. I’m both a country and a city mouse. After leaving Chicago in my mid-20s, I lived and worked a while in Kentucky and Ohio, and since then have lived in southeast Michigan. I keep tuned in to what’s going on in the neighborhood, whether that’s the U.S. or four other continents where I’ve traveled. Early habits of meditation taught me “composition of place”—imaging in detail a scene or event, originally for purposes of moral improvement and more recently for creative writing. My writing affects my view of places because, as an amateur social scientist, I try to subtly represent how I and others can change our environment.
Q: Tell us about the sections in your book, which have such wonderful names like “III. Endurance of Robins.” How did you organize your poems into these sections and then name the parts?
A: While assembling the sequence of poems, I considered arranging them into three or four sections according to a dominant image or theme. A standing joke at the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle workshop was, “Are you going to read us another bird poem, Ed?” Although birds populate many of the poems, hardly more than a handful have birds as their subject. By positioning a strong poem involving one bird species at the beginning of each section, I assigned an image and a theme to each. Those captions are "Noise of Blue Jays," "Melody of Wrens,” "Endurance of Robins" and "Passage of Swans.” The first two captions distinguish between noise and melody; poems in the first group usually involve discord, disappointment, and discomfort among adults, while those in the second depict usually tranquil, youthful, or childlike experiences. “Endurance of Robins” begins with a poem about combat between robins and a hawk, then phases into other poems exploring layers of social strife America continually endures. “Passage of Swans” conveys a pervading atmosphere of celebration and finality.
Q: As you noted, poems in The Bold News of Birdcalls cover a range of subjects, from birds (of course!) to teaching and the news, such as George W. Bush’s second inauguration and Bernie Madoff’s fraud. The picture of the meadowlark on the cover feels like it has multiple meanings—the bird itself and also its open beak seeming like it’s announcing something, whether it’s the spring, the news, or something else. How do you go about turning the news into poems?
A: The cover photo is of a male meadowlark on a fencepost probably singing a mating call, and viewers can imagine any lyrics they wish. Roean Caleffi’s original photo shows the bird facing left, and I had it digitally inverted to face right toward where the pages of the book open—where the news is. I had the photo replicated in silhouette as small cameos on the short-title page and on the next-to-last page, like bookends. I had in mind a subliminal story about the meadowlark, even though none of my poems include one. The American meadowlark isn’t actually a lark (like the skylark in "Shelley’s Ode"). Its close relative is the starling, an ugly but melodious bird (Mozart kept a caged one for musical ideas). The two birds dig for food in the same way. The meadowlark population is declining because factory farms are reducing large tracts of grasslands that the meadow lark needs. If the trend continues, America could find the meadow lark superseded by the less attractive starling.
As a boy, I was a paper carrier and developed an eye and ear for current news. I bring it into poems sometimes as a snippet, sometimes as the subject of a whole poem. I prefer aspects of the news that have been overlooked or ignored. If you haven’t heard it, it’s news.
Q: The poem “India Dreams: An Ekphrastic Poem Based on a Composite Photograph” is followed by the photograph itself. I loved the lines “Like a bird with a string tied to its foot, / his mind flies every-which-way till exhausted, / then alights back to the place it’s moored.” How did you find this photograph? What made you decide to write a poem in response to it?
A: The bird prevented from flight by a string tied to its foot is a traditional metaphor used in sermons to describe attachment to material things. I found the composite photograph-painting in an exhibit at our local WSG Gallery in Ann Arbor. The artist, Nina Hauser, graciously allowed me to print it. I wrote the poem in response to the gallery’s call for ekphrastic poems based on any picture in the exhibit.
Q: Your poems include both birding and music, with some poems meant to be lyrical. It appears that you bring together your various pursuits in poetry. Does it feel like poetry is unifying, a means to reflect on and engage with your other activities?
A: Writing poems is an occasion for drawing on various lifelong interests. First come birds. Some creative writers base new poems on verbal “prompts”; my prompts alight upon the feeder in my yard. I’ve sung all my life in choirs, choruses, coffee houses, bars, operas, and stage musicals. The new book has three song lyrics. One poem’s title, “Hail Poetry!” comes from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and another from “Moment Musicaux,” a piano work by Shubert. I’ve acted in 30 dramatic performances, and the poem “Invisible Hand” portrays my experience acting the part of a banker in a production of Tobacco Road at Detroit Repertory Theatre. Fishing with the family: “The Big One.” Coaching sports: “Idiot.”
Q: What are you into for reading these days?
A: 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney, Modes of Thought by Alfred North Whitehead, and Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq. I’m taking an OLLI course in Homer’s Odyssey, but have trouble keeping up with the reading assignments.
Q: What’s next for you and your poetry?
A: I need to query publishers for three complete book manuscripts of co-translated poems by Cai Qijiao, Yousef el Qedra, and Odysseus Elytis. I’ve begun publishing pieces of a memoir and have new poems to write.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.