Paul Bernstein’s debut book of poetry, "What the Owls Know," chronicles a fully lived life

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Paul Bernstein and his book of poetry, What the Owls Know

A blurb on the back of What the Owls Know, Paul Bernstein’s book of poetry, says that the reader is guided through the “ground of a fully lived life.” There is no question that Bernstein’s life, like his poems, is fully realized.

Born in New York, Bernstein came to Ann Arbor in 1959 and returned to the city in the late 1960s seeking a Ph.D. in History. “I first published my writing while an undergraduate,” Bernstein says. “But then I got involved in politics. … I was involved with anti-war politics and at some point thought that I should give it up to focus on writing poetry but then protests heated up, the Weathermen began … and I realized it was not the time to get out.”

Eileen Pollack's "The Professor of Immortality" novel explores science, tech, grief, motherhood, whether we can truly know another person -- and the Unabomber's time in Ann Arbor

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Eileen Pollack and her book The Professor of Immortality

Author photo by Michele McDonald.

The Professor of Immortality by Eileen Pollack is preoccupied with how well people can know each other and how they deal with flaws and surprises in relationships when they care about the other person. The book raises questions about whether it is better to be together despite challenges and what the costs are either way. The ending seems to point strongly to an answer yet still lets the reader wrestle with this matter.

Main character Professor Maxine Sayers has an energizing job, loving husband, quirky child, and comfortable home -- until she doesn’t. Her husband dies unexpectedly, and then she experiences issues with her existing family members as her son becomes inaccessible and her mother’s health deteriorates. Through all of these changes and problems, the novel delves into Maxine’s thoughts and feelings about the goings-on. She must contend with whether what she believed and worked for is right and if it is what she still wants.

As Maxine takes action to figure out is transpiring with her son and a former student, she reflects deeply on her life and connections to people. At one point while talking with a friend and colleague, Rosa, Maxine wonders how to cope with her concerns, and she experiences some relief from Rosa:           

[Rosa] settles beside Maxine and rubs her back until Maxine is crying in her arms. That’s all anyone wants, isn’t it? To be held? Isn’t that the best Terror Management System any of us has devised?

This passage feels poignant in and of itself and becomes even more weighty with the fact that the book draws inspiration from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Another character, Angelina, provides further insight, noting that for many, “‘…their troubles are because of what is missing in their lives. And there is no way you could make up for that.’” These insights buoy Maxine when she faces what she fears is true and makes difficult decisions as a mother.

Pollack previously directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan (U-M), and she has written numerous books, including the recent novel, The Bible of Dirty Jokes. Now she lives in New York City. Ann Arbor welcomes her back Friday, October 11, at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore, where she’ll be in conversation with author Natalie Bakopoulos. I asked her some questions beforehand.

Brittney Morris' "Slay" imagines Black Panther's Wakanda as a VR video game beset by trolls

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Brittney Morris and her book Slay

A lot can happen in 11 days. One of the original Apollo missions could have gone to the moon and back. The Pony Express could have delivered one piece of mail from Missouri to California. A turtle can walk from New York to Ohio. And the most anticipated YA novel of the fall can be written!

After seeing Black Panther, Brittney Morris penned her debut book, Slay, a story about a young African-American woman who battles a real-life internet troll intent on ruining the video game she created, also called Slay.

“After I saw the movie, I was hoping someone would make a Wakanda simulator video game," Morris says, "because I immediately wanted to go back to Wakanda, and then I got to thinking about how controversial an all-Nubian VR MMO would be. I realized how much responsibility would be on the shoulders of someone managing such a game. And thus, the idea for Slay was born.”

Beer captivates and divides a family in J. Ryan Stradal's new Midwestern saga, "The Lager Queen of Minnesota"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

J. Ryan Stradal and his book The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Author photo by Franco P. Tettamanti

Beer and pie remain constant for characters through rifts, tragedies, and changes in J. Ryan Stradal’s new book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. The novel follows two sisters, Helen and Edith, as they come of age and make lives for themselves. Yet their paths diverge when Helen taps their father for all the money from the sale of the family farm, which divides the family. Edith becomes known for her pies, hops between service industry jobs, and endures several major losses, all while bottling her feelings about the uneven inheritance. Helen pores over chemistry and learns to make beer in college, and then she grows a large, successful brewery with the help of the farm proceeds. When Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, inadvertently enters the beer business, their paths head toward each other again.

Chapters in this plot-driven yet poignant novel alternate the focus between characters and are titled by various sums of money exchanged within them. The backstory and present lives of the three female main characters are blended throughout the chapters as Diana’s story parallels Helen’s in some ways. It is not only about what is happening or has happened, though. The novel also lingers on nostalgic or emotional moments. When Edith loses her husband, Stanley, the narrator describes that:

Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places. For half a century, she had seen or spoken with this man almost every day, so his life didn’t end when he died; it found its way into cereal aisles and intersections and post office lines and conversations she didn’t intend.

It’s clear that Edith cares deeply about those around her even as she struggles to get by.

The characters don’t succumb to bitterness despite challenges to support themselves, and they celebrate their successes in an industry that fluctuates based on consumers’ preferences. Beer aficionados and foodies might appreciate the well-crafted descriptions of brewing methods and tasting notes. One passage describes “Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb-Pie-In-A-Bottle” ale as such:

The beer has a fluffy pink two-finger head and smells like malty rhubarb, so it’s certainly not out to fool anybody. ... This beer is flawed, wonderful, and strange in a way only a certain individual could devise, and it renders every other beer on the shelf a faceless SKU.

This review of her beer illustrates Edith’s and other characters’ work ethics and distinct Midwestern traits.

Stradal has first-hand knowledge of the setting, as he grew up in Minnesota. He now lives in Los Angeles and is a contributing editor at TASTE, an online magazine about food and cooking. His first novel is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 24, at 7 pm, and I interviewed him ahead of time.

Retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth co-authored the definitive biography of blues legend Robert Johnson

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Bruce Conforth and his book Up Jumped the Devil

Decades of painstaking research and meticulous attention to detail have led to the 2019 book Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, which aims to rewrite and correct the story about the legendary bluesman. Co-authored by retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, this book entertains with facts, cut through myths, and lets readers learn about a man who has for too long been reduced to a single (and impossible) anecdote about trading his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to play the blues.

“When Columbia released its Thesaurus of Classic Jazz [in 1959], it was the first chance for most country-blues artists to have their recordings on a major label," Conforth says. "Most people didn’t even know that these folks existed. And on this record was Robert Johnson. … The liner notes said that he was the greatest blues musician there ever was, but we had nothing to compare him to and didn’t know anything about him. Almost immediately this mystique formed around Johnson while at the same time people were saying, ‘Oh, we’ll never know anything about him.’”

Conforth, who grew up in and around New York City during the 1960s folk revival, took that as a challenge.

Poet, Princeton lecturer, and former Zingerman's employee Michael Dickman accounts for days line by line in new collection

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Poet Michael Dickman and his books Days & Fays

Author photo by Michael Lionstar.

Days go by in many sorts of ways: hectic, enjoyably, dragging, intensely, calmly, explosively, gratifyingly. They can take on not just one but a range of characteristics. I am convinced that poet Michael Dickman goes through his days attentively if his poems are any indication of how he lives.

Drawing on nature and circumstances, Dickman’s new collection, Days & Days, reveals observations about parenthood, television, love, hotel stays, prescription drugs, and bodies of water. The poems are associative. Lines next to each other may seem unrelated and abstract at times, and then a line a few pages later will relate to a previous thought. The longest poem, “Lakes Rivers Streams,” reads:

          This is the earth & sometimes the earth

                    changes color

          Now I remember they were horses mulching the backyard

The horse metaphor for children continues:

          My horse kids eat something off the ground I can’t quite make out 

and

          What should I do with their withers & fetlocks what should I do with

                    their dressage?

          A parade is nice

These lines capture the variety and vicissitudes of days, whether with children or other topics. One wonders if Dickman is constantly jotting down fragments as he goes through his days and later fits them together into cohesive poems.

Formerly of Ann Arbor, Dickman now teaches at Princeton University. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Friday, September 20, at 7 pm. I interviewed him prior for Pulp.

Sarah R. Baughman's middle-grade book "The Light in the Lake" marries science and magic

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Sarah R. Baughman and her book Light in the Lake

Author photo by Ashley Cleveland.

Sometimes it feels like monsters are everywhere and the world is out to get you. At times like this, we all need some magic in our lives to make it better. For 12-year-old Addie, whose twin brother Amos died recently, these truths can all be found in Maple Lake. 

Addie is the protagonist in Sarah R. Baughman’s debut novel, The Light in the Lake, and she spends much of the book in the coveted role of a summertime Young Scientist studying the very lake where her brother drowned three months ago. Using a notebook that Amos left behind and with the help of her new friend Tai, Addie learns that the lake has secrets that include both those of a scientific nature (pollution) and of a more supernatural nature (a mysterious creature described by Amos as living deep inside the lake). Addie straddles the two worlds, one foot firmly in her trusted science and the other not so firmly in a magic realm that she’s not quite sure she believes in but one that might ultimately bring her closer to her late brother. 

U-M grad and Michigan native Baughman says she has always been interested in the “connection between these seemingly different ways of looking at the world.” Though not a scientist by training, “I deeply value scientific knowledge and approaches to problems.” 

Rachel DeWoskin's "Banshee" follows a woman exploring impulses and freedom after a medical scare

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Rachel DeWoskin, Banshee

Author photo by Annie Li.

Rachel DeWoskin's Banshee is a novel about Samantha Baxter, a woman who faces a serious medical diagnosis and casts about for meaning while acting out in ways inconsistent with the life she has lived so far. She crosses lines in her job as a professor and her roles as wife and mother. Through it all, she recognizes the incongruencies of her actions, but she does not just plow ahead disrupting her middle-aged life; instead, she both makes her choices and contemplates how they unfold.

While her actions appear extreme, ranging from sleeping with a student to alienating her husband, Samantha does not leave her life and home. Her defiance centers on how she acts within her existing family and professional relationships. Samantha says what she wants to, unapologetically follows her impulses, and lets the consequences unfold. Accordingly, the prose consists of her first-person narration of her experiences and perspective as she transforms and reacts to her major health problem and to how she feels in new situations. The plot becomes about what she does or doesn’t do, what she says or doesn’t say, and what she thinks and feels about all of it.

Writer, poet, and Ann Arbor native DeWoskin previously acted in a Chinese soap opera and now teaches at the University of Chicago. She will speak about and sign Banshee at Literati Bookstore on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm. Beforehand, I interviewed her about her writing and new novel.

Author and A2 Pioneer Instructor Jeff Kass Contemplates the Working Life in "Teacher/Pizza Guy"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jeff Kass, Teacher/Pizza Guy

What do you do?

It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.

When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).

Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:

…were you trying to paint the sea? A place 

for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring

friend who brings you cookies and iced tea

and listens to you without judging…? 

This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.

Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”

Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.

Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius, will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.

Pulp Bits: A Roundup of Washtenaw County Arts & Culture Stories, Songs & Videos

Dani Darling and her band outside Ziggy's in Ypsilanti

Singer-songwriter Dani Darling (far right) with her band Joel Harris, Noor Us-Sabah, and CA Jones outside Ziggy's in Ypsilanti. Darling's latest release is the Nocturne EP. Photo by Kyla McGrath via Facebook.com/pg/danidarlingmusic.

A round-up of arts and culture stories featuring people, places, and things in Washtenaw County, whether they're just passing through or Townies for life. Coverage includes music, visual art, film & video, theater & dance, written word, and Pulp life (food, fairs, and more). If you're reading this in the future and a story link is dead, look up the URL on web.archive.org; we've cached every post there.

This is the vacation-catch-up edition of Pulp Bits, so we have links going back to late June -- a true smorgasbord of culture news. Feast!