The natural world and the built environment sometimes seem so enmeshed that the borders between them blur. We walk into the fluorescent lighting of a store and then back out into the day’s weather. We go to the beach and some sand trails, then back inside vehicles and homes.
Poet Alison Swan explores this complexity in the lives that we live both with nature and in our manmade world in her new collection, A Fine Canopy (Wayne State University Press). One poem called “Lake Effect” considers how the environment coexists and contends with human life:
[…] We don’t ask,
where’s the sea? We can walk to it,
and to acres of scrub, pasture, crop,
asphalt draining to it, and the reactor
Signs of human change to the environment appear to be inescapable.
Yet, the splendor of the natural world heartily persists in Swan’s poems, and many lines admire this place where we reside, as the poem “Aubade” declares near the end of the collection:
It is good to […]
look out into
the lemon light of morning and
call it beautiful […]
Swan will read and be in conversation with poet and teaching artist Holly Wren Spaulding in a virtual event Tuesday, October 6, at 7 pm through Literati Bookstore. I interviewed Swan, a teacher at Western Michigan University, about ecopoetry, the Bentley Historical Library, and what she's reading.
“If you had told me when I started in this business, that one day I would be working for a non-profit that published books based on their merit and not profit, I would not have believed it,” says Michelle Dotter, who serves as publisher and editor in chief of Dzanc Books (pronounced Duh-ZANK).
The nonprofit was co-founded in 2006 by Ann Arbor lawyer turned novelist and 826Michigan creator Steven Gillis and Emerging Writers Network creator Dan Wickett. They had an uncompromising vision for Dzanc.
“The biggest thing for Steve," Dotter says, "was that nothing be constrained by shareholder interest, so we would never sacrifice artistic quality or only support books that could make money … or end up like some presses, where commercial potential is such a factor they send book covers to retailers like Walmart or Costco, giving them the power to reject a cover if they think it won’t sell.”
Dotter took over as publisher and editor in chief of Dzanc in 2017 after working there since 2014.
“I loved what they were doing as far as experimental literature," she says, "taking chances on amazing authors and books that might have been rejected for commercial reasons at other publishers.”
Ken Fischer makes the case for collaboration and connectivity in his book "Everybody In, Nobody Out"
This post contains two sections: a book review and a brief interview with Ken Fischer.
On June 1, 1987, Ken Fischer became the sixth president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan.
That date marks the beginning of 30 years of transformation, innovation, and collaboration.
Fischer’s Everybody In, Nobody Out: Inspiring Community at Michigan’s University Musical Society written with Robin Lea Pyle is a book of many parts. It is a memoir, an insider’s view of some of the leading performance artists who come each year to Ann Arbor and, perhaps most important, a guide on how to operate a non-profit by reaching out to and connecting with the community at large.
The title comes from Patrick Hayes, a mentor to Fischer and former head of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Hayes had developed a policy for art presentation that emphasized inclusion at every level. His policy was "Everybody In, Nobody Out" and it became Ken Fischer’s mantra.
“It was about making connections and forming partnerships for everyone’s enrichment,” Fischer writes. “The great thing about collaboration was that it could be the foundation of everything we needed to do as an organization: secure outside sources of funding, raise our visibility in the community, expand our audience, gain new insights, and build enthusiasm for working on new projects.”
Fischer’s book is a short history of those collaborations with the university, with world-class performers, with other local arts groups, and with local and national businesses and philanthropists.
But first a prelude.
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.
Imagine being dropped off in the wilderness, uninhabited except for 19 people with you and rangers who patrol the land. Modern amenities are nonexistent, but the upside is that the air quality is much better than the polluted city. You live nomadically and hunt, fish, and gather to survive. This is not an extended camping trip. It is your new way of life.
This intense scenario forms the premise of Diane Cook’s new book, The New Wilderness, a speculative novel involving relationships and the environment—and how the latter influences the former. The novel has landed on the long list for the Booker Prize. Cook has taught for the University of Michigan, is a U-M alum, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
In a joint virtual event, both Cook and Karolina Waclawiak, whose new novel Life Events was just published, will read and discuss their new books through the At Home with Literati series Monday, August 31, at 7 pm.
The characters of The New Wilderness, including Agnes, her mother Bea, and her mother’s husband Glen, go to the wilderness as part of a research experiment to determine whether this lifestyle is sustainable. Bea joined to save Agnes’ life. Agnes was five years old when they arrived and gravely ill from the effects of pollution. Despite learning how to stay alive in the wild and improving Agnes’ health, the characters’ memories of their former life, their love for one another in all its forms, and the burden of subsisting clash and inform their individual choices.
Early on, Bea’s concerns emerge when considering their next journey to a ranger post farther than they’ve had to go before:
Glen hooked his arm around her neck and pulled her close. “Now, now,” he murmured. “This will be fun.”
She knew that a big part of Glen believed this. But no part of Bea did. She pictured the map in her head again and saw all that unknown land, that beige parchment, all that nothing. They would be changed on the other side of it, that much she knew. Not knowing how was only one of the things that scared her.
The New Wilderness calls into question what the natural world is and should be, while also showing how vast the wilderness within and between people can be.
I interviewed Cook about this book and her writing.
It's just a fish-lens photo inside Yost Ice Arena. There's nothing special about it per se. The Michigan Wolverines are playing what looks to be the Wisconsin Badgers; it's 50 seconds into the game, a zero-zero tie, the stands are mostly full.
But during a time when all norms have been flipped because of Covid-19, seeing this simple scene of a hockey game being played 2 miles from my locked-down house hit an emotional hotspot that I've been pretty good about suppressing: dreaming about life in the Before Times.
The photo is in Dale Fisher's new book, Washtenaw: Visions of the Eagle, which is filled with pictures that will make you wistful for a full Big House, a packed Crisler, community fairs, and other events that brought people together for shared experiences.
Like the other six books by the Ann Arbor native, Fisher's latest focuses primarily on aerial photography, capturing the natural beauty and historic small cities of our county -- as well as that giant football stadium -- from the open door of a helicopter. But there are numerous ground-level photos among Washtenaw County's 288 pages, too -- many not even taken by Fisher or his co-photographer and partner Joanne Ackerman, who shot the book's cover image. The Yost photo is by Jonathon Knight. Other photos are provided by the businesses that helped sponsor the book and as well as nonprofits whose work Fisher supports. Those images are interspersed with Fisher and Ackerman's photos, blending editorial and business shots. It's a quirky approach, but not all that different from the way Fisher funded his other collections.
Not a Fake Ad: I Spy two new books from the Ann Arbor Observer highlighting its beloved monthly contests
If you live in the Ann Arbor school district, you are a recipient of the Ann Arbor Observer. The monthly magazine offers in-depth reporting on local issues and residents, a robust calendar of area events, and two long-running contests that are often the first things to which readers turn: "Fake Ad" and "I Spy."
If you're a superfan of these challenges, you won't have to wait until the next Observer arrives because the magazine is publishing two books of highlights from the contests: I Spy…Architecture: Photo Puzzles From the Ann Arbor Observer, Vol. 1 by Sally Bjork and The Fake Ad Book: 47 of the Best Fake Ads of All Time by Jay Forstner.
Forstner has worked on "Fake Ad" since the early 1990s when he had his “dream job” of being a staff writer for the Observer.
“I came up with the 'Fake Ad' as a way of trying to contribute more to the Observer because I loved the publication and the people I worked with," Forstner says. "The funny thing is that in the first years after I started writing the 'Fake Ad,' I also wrote some of my best articles for the magazine. I think the 'Fake Ad' was my way of connecting with my work.”
Bjork proposed the "I Spy" feature to editor John Hilton in late 1998.
“It originally focused on historic architecture and eventually expanded to include other things," Bjork says. "It began in February of 1999 and, thankfully, it has been going ever since."
Picking favorites from these beloved features proved difficult for both writers. Forstner recalls the fake ad for the Victorious Egret lingerie shop for ornithologists. “It combines three of my passions: wordplay, sexy lingerie, and bird watching," Forstner jokes, "which are very difficult to pursue all at the same time, sadly.”
What you have. What you want. What you hang on to. What you give up.
Jeans. A house. A spouse. Drawings. Places. Jobs. A fantasy.
Sara Schaff’s second collection of short stories, The Invention of Love, invests in these questions of possession and ownership, of affiliation and surprising loss. The best way to understand the characters’ distinct circumstances and the fine lines between one version of their life or another that they choose, or that gets chosen for them, is by looking at the plots themselves. For example, two half-sisters lose their mother, and both covet her pair of jeans used for dancing in “Our Lady of Guazá.” In another story called “Noreen O’Malley at the Sunset Pool,” Noreen must let go of the narratives about her friends and lovers that she hoped for as she cares for her new baby.
Still, a character may make a delightful discovery amidst a seemingly unbearable situation, such as a woman eventually becoming enthralled by Anna Karenina despite the fact that her ex-husband’s new wife (and their family friend) had been the one who recommended the book. These observant views of these women show their realizations and complicated hardships as they navigate life and its turns.
Schaff will speak with Greg Schutz, writer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, in an At Home with Literati virtual event on Tuesday, July 21, at 7 pm. Schaff and Schutz are friends and fellow graduates of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Information to join via Zoom is on the event webpage. We corresponded via email beforehand, and here are my questions and Schaff’s responses.
The best ideas often come with pizza.
That's the edible the Michigan Quarterly Review staff usually scarfs -- along with Hershey Kisses -- during its annual end-of-the-academic-year gathering to brainstorm plans.
But with the coronavirus raging, the MQR brain trust couldn't meet in person over a shared pie in 2020, but the staff did follow up on an idea from the previous year. The result is MQR Mixtape.
"We call it the Dream Session, and here, we throw our ambitions on the board," writes MQR Mixtape guest editor Elinam Agbo in the introduction to the first issue of the online journal. "Last year, one item on the list was a new imprint, a way to feature the experimental and the eclectic. How could we lean into the flexible and highlight new forms while furthering the journal’s mission to publish diverse emerging voices?"
The first issue of MQR Mixtape is titled Becoming and features the poetry of Nadia Alexis and Jasmine An and the fiction of Morgan Thomas, Sabrina Helen Li, M.E. Bronstein, Piper Gourley, Ama Asantewa Diaka, and Yohanca Delgado. There's also photography by Nadia Alexis, Chante Lasco, and Chelsea Welsh, and art by Sena Moon.
Perhaps you’re finding that you have watched all the TV and movies that you can and you’ve read all your books. What to do? I suggest the eminently bingeable genre of webcomics, which are pretty much just like regular comics but just posted online. For free.
Even if you generally don't read comics and graphic novels, I suggest looking through a few webcomics and seeing if you like them -- most are very different from traditional superhero comics. And, hey, this pandemic is leading a lot of people to try something new. I tried savory oatmeal because I ran out of bagels and found out that it was great, so maybe you’ll get sucked into the fantastic art and stories that these comics have to offer.
You can split webcomics into roughly two categories: daily strips and graphic novels. Certainly, there are a lot of comics that don’t fit into either category, but a lot of popular webcomics like XKCD, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Strange Planet, and Dinosaur Comics feature one-pagers frequently. These are like popcorn and you can easily spend a day or two reading the massive backlog of these comics. But the comics I’m going to feature here are mostly of the graphic novel variety. They are long stories in which each page contributes to an over-arching plot.
This is just a teeny sampling of the webcomics out there and those linked below are my personal favorites. When it comes to webcomics, there really is something for everyone and a growing diversity amongst stories and creators. Comic artists are generally very generous about promoting each others' work, so if you find an artist you like, see whose work they recommend.
Also, blanket advisory: with a few exceptions, all of these comics deal with mature themes. If you are in the (very understandable) mood for mindless fluff, this is not the list for you. But if you want to find some stories full of complex characters, adventures, ethical dilemmas, and amazing art, any comic listed here is a great place to start. If a comic sounds intriguing but you’re worried about disturbing content, you may want to do a bit of research about it first.
The link to each comic goes to the first page of the story.