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

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

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:

Streets of Your Town: Jeff Vande Zande’s new short story collection focuses on "The Neighborhood Division"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jeff Vande Zande's book The Neighborhood Division

In the neighborhoods, streets, homes, rooms, and basements of author Jeff Vande Zande’s new short story collection, The Neighborhood Division, people live out their lives, their relationships, and their struggles. 

Yet, something is always a little unsettled. A car that follows a character on his run, with threats emerging from the driver. The paranoia of being mugged haunts a female character. A man lives shackled in the basement, unbeknownst to the residents. A neighborhood, where no outsiders are supposed to come in, restricts its residents under the guise of making lives better for them.  

These stories peer into the disarray of lives behind the four walls that they call home and also question the character’s choices. In the story called “That Which We Are,” a widower reflects on his marriage. His wife used to save money during the year so that she could give it to people in need during the holidays. Yet, he coveted the money for household expenses and splurges, like a television. He reconsiders:

Ann Arbor Film Festival launches a virtual version of the 59th edition

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW

59th Ann Arbor Film Festival Poster

Like 60-degree days in March, the 59th Ann Arbor Film Festival snuck up on us this year and we didn't get a chance to screen any of the movies before the event launches Tuesday, March 23.

But here all the pertinent details to get you started on this year's edition:

Afa S. Dworkin on the Sphinx Virtuosi and their UMS concert "This Is America"

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Afa Dworkin and Sphinx Virtuosi

Afa S. Dworkin photo by Kevin Kennedy. Sphinx Virtuosi photo by Brian Hatton.

Classical music has had a long history of lacking diversity, which is why Aaron P. Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1997 to encourage and support minorities in this art form. The name was inspired by the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza statue in Egypt, which “reflects the power, wisdom and persistence that characterize Sphinx’s participants," according to the Detroit-based organization's website.

Today, the Sphinx Organization’s programs reach more than 100,000 artists and students, while performances by the orchestras and ensembles are viewed and attended by more than two million people each year.

UMS recorded a special performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra of the Sphinx Organization, for its 2021 season of virtual programming, and the concert is streaming for free on ums.org through February 8. The program is titled This Is America and includes works by Michael Abels, Jessie Montgomery, and Xavier Foley. On the final day of the stream, there will also be a special conversation with three Sphinx artists: Gabriel Cabezas, Bill Neri, and Melissa White. Each musician will discuss the performance as well as talk about their musical careers. You can download a PDF for the This Is America concert notes here.

A 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Aaron P. Dworkin was dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and is now a tenured professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at SMTD who also hosts the weekly videocast Arts Engines; he currently serves as a strategic advisor for Sphinx. Afa S. Dworkin, his wife, is a celebrated violinist and educator who now leads the Sphinx Organization.

Afa S. Dworkin, who has been honored with the Kennedy Center’s Human Spirit Award and was named one of Detroit Crain’s 40 Under 40, has expanded Sphinx's outreach and range enormously during her tenure as president and artistic director.

I spoke to the Ann Arbor-based Afa S. Dworkin about the Sphinx Organization and the Virtuosi concert recorded for UMS.

The Ark's Ann Arbor Folk Festival goes virtual for its 44th edition

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Ark by Dwight Burdette, Creative Commons

Photo by Dwight Burdette.

Like any town, Ann Arbor has annual events that help define the place: Art Fair, University of Michigan's first home football game, the summer closings of nearly every road in downtown due to construction.

The Ark's annual Folk Festival is an important part of that list, too, but with the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on traditions big and small, the venue was forced to take the fest virtual for the 44th edition. This year's Folk Festival happens on January 29 and 30, along with a bonus show on the 31st featuring several of the previous days' performers to celebrate the life and music of the late John Prine, an Ark regular.

Friday's lineup includes Raul Malo, Colin Hay (Men at Work), Alan Doyle, The War and Treaty, Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him), Joe Pug, Glen Phillps, Amythyst Kiah, Gina Chavez, Willie Watson, Ron Pope. All these acts' performances will be remote other than Michigan's The Accidentals with special guest Kim Richey who will play The Ark's stage.

Saturday's concert offers Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, David Bromberg, Todd Snider, George Winston, Vance Gilbert. Dom Flemons, Matt Andersen, Crys Matthews. Sierra Ferrell. and Andrea von Kampen performing remotely, with Ann Arbor's The RFD Boys playing at The Ark.

Jeff Daniels will be the MC both nights.

Sunday's Prine tribute will feature The Accidentals, Al Bettis, Annie and Rod Capps, Chris Buhalis, Dave Boutette and Kristi Lynn Davis, Dick Siegel, Erin Zindle, Jill Jack, Joshua Davis, Matt Watroba and Robert Jones, May Erlewine, Michigan Rattlers, The RFD Boys, Seth Bernard, and The War & Treaty.

"Remote performances have all been prerecorded by the artists," says The Ark's marketing director, Barb Chaffer Authier, "but specifically for the festival—no 'recycled' material—so only the opening set each night will be live in real time."

All performances will be viewable through February 7.

We talked with Authier about what it's been like for this historic music operation since the pandemic started and what it was like to book a virtual Folk Festival, the nonprofit's most important concert event every year.

2020 Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival offers 25 authors over 20 days

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW

2020 Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival books

I've increased my reading tenfold since the beginning of the pandemic.

Of course, most of that reading is doom scrolling on Twitter, but nevertheless, words were seen by my eyes.

But my desire to consume books hasn't waned even if my attention span has, and the 2020 Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival (AAJBF) has provided a host of authors and titles to add to my unconquerable to-read list.

From December 2 to 22, the AAJBF will present 25 authors discussing 22 books, which is a lot more than usual for this 33-year-old festival. If there's any benefit to the whole world being on lockdown and Zoom calls becoming a part of our collective DNAs, it means festivals like this and others are able to schedule more authors (or performers, etc.) because they don't have to travel to the events in person. While the arts and culture side of the AAJBF will be muted this year because of the pandemic, there's now an increased chance to engage with a wide range of authors writing about Jewish subjects or that have Jewish connections—and most of the talks are free of charge.

Here's the calendar for the 2020 Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival; click on the authors' names for event links on the AAJBF website:

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players' Halloween Drive aims to scare you with good theater

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

Halloween Drive

Skeleton dance photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players.

While most of us mourn the loss of traditional Halloween celebrations this year—scary movie marathons at home notwithstanding—the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players decided to do something about it.

The two troupes, who haven't been able to perform in front of audiences since the pandemic started, will have a slow-rolling crowd for their shows on October 30 and 31 at The Petting Farm at Domino's Farm.

Halloween Drive features three spooky plays written by Brodie H. Brockie and produced by Patty Mazzola that people can watch as they cruise along a path in their cars at the farm, including:

Alison Swan's poetry collection "A Fine Canopy" celebrates the natural world

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Poet Alison Swan and her book A Fine Canopy

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

it cools. 

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.

Publisher Michelle Dotter details upcoming works from Ann Arbor's Dzanc Books

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Michelle Dotter

Dzanc Books publisher and editor in chief Michelle Dotter. 

“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.”

One such book is In Our Midst by Nancy Jensen. Dotter will be in conversation with Jensen at a virtual event hosted by Literati on Monday, September 28 at 7 pm. 

Astronomy at the Beach moves the sky (and sand) online for its 2020 edition

PULP LIFE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Photo by Adrian Bradley

Dark Sky Preserve at Lake Hudson State Recreation Area. Photo by Adrian Bradley.

Astronomy at the Beach (AATB) is the Great Lakes Association of Astronomy Clubs (GLAAC)'s signature annual event. Held each year at Island Lake State Park near Brighton, Michigan, and attended by thousands, this year’s two-day event on Friday and Saturday, September 25-26 has been moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adrian Bradley is president of GLAAC and an avid amateur astronomer and photographer who especially loves nightscape photography. He is also a member of the University Lowbrow Astronomers, the local astronomy club partnering with AADL to provide and maintain the library's circulating telescope collection.

We chatted with Bradley about this year's Astronomy at the Beach lineup.