Phil Christman traverses time, politics, and culture in his nonfiction essay collection "Midwest Futures"

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Phil Christman, Midwest Futures

This story was originally published on February 6, 2020.

What words come to mind when you think of the Midwest?

You may think about its geography, the middleness, or its position and moniker as the heartland with farming and small towns.

You might look at a map to see the 12 Midwestern states (from east to west): Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Perhaps you reflect on its seeming representativeness of American life. Or you study its history containing the displacement of indigenous peoples, manufacturing, and struggling economies.

Myriad ways, even contradictory ones, coincide to describe and understand the Midwest. Writer Phil Christman navigates them in his new book, Midwest Futures, a wide-ranging set of 36 brief essays organized in six sections. Part criticism and part descriptive essay, this nonfiction collection likewise exists as many things at once and navigates assorted perceptions, politics, history, literature, cultures, and pop culture of the Midwest.

Molly Spencer covers chronic illness, domestic life, and nature in her second poetry book, "Hinge"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Molly Spencer and her book Hinge

Hinge by Molly Spencer shows a world in which the poet seeks to find footing in a constantly shifting landscape and body. Views, possessions, relationships, and physical capacity change and merge and vanish at various points. The multipart poem “Objects of Faith” reveals these different angles by looking at things like a window or a berry and distilling them to what they do: “To hold in place / once piece of the world” or “To be that ache / in someone’s mouth,” respectively. This instability and the feeling of being on the cusp of something appears through the changing seasons, motherhood, and domestic life. 

This collection of poetry particularly examines chronic illness, its progression, and its effects. At times, the poet’s observations are stark: 

In this family 
of illness,
the doctor says, 
the body
attacks itself.

The poet seems to consequently no longer trust the world to stay how it’s meant or desired to be. It’s as if everything has become more fragile and uncertain—the poem “Patient Years” tells us “safe is the shell of an egg.” The poet also asks the question “if the one you love / most will follow you down.” 

Despite dark winter days, even darker dreams, and physical limitations in these poems, persistence is visible. The poem “Vernal” suggests hopefully that: 

"Whip" It: Nadim Azzam's new YouTube show cruises with Michigan musicians

MUSIC FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

Ki5 and Nadim Azzam in the car for the show Whip Jams

Ki5 and Nadim Azzam in a still from the first episode of Whip Jams. Photo courtesy of Whip Jams.

Artists performing songs being driven around in a car by a congenial host. Sound familiar?

But Whip Jams isn't Carpool Karaoke.

Host Nadim Azzam doesn't fuss around with wacky comedy. He gets right to the point with his guests, reciting a short bio, picking the musician up in his car, letting them perform, and concluding with a brief interview.

The first episode of this YouTube show clocks in at 4 minutes, 57 seconds. A quick ride indeed.

In the Whip Jams debut on December 9, Ann Arbor's Ki5 performs a song in Azzam's vehicle by sampling his voice with the Boss RC-505 Loopstation sitting in his lap. That kind of compact setup works fine for him, but some future episodes will feature artists holding acoustic instruments—might get a little cozy in Azzam's Honda Civic.

Food, immigration, and female experience intertwine in poet Jihyun Yun's book "Some Are Always Hungry"

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Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun

Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun concentrates not only on cuisine but also on the ways the world views, consumes, and treats womanhood—how women are made to push through and past very physical, personal challenges, and to try again. The attention to these topics is inseparable from history, trauma, and family, whether it’s on memories of immigration, the shame carried in female bodies, or the comfort of a meal made from bodies of animals. 

These poems tie together generational and physical pain, recipes, and urges—the urges to survive, to procreate, to eat, to seek fullness. They read in the way that you may listen to someone talking with the leaps between thoughts that are colored in by context and word choice. One poem looks back on a moment:

Ki5 loops his voice to produce sunny songs in perfect harmony

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Ki5

Ki5 with the Huron River mic check. Photo courtesy of the artist.

During dark times, some of us turn to dark music. I've pretty much turned into an anarcho-punk goth who listens to heavy metal and gangster rap in my bedroom.

But if you're the type of person who needs music that will bring light to your life right now, Kyler Wilkins offers a luminous intensity that could guide ships in the night.

Recording as Ki5, this Ann Arbor native layers his vocals using BOSS looping and harmonizing pedals to create a one-man a capella group. Since November 2019, Ki5 has released three singles and one EP, and he provided vocals on the title track of Free From All the Walls, the debut release by the new Ann Arbor electronica project Mirror Monster. Ki5's most recent single is the earnest, inspirational, R&B-soaked "Hallelu," but he also just put out a video for his bright summer song "Sunny Days."

I emailed with Wilkins about his musical background, approach to songwriting, and the gear he uses to create his joyous music.

No Slowing Down: Ann Arbor cartoonist Dave Coverly celebrates the 25th anniversary of "Speed Bump"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Davy Coverly, Speed Bump

The easy part of compiling a book that celebrates a comic strip’s silver anniversary is, well, you’ve got lots of options.

“I’ll get reviews and comments that say, ‘Not a clunker in the bunch!’—but, you know, I had 10,000 to choose from,” said Ann Arbor-based cartoon artist Dave Coverly, whose book Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection debuted in September. “If anyone wants to visit my house, you could see a big plastic tub of cartoons that are terrible.” 

Perhaps that’s inevitable when your job’s required you to hatch and execute seven new ideas every week throughout two and a half decades. “You can’t wait for the muse to strike when you’re on deadline,” Coverly noted.

But having the National Cartoonists Society award your work with Best in Newspaper Panels (’95, ’03, ’14) in addition to its highest honor, the Reuben Award (’09), might suggest that you’re getting it right far more often than not.

And for Coverly, one of the most appealing things about a single-panel cartoon is its unfettered flexibility.

“I do a lot of cartoons that use aliens and animals, but they’re always really about people and the things we all have in common,” said Coverly. “My daughter, who’s a painter, had a professor who told her, ‘Don’t ask yourself what you’re going to paint. Ask yourself why you’re going to paint it.’ And I love that quote because I’m someone who—I don’t like jokes for the sake of jokes. … I’d rather try for something that’s driven by an idea. Something that’s more subtle.”

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.

Burnout Society Film Club's 8 Ball Movie Night and Introvert Movie Night offer group viewings of cult flicks

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Burnout Society Film Club

Burnout Society Film Club's Samir Asfahani (left) and Colum Slevin (right) flank Spencer Nuzum, a member of the project's FB group.

One day in 2017, Samir Asfahani was surfing Facebook during his lunch break. The guitarist in Ann Arbor stoner-metal band Wizard Union, Asfahani belonged to a music enthusiasts’ group and a member started a thread about peoples’ favorite cult movies.

“I was immediately interested because I've always been fond of those types of films, so I started name dropping all of the movies I liked,” he said. 

A fellow member of the Facebook group suggested they start another group for cult movies, from old psychotronic stuff to modern horror films.

“Right away, I said ‘I’m on that!’ and within 10 minutes I came up with the name," Asfahani said of the Burnout Society Film Club (BSFC). "The joke is that it would read as BS Film Club without actually calling ourselves the Bullshit Film Club.” 

What began as a place for chatting about movies blossomed into a Facebook page in addition to the group, a blog with movie reviews, Instagram live chats and streaming, and shared movie experiences including 8 Ball Movie Night and the Introvert Movie Night.

Athletic Mic League returns after a 15-year hiatus to confirm its status as Ann Arbor's "Playground Legends"

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Athletic Mic League

The Ann Arbor hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League was on hiatus for more than 15 years as its members pursued solo projects—and life.

The group formed in 1995 at Huron High School and released three albums during its 10-year run—The Thrill of Victory...The Agony of Defeat (1998), Sweats and Kicks (2002), Jungle Gym Jungle (2004)—and two EPs: Feel Good (2001) and Isolation (2005).

But right before the pandemic started, Athletic Mic League reunited for a four-day studio retreat and recorded the majority of Playground Legends there, a seven-song mini-album that will come out soon. But the group has released three singles from the sessions: "Hold My Hand," "Finish Line," and "Complications." The current lineup of the collective includes Grand Cee, Buff1, Trés Styles, 14KT, Wes Taylor, VaughanTego, and Mayer Hawthorne (not shown in the photo above). 

Athletic Mic League (AML) takes inspiration from Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, and Hieroglyphics Crew, as well as soul and jazz music. AML's songs showcase sharp lyrical content and instrumentals decorated with soul-music loops. "Hold My Hand" and "Complications" feature retro-soul vocals over laid-back beats. In contrast, "Finish Line" is a nice uptempo track that opens and closes with a sample from motivational speaking guru Eric Thomas.

Below, AML dishes on the stories behind its new singles, the reunion, and what’s next for them. 

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

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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.